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October 26, 2007

Why Music Matters

I recently was engaged in a discussion with someone whom I would have expected to be a regular attender of symphony concerts. This was someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about culture in America, someone who attended the theater a great deal, opera more than occasionally, movies frequently, and art museums regularly. But this person said that to himself and his friends (he is in his early forties), symphony concerts were not part of their lives because symphonic music seemed somehow unconnected with their lives...

He noted that when he goes to a play, or even to a museum (where, I suspect, he mostly attends exhibits of modern and politically or socially "relevant" art), he and his friends talk about it and connect it to the events of the world or the events of their lives. If a play illuminates some aspect of human relationships - marriage, for example - it has real meaning for them; it gives them something to talk about and connections to make.

Have we really come to this? Do we need very specific reference points for our artistic experiences? The truth is that the abstract form of symphonic and instrumental music does illuminate the human condition and all aspects of it. It just doesn't do it with the specificity of words and dramatic action and specific social commentary. If you want to think about the horror of what war means, listen seriously to the Eighth Symphony of Shostakovich. If you want insights of a religious nature, absorb a Bruckner symphony. Whatever real-world connection you want, it is there in any music - but it is not there with the clarity and, I would argue, simplicity of words or story lines. That should, in fact, give you more to talk about after experiencing a symphony concert, not less - but it requires a more subtle kind of thinking, an ability to make connections that are emotive and not clearly articulated unless the "receiver" is willing and able to dig deep.

I don't know where this thought leads. Perhaps we in the orchestra world have failed to communicate to our audiences and potential audiences just what this art form can mean. We have somehow failed to make clear the relevance of the art form to the lives and innermost thoughts of human beings. In our search for quick, on-the-surface marketing one-liners to help (we think) sell tickets, we have stripped from symphonic music how it can, in fact, relate to our lives and our thoughts. No, there is probably no symphony that has been written that will help us focus on the specific political issues of the day - but for illuminating the underlying human spirit that should drive all of our thinking there is, in fact, no art form more appropriate. But we don't talk about it that way - we don't even think about it that way. And the problem is that to do so requires more than a sound bite, more than is possible in a blog.

Three books that I have recently read try to at least begin to articulate what it is about music that should matter to us, to all of us, and I recommend them all. None is the complete or only answer, but all have a great deal to contribute to the thinking about the relevance of classical music by thinking and feeling and caring human beings. They are: Why Classical Music Still Matters, by Lawrence Kramer; This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin; and Music, the Brain and Ecstasy, by Robert Jourdain. They all make fascinating, provocative, and stimulating reading.

Posted by hfogel at October 26, 2007 5:53 PM

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I have become increasingly disenchanted with the "dumbing down" of classical music concerts over the past few

The straw-that-broke-the camel's-back was when I attended a National Symphony Orchestra
concert billed as a concert version of "Porgy and Bess." The singers
were amplified.

If I want to hear amplified music, I will stay home and listen to my stereo. It is inexcusable for a major symphony orchestra to present a concert (indoors) with amplified music.

Posted by: C. Myers at October 27, 2007 6:37 AM

Well, I am a great example of the failure to reach your target audience. I fit most of your criteria of someone you would expect to appreciate symphonic music, and yet I do not.
I am a professional in the arts, in my mid 50's, who was exposed to classical and opera as a child.
And yes, I do "consume" a great deal of music- my home is full of literally thousands of CD's and Vinyl LP's, I pay to see live music regularly.
But virtually none of it is "classical".
I attribute some of this to simple age- I was born in a year, 1955, in which the song Rock Around the Clock was already a hit.
The wave, so to speak, had already hit the beach.
But as I said, I am not ignorant of classical music, and yet it just doesnt speak to me the way so many other types of music do.

I have a few theories-
2 Heads are better than 1-
Most Classical music (certainly, there are exceptions) is the work of a "Singular Genius". While such people exist, they are rare. Someone who can compose, alone, an entire sweeping piece of music, in all its complexity, does indeed come along once in a while, but much more common are people who feel they must do this, but arent quite the genius Beathoven or Motzart were.
Me, I much prefer the collaborative nature of most every rock, jazz, and pop band, where several people creat the music. The interaction between people makes for a less authoritarian, more human feel, to me.
Then, there is the aspect of unintended consequences- improvisation, if you will. Most jazz, rock, blues, and many newer forms of "popular" music depend on variations within a song form, as opposed to precisely playing a preordained score. Call me childish, and lacking in rigor, but one of the things I enjoy in all the arts is the ability of humans to "vamp". To improvise, to react to changing situations, to play off what the other musicians are doing.
Then, there is the beat. As in, I like the old African Drumming, the beat of the heart, as opposed to the sterile and mathematical beat of the mind so prevelant in most classical.
And Words- you toss them off as "Just words". But Words are the core of who we are. Now, granted, I listen to a lot of instrumental music- electronic, folk, jazz, and so on. But I find Words, and the complexity of language, essential to my listening life. Many of the ways I look at the world are heavily influenced by the wonder I gain by listening to some of the great minds that make "pop" music. People like Loudon Wainwright, or Mark from the EELs, or Warren Zevon write mere words that affect me greatly.
There is a theory that the human brain actually enlarged and evolved immensely because of the invention of language.
And, to me, actual language, Words, are a very necessary complement of music.
Certainly, symphonic music CAN convey emotion. But real words can convey so much more- and I have always been a "too much is never enough" type of guy, to quote Morris Lapidus.
And Words allow modern musicians to make their music relevant to contemporary culture- not in a cheezy "relevance" of namechecking trends, but in the very real way of integrating all the madness of today, and making sense of it, something that a 200 year old symphonic piece just cannot do.

