'No Art, No Life'

Radio host David Dubal talks about the vital importance of classical music to our society

29 Jan 2020 | 01:44

In the United States, classical music is facing major challenges. Because public schools are cutting their arts programs and major orchestras are shuttering their doors, the genre is no longer a major part of most people's lives. Upper West Sider David Dubal, however, is determined to change this trend. An award-winning pianist, Juilliard professor, author and accomplished painter, Dubal is a longtime fixture on New York's classical music scene, perhaps most famous for his radio show "Reflections from the Keyboard" on WQXR.

His latest endeavor is his Piano Evenings with David Dubal, an "educational concert series" that showcases young pianists performing the world's greatest piano pieces. Held every Tuesday at the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church on West 66th Street, the concert series is known for Dubal's entertaining commentary and casual format. This fresh way of listening to piano music makes it accessible for even the least experienced listener, and in turn, helps build a new audience for the genre. We sat down with Dubal to discuss his thoughts on Beethoven, pop music and the vital importance of classical music to our society.

Why did you start the Piano Evenings with David Dubal series?

This came about because of, after I left Juilliard, the many people that were with me for many years, some as much as 25 years in the class. It was a tremendous piano series, probably the longest that I gave at Juilliard. We had hundreds and hundreds of pianists over the years. The audience grew up with the class, in a way. Not necessarily that they were pianists, by any means. They just loved the piano, and they loved these young people who played so wonderfully.

Then it stopped, because I had this incredible flu when I was so weak for a long time. So during that period, the people that were influential in keeping this going said, "this has to continue not only for the fact that we love it so much, but that 'you're it.'" They just love the talking about the music, and so forth.

What is a piano evening like? What is the crowd like, and how do you structure the series?

It's just improvisation. I have a good sense of timing from being music director of WNCN, so I can always know exactly what the pieces are in time. It's a class of comradeship, really. And great goodwill. The pianist gets more applause from these people than many people will get in a more formal recital. They're so warm. I call them "my people," because they really are.

We get together at 5:30 every Tuesday. The class is electrified, because we have pianists they feel [they are] in a comfort zone. And playing the pieces and the great piano literature, which again, there's your greatest of all wordless literature of the world.

In the year 2020, classical music is not a part of most people's lives. How do you think the industry will be able to get more people involved with this art?

It's a question that's been going on for half a century. Everyone has tried this, tried that. Orchestras have given Rogers and Hammerstein evenings. Or they have a jazz pianist play a Mozart concerto. Or any kind of gimmick that, you know, hopefully will bring in some audience. Because, once again, the diminished audience means diminished funds for orchestras.

They have dumbed down the curriculums in many of the colleges in America. [But] you still have many, many pianists: They will graduate in June by the thousands. But where are they going to go? They're going to go to their hometown. Then maybe they'll just go into their father's grocery store and run that. This is tragic. So we talk about these things at Piano Evenings. We try to have people help them.

What effect does the class and the piano playing have on its audiences? How does it change people's lives?

Anyone that wants to during rush hour for twenty years gets to that class hook-or-crook: snowing, rain, sleet - they're there. Nothing will stop them from getting their spiritual well-being from great music. You're not gonna get it from anything else.

In the Epoch Times, you were quoted as saying, "What, other than the classics, can we turn to so as not to fall into despair?" Why should we look back to the classics, and what does that do for us as a society?

We are a nation in despair. Badly in despair. In every way almost. Part of that is: no art, no life. You see a nation that has no art. I don't mean pop music. I don't mean junk. I don't mean the never-ending sports. It's a constant part of the pop culture: the bad movies, the bad everything. The great art from Mozart or Handel not only rejuvenates you, but you may not have to take your Valium that day if you sit down and listen to the St. Matthew Passion for two hours and let the whole nervous system explode with the greatest mind that ever lived.

So there's my answer to this. If you don't bring art into your life, at least as a visitor, not necessarily as a practitioner, you are on the fringes of an unfulfilled life. You can't be fulfilled without art. I say this with real passion behind it, because I'd be nothing without art.

On Piano Evenings' website, you say that you "delve" into the biographies of celebrated composers to "reveal what is urgent in them and relevant to today's world." Can you think of a composer whose work is particularly relevant to the moment in which we're living?

We have an existential crisis going on. [Pianist Vladimir] Ashkenazy once said to me, "We need Beethoven today more than we ever needed him." It says it all. He's more important now than ever. As we are losing the great refinements of our emotional system, we need Chopin nocturnes to show us what sensuousness means. What appassionata really means. To have fire in our souls instead of popcorn. Or whatever we have in our souls today. We are living in a junk culture of such massiveness that we [need] the spiritual aspects of the great works of art from Shakespeare through the great novels of Balzac through the best of American art and every country. Go to the piano. Buy one. You'll see what I mean. You will see that you don't have to watch TV day and night.

The artist in this society is all dressed up with nowhere to go. He knows his pieces, but he doesn't have anywhere to play them. That has to change, or we will decline to nothing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Piano Evenings with David Dubal begins on February 4 at the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church at 5:30 p.m. on the Upper West Side. Please visit www.pianoevenings.com for further information.