Saturday, March 07, 2015

How to Save Classical Music....

One of my Facebook friends, who is an executive with a local symphony orchestra, shared an online article by an individual, and the topic was "10 things we should change in classical concerts".  If you wish to read his post, click here.  But I wish to take his 10 points, and expound on my own.

Before I comment on his points, or make my own, I should provide my background for those who are not too familiar with me. I was raised in a pretty musical family.  My own musical background has been in singing, both in church and professional choral settings.  I studied the organ and music composition in college, and for many years regularly attended the symphony.  I have been involved in music making with orchestras, and have enjoyed that experience - considering it to be up there with the birth of my children.  You'll need to read the comments made by the other individual to put them into context with mine, but here are my 10 ideas that should change in classical music.

1. The audience should feel free to applaud between movements - the author stated that holding applause until the end of a piece was introduced well over 100 years ago, when Mahler wanted to have the entire piece (and he wrote works that last well over an hour) experienced before the applause.  I think the idea then was that his works were not separate movements, but entire thought processes from the beginning to the end.  Applause after each movement would disrupt the process.  As an artist and concert attender, I have to agree to that.  Yet I think the flexibility in asking for NO applause so an entire musical idea can be presented from beginning to end is part of the experience.  At the same time, that should be announced either in the program or from the podium before the piece begins. so that the audience knows that they can, or they should NOT applaud between movements.  Personally, applause is a personal way of expressing my emotions to a piece I've heard, or the performance, and I sometimes find applause intrusive or inappropriate, particularly after a piece that is deeply moving.  
2. Orchestras should tune backstage - the author doesn't understand that tuning is not about tuning the individual instrument, but about tuning to each other in that performance space.  Instrumentalists DO tune backstage, getting their individual instrument in tune.  But they tune to each other, in that space, when they're onstage, and to a specific pitch.  
3. We should be able to use mobile phones or devices - on this point, I heartily agree, and many professional music ensembles are adopting social media interaction as a part of their performance, particularly on Twitter and with hashtags specifically for that concert.  The author also suggests that we should be free to record and then share the performance by doing videos with our devices.  This will be a very complex issue, because the entire reason that a statement is made that "no photographs to be taken or recordings are made" is due to the powerful musician's union.  While I see many videos on YouTube of music performances, I'm sure the union would love that curtailed.  
4. Programs should be less predictable - the author suggests not printing the entire concert in the program, just select pieces, asserting that it's the encores that often stick in one's mind, since they are unexpected.  I can see where he may think of say an AC/DC concert, or James Taylor, and you don't know what is going to be played.  I, on the other hand, like a full program listing so I can read the concert notes, and then have a reference as to "Ooooooo...I liked that.  I need to get a recording of that."  I think this is a point that could be explored, but not in the full hall.  Maybe in a more cabaret type of setting, or in the community, which orchestras are now doing regularly.  And frankly, I GO to the symphony to hear specific pieces of music, so I want to KNOW what is being performed.
5. You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall - I'd say, yes, if mixed drinks or white wine, or if there was no carpet and the floors were hard wood or concrete and there were drains under the seats.  I think an alternative to this is for a concert venue that has tables where drinks are served, more like a cabaret type of setting.  But for some reason, the idea of drinks in the hall make me think of the local cineplex, with sticky floors from dropped soda and stepping on someone's popcorn bag.  
6. Artists should engage with the audience - the author seems to indicate the main artists, like the star performer.  I like this idea, but if 2000 people want to storm Itzhak Perlman's dressing room after a stunning concert, that is impractical.  Some artists DO engage, through social media, or going "out" afterwards, and place themselves in  public where concertgoers can talk to them.  Most, however, find that after a performance that they've worked hard on and sweated over, prefer to retreat, and often, leave during the 2nd half. (Most guest artists perform in the first half, before the intermission)
7. Orchestras should not play in tail suits - Yup. Tails are becoming old school fast.  But I think the author should understand that by having a variety of suit or "concert dress", with vibrant colors and variations can be a distraction.  You look at the clothes, and not listen to the music.  Women performers still wear black dresses or suits, and most orchestras now have men in black suits or just dinner tuxes.  It does present an air of sophistication that might alienate individuals.  But I think it's vital to have uniformity in dress onstage so that the music is heard, not the guy in the bright electric blue shirt on the timpani taking your attention.  
8. Concerts should be more family friendly - He suggests special seating for families, or be accommodating if a baby starts crying.  Many orchestras now do events in the community that help with that, and are meant to bring families in.  Some offer Family Mornings on Saturdays where music is played in bites, and the conductor talks to the families and elicits engagement from them as well.  In the hall, when you are listening to a passage from Brahms, you don't want to hear a baby crying - I'm sorry.  But start outside of the hall to show the beauty of the music and help the families to become acclimated to the music, and then, bring them in for the experience when children are a bit older.  
9. Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology - the author asserts that part of the excitement is seeing the performers play, up close.  I'll agree.  I've been up in the nosebleed sections where I've had to bring binoculars in order to see the players.  But I would contend that it could be a distraction, and you might find yourself watching the monitors, but not listening to the music.  Or you might say "damn, that brunette flutist is hot!" or "that cello player has a niece hairpiece" or "boy! the conductor is sweating like a pig!" Personally, I close my eyes at performances, to allow for a more visceral listening experience. 
10. Every program should contain a contemporary piece - on this I TOTALLY agree!  When you realize that when Beethoven premiered the 6th Symphony, that was considered "contemporary".  Granted, some contemporary music is tough to listen to when our ears have been trained to the romantic sounds of the 19th century composers, and the soundtracks of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.  But I do feel that we need to program the contemporary, and do it in a way that shows that there is a tonal  lineage between Mozart and Whitacre, that the classicism of Haydn is similar to Corigliano.  I believe that is the responsibility of an orchestra - to continue to champion new music, but show its relevancy to the old.  

For me, to attend a classical music concert is an opportunity to go into a place designed for JUST that.  I go to escape, to allow myself to be enveloped in the music.  I go to be challenged, and yet to hear the familiar.  I go to be inspired, to be moved, to be calmed.  In reading the author's comments, I realized that to him, the experience is about being entertained "better", and also be engaged.  Granted, that is what the newer music patron wants, and orchestras need to be responsive to that.  But you cannot disregard that it should be a place to retreat and to be exposed to something new and old, and that some of the "traditions" are meant to retain that.

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