Lexus’ Cheap Shot at Classical Music

A Lexus in the junkyardAdvertising is about illusion. It manipulates the most irrational recesses of our minds, circumventing thoughtfulness and judgment. Facts and reason are no match for advertising, which plays on emotion, desire and the ephemeral. Madison Avenue can cleverly make any product, person, or idea seem desirable or undesirable, and its reach extends into mainstream news and political campaigns. Are we citizens or brand consumers?

In a new Lexus ad, classical music becomes a symbol for everything which is old, stuffy, boring, and uncool. The ad doesn’t portray “real” classical music, but its image, or signifier. Interestingly, all of the music heard in the ad sounds like virtual orchestra technology. It’s digitally manipulated to sound annoyingly out of tune, whiny and grating. Both the “classical” music and the synthesized drums which conclude the commercial are sterile and soulless.

It’s possible to view the ad as a good natured spoof on the multitude of cliched car commercials which use classical music in an equally stereotypical way, appealing to an image of class, age, and affluence. But even taking satire into account, disturbingly divisive messages remain: “This music is boring and annoying.” “Classical music is for old people. Rock music is for young people.”

Of course, the term “classical music” itself can be viewed as an offensively arbitrary marketing label. When we say “classical,” we’re really talking about all enduring music. Bach, Bartok and The Beatles all fit that description.

Divisiveness is at the heart of corporate advertising. The indoctrination of children from an early age into mass consumerism has been well-documented. As standardized testing has pushed the arts to the periphery of the school day, corporate media has subtly told children what is “cool” and what isn’t. All of this is enough to make you wonder if corporate culture is subconsciously afraid of the arts. Perhaps the ultimate reality embodied in the arts is enough to shatter illusion and remind us that we’re more than brain dead consumers.

This clever remake was made in response to the original ad.

The Lexus ad uses the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Here is the real thing, played by Murray Perahia. The serene opening of Mozart’s Andante (14:01) is deceiving. It lulls us into complacency. But keep listening and you’ll hear a subtle turn towards something darker with the hint of melancholy around 14:45. Amazingly, we slip back into the atmosphere of the opening as if nothing happened, but the seed of that moment of dissonance has been planted and returns throughout the movement. Listen to all of the surprising turns Mozart’s music has in store for us:

  1. Allegro maestoso (0:00)
  2. Andante (14:01)
  3. Allegro vivace assai (21:00)

Mozart and Salieri

Croce-Mozart-DetailWhat is it about the greatest music that keeps us coming back? Mozart’s music, written in an era of powdered wigs and aristocracy, speaks to us as powerfully today as when it was written over 250 years ago. It embodies a universal reality which transcends fashion and style. Meanwhile, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), a respected contemporary of Mozart, is now little more than a historical curiosity.

You may remember this scene from the 1984 movie, Amadeus in which Salieri laments his mediocrity when compared to Mozart’s genius. Along the way to the film’s powerful and thought provoking themes, the real Salieri gets a bum rap. In reality Salieri represents most of us. He never poisoned Mozart. He was actually an excellent composer, firmly in control of his craft. Towards the end of his life he taught several young students whose names you might recognize: Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert. But where Salieri’s music ended in good craftsmanship, Mozart’s continued with that extra “something” which is hard to define…perfection and inspiration on a different level. Its source is a mystery. Mozart was able to tap into the highest level of “hearing.”

Consider Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Picasso and Einstein and you find the same level of inspiration at work. “God is in the details.” said the great twentieth century architect, Mies van der Rohe. As an architecture buff, I was fascinated to discover that Mies, who designed New York’s famous Seagram Building, elevated something as mundane and utilitarian as a gas station to high art. Can you identify what sets this gas station apart from millions of others? Is it the materials and sense of proportion?

Gas stations aside, let’s listen to two piano concertos, one by Salieri and the other by Mozart. Here is Salieri’s highly enjoyable Piano Concerto in C Major performed by Heeguin Kim and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. There are three movements: Allegro Maestoso, Larghetto (8:51) and Andatino (15:58).

Now, here is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The performance is by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra. The movements are AllegroAndante (10:31) and Allegretto (18:50):

Think about what you just heard. What makes Mozart’s concerto so extraordinary? What sets it apart from the Salieri? Share your thoughts in the thread below. Also, what music from our time do you think will endure? Don’t worry too much about the last question because it’s almost impossible to know how music will withstand the test of time. At one time J.S. Bach’s music was considered outdated and only useful as a source of study.

As musicians we’re challenged to open up our ears and imaginations, “hear” the music as clearly as Mozart did and let the musical vision come to life. It’s a nearly impossible task, but one we must strive to fulfill every day.

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