The Tragic Patronage of Florence Foster Jenkins

 

Gesticulating mannerisms? Easily apparent. An idiosyncratic personality? You bet. A good voice? Not so much.

 

Yesterday afternoon, while snowflakes were sparring outside of our bay window, my parents and I watched the movie adaptation of Florence Foster Jenkins’s twilight years. The film, succinctly entitled Florence Foster Jenkins*, features Meryl Streep in the lead role as a bumbling, comically-terrible operatic singer and deep-pocketed, well-connected socialite. Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg perform as Jenkins’s husband and piano teacher (respectively).

 

The film captures 1940s New York City well. Of declining morality, of pay-offs, bribes, blackmail and of affairs, “mutually-benefitting” agreements, and arranged marriages. A messy, humorous milieu.

 

The movie unravels a moving puzzle of confused, parasitic relationships—intertwined in a chasm of disarray. Jenkins’s husband knows she cannot sing well, but maintains the farce by buying out audiences and music critics (to safeguard the money he receives from Jenkins). McMoon, Jenkins’s pianist, loathes playing with her because of the negative reputation he gains, but continues to do so for her money. The famed conductor Arturo Toscanini hobnobs with Jenkins to procure $1,000 for an orchestral concert. And Jenkins’s vocal coach, a conductor from the Met Opera, shouts vocal-tips to her, knowing full-well they’re fruitless exclamations (all the while happily collecting the money Jenkins gives to him).

 

Jenkins is a tragic figure. Streep vitalizes the tragedy with over-the-top feathered costumes and out-of-tune, unintelligible singing, in turn creating a piercing, critical commentary on the patronage system of the period: musicians need to do whatever pleases Jenkins (the patron) to get the money they need, even if that means lying to her and the whole world about how she sounds (a monstrous proposition).

 

Patronage lives on. I recently attended a concert reception at a Park Avenue fourth-floor apartment. Exiting the plush yet creaky elevator, I stepped into an 18th-century French parlor—complete with pietà marble sculptures, intact wooden altarpiece triptychs from 15th-century Netherlands, and what I could have sworn was one of “The Unicorn Tapestries” that I saw at the Met Cloisters in September (most likely not the case, but the resemblance was indeed remarkable). I joked with my colleague that I needed to stay at least three feet away from anything in the room, knowing full well of my respected ability to knock things over.

 

While waiting to congratulate the soloist, I overheard his conversation with an elderly woman seated in a wooden armchair. He thanked her for her generous support and kissed her gently on the cheek to show his gratitude. I don’t know what she did to make her money, but I can guess it wasn’t playing the flute. Patronage is alive (and well?).

 

What can we make of concert series like this one supported by the wealthy, aristocratic class? I always see the same names etched and—in possibly some weird form of competition—etched over by other donors on concert-building walls (the Geffens, Lenfests, and Zankels of the world). Is classical music truly reserved for the upper-echelon, where it is destined (perhaps doomed) to stay?

 

I don’t think so. All musics subsumed under the unfairly broad category of classical should not be and are not destined only for aristocratic ears (and I can go on for well over 30 pages with reasons as to why).

 

But what should we do instead? If classical music shouldn’t rely on deep, private coffers, where else do we turn for financial support?

 

Commercial means have already proven inadequate as ticket sales are insufficient to cover production costs.** Public support has been an alternative—and one that on-the-whole I agree with—but that too is fraught with problems, such as: who decides the criteria for the grants? what are those criteria? and how do we avoid too much public control (I’m looking at you Stalin)? The famed organization El Sistema for example is currently grappling with the consequences of these questions.

 

Evidently, the problem is not an easy one to address. I believe a plan of action would be to strive for a balance of public and private support, while maintaining and supporting educational outreach programs (which would ensure that classical music is heard and played by people of diverse economic backgrounds).

 

A colleague of mine is currently writing about public funding—about organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—for his dissertation. I am eagerly looking forward to reading what he has to say.

 

* I am curious as to how historically accurate the film is. There are several questionable aspects of the film, such as the continuous payoffs of newspaper critics and Jenkins’s apparent obliviousness to her poor singing ability. Also, from quick google searches, it appears Jenkins did not know Toscanini. I found a documentary on Jenkins online, which I look forward to watching with alacrity.

 

** Creating timeliness in the concert hall with innovative program choices provides a potential solution to the ticket-sales problem. Leonard Bernstein for example was not afraid to program two modern works for a 1967 New York Philharmonic concert. The performance included Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, Schuller’s “Triplum,” and Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. The program maintained the museum-like reverence of the concert hall with Cliburn’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto—a surefire favorite amongst audience members—while creating a living performance-culture with the Stravinsky and Schuller works.

 

The standard orchestral repertoire can prove engaging as well. How orchestras perform these works can make them relevant, interesting, and exciting. Yet, I have seen many a business as usual performances at the New York Philharmonic—and frankly that’s why I haven’t gone in a while. Hearing contemporary music makes an audience think about and discuss the work in ways that hearing Beethoven’s 5th for the 50th time do not. For example, discussions with friends after seeing Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Met in early December were lively and thoughtful.

 

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