Only connect (or maybe not)

Greg Sandow recently wrote a typically insightful and provocative post on “ways that classical music doesn’t connect with the world we live in.” It’s worth reading. And it’s definitely worth a response. So here’s mine.

1.    Most of the music at classical concerts comes from the past. So we’re rarely engaged with contemporary life. (Is this one reason the people who go to these concerts like them?)

I could be snarky about how very little music comes from the future. But I won’t; Greg is right that most of is played at classical concerts (orchestral ones in particular) predates WW II. There are good reasons for this. One is that orchestras have learned that programming contemporary music is like a restaurant making all its patrons eat liver; people stay away in droves. There are anecdotal tales of orchestras programming “new music” to great box office success, but I’ve not heard of any that really stand up to hard-headed analysis. (The idea that LA has been successful with such programming ignores the poor houses they experienced prior to building Disney Hall, for example).

I think that orchestras have an obligation to perform and promote new music. But they also have an obligation to play what people want to hear. And they have an obligation to survive. These are not easy to balance. Simply stating that orchestras need to play more new music is not proposing a solution to this problem.

2.    Formal dress looks archaic, and out of touch.

Yes. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. The New York Pro Musica achieved great success when performing the old medieval passion plays by getting it right musicologically and visually – and that meant both using original instruments (or as close as they could come) and appropriately archaic costume. What’s the appropriate costume for performing Beethoven for paying patrons? It may not be tails. But I doubt it’s street clothes either. This also is hard to get right.

When I joined the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1978, the guys wore blue velvet suites with white cravats (and good luck trying to find one even in 1978, by the way). That wasn’t appropriate costume for performing anything.

3.    The musicians don’t talk to the audience. In our culture today, people expect musicians to talk.

But so few of us do it well, especially to a big audience. And it’s not clear that all audiences would like us to talk – even if we did it well. What a performer thinks about a piece is, after all, best expressed in how he/she performs it.

4.    Musicians subordinate their own personalities. They play the music the way they’ve been taught to. They don’t take much initiative, don’t make their concerts personal statements, don’t play the music their own way.

This is true of some musicians; not true of others. There are two ideals, or poles on a spectrum: the musician who aggressively interprets everything in a very individual way, and the musician who strives to be transparent. I vividly remember hearing a concert of Mozart by the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle at Carnegie a few years ago. On the second half was the Prague symphony and the last piano concerto with Alfred Brendel. Rattle did everything but hold up a neon sign proclaiming “new great interpretative idea!” every bar or so in the Prague. I wanted to kill him. Brendel, on the other hand, was breathtaking – semplice raised to the status of the first of the ten commandments.

Is one right and the other wrong? Or is it a false dichotomy?

5. Even when new music is played, much of it doesn’t sound like the world around us. The sounds of popular music aren’t much heard, though they were in past centuries.

This is true, at least to a point. I wonder if it’s a function of how derivative most pop music is of what classical music has achieved over the centuries, though.

6. More general statement of point five: There’s rarely even a hint of current popular culture at classical concerts. That’s not true of other forms of art — novels, poetry, visual art, dance, theater.

I’m not sure that’s so true. Take dance and theater, both of which feature works from the past. It has become popular to “dress up” those works in aspects of modern culture – Macbeth in modern costume, for example. I’m not sure what the equivalent would look like in a performance of a Beethoven symphony.

7. The audience is old.

I need to look at the data on orchestra audiences more carefully than I have. But my perception is that the audience really isn’t older than it was twenty or thirty years ago. And, of course, old people are also part of “the world we live in.”

At the end of the day, there are ways that classical performances can change. But there are more ways they can’t  – and shouldn’t. Orchestras exist to perform works that were mostly (or at least mostly the ones worth hearing) composed between 1750 and 1950. Orchestra concerts demand close attention from the audience. They demand a certain kind of attention from the musicians that precludes many kinds of audience-pleasing behavior. They are fundamentally not a visual phenomenon even though they exist in a visually-oriented culture.

Orchestras are what they are. There are real limits to how they can change. And, as Greg points out, it may be that part of their appeal is that they aren’t connected to contemporary life in some critical ways.


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