And then, I hate to admit this, but, being a sprightly youngun of 52, I have lived with the sound of electric guitars all my life, and, dang it, I just like the things.

I have several friends who grew up at the same time as I - some love classical, others dont. Nowadays, we have so many more choices of intelligent music to listen to, as opposed to one "music of culture" that vagaries in taste play into this as well.

I realize these are highly subjective, and personal, feelings. But I have a suspicion that they are actually pretty widespread among smart, well read, educated, travelled, adults who just dont go to symphonic concerts.

Posted by: Ries at October 28, 2007 11:44 AM

I do see what you mean about needing more than a sound bite or a blog to articulate why music really matters, but I would argue that we have to try. We have certain tools at our disposal - websites, blogs, email and paper newsletters, season brochures, even messages from Music Directors and EDs in our programs, even press releases - and if we are going to begin to say why music is so deeply important, we need to make use of all these tools. The brevity of, say, a blog could actually be a good thing in that it would challenge us to articulate our thoughts in a very clear and concise way. We wouldn't be able to say everything we might want to say, or everything that could be said in a book, but how many of our patrons/potential patrons are going to read a book on this subject? Not as many as might read a blog. If we're going to take on this huge subject of why music matters, we need to use the tools available to us, and the tools that will reach the most people.

Thank you for such a thought-provoking article!

Posted by: Caitlin Patton at October 29, 2007 11:52 AM

When in my twenties, I attended perhaps 5 classical concerts a week with my "on the town" band of classical musicians, cellists mostly. Now thinking back, we rarely talked about the MUSIC, or even the performance itself. They didn't talk about their own upcoming performances in an analytical way, or critique ones they'd just performed. I don't think I've ever heard audience members talk about the pieces either. Attending performances together, however, was a shot in the arm for being together and enjoying each other's company. Recently attended a Beethoven's 9th that was sloppily performed, and it took about an hour for my friend and I to admit that we'd seen a flawed performance. Now that my most common companion is a elderly mother with Alzheimer's, I don't even bother with asking "how did you like that." I do however select pieces for her carefully, and try to explain them beforehand, something as simple as "in this Beethoven symphony, you'll be able to hear nature and storms and pastures."
Perhaps classical music is good for going inside one's head and just experiencing it. Perhaps the music will empty one's head of ideas and flood it with experience instead. No guarantees, either. You bet a hundred bucks on a ticket that you will be moved in some way.

Posted by: Carol Wright at October 29, 2007 6:49 PM

The problem is not
that our orchestras have
failed to make concert-
going worthwhile,but that
there is a myth that classica lmusic in general
is stuffy,boring,and
"elitist".Too many
people accept this myth
blindly.And it closes
their minds to the
possibility of enjoying
orchestral concerts etc.
This myth must be debunked.

Posted by: robert berger at October 30, 2007 10:26 AM

I purchased my first season symphony subscrition ticket at the age of 12 and continued for 62 years. I finally gave up after hearing the same Beethoven, Brahms and 19th Century music again and again and again and again. That coupled with the fact that the orchestra members are are now cut off from the audience, wear 19th Century Tux costumes, servant's uniforms and have no interplay with audience members because we have a new hall. Of course the estblishment few are allowed back stage to talk with a musician; keep the rabble out. All this made me ask how much was I enjoying the concerts? Was I attending because I had always done it and convincing myself that I was enjoying it? If I want Beethoven, etc., all I need do is turn on the local "Classic-FM" station. They like the local orchestra's nearly 30 year term "music director" seem have never to have heard of John Adams, Philip Glass, local born Lou Harrison or William Bolcom. For that matter almost anyone one of a hundred late 20th Century composers. It is often said that the reason many composers aren't performed is that the 'music director' can't spell their names. Performance after performance repeated the year before. It is obvious that the musicians are equally tired of the same pablum slop that is presented. Add to this a 1/4 increase in ticket price to hear more of the same; I decided after 60 years it just wasn't worth leaving the concert hall feeling empty, un-challenged, uninspired. Hate to say this but as I told my neighbor, a 2nd chair player, I don't miss the concerts.

More and more orchestras are discovering the importance of the issues raised in your post, Coe. Issues of breaking down the predictable formality of every concert, of in fact engaging the audience and musicians with each other, and of programming a wide variety of music - new and old - as well as engaging with the community beyond the walls of the concert hall, all of these are issues being discussed across the country by those involved with orchestras. The field is full of innovation - but because of the scope and diversity of the field and the people who populate it, some will innovate and push the envelope more rapidly and more thoroughly than others, some will be in middle, and some bringing up the rear. As orchestras continue to attempt to engage with a broader audience, and an audience of the coming generations, more experimentation will take place.


Posted by: Coe Tug at October 30, 2007 1:36 PM

Ries makes some interesting points but I am more than a little curious why he (she??) reads this blog if classical music "doesn't speak to me"!!

Posted by: Larry Fried at October 30, 2007 5:48 PM

Though classical music enthusiasts are a bit down in the dumps about their art's relevance, I wonder if things are really that dire. What music is socially relevant? My only contact with the "cool" "with it" music--I was born in 1955, too--now is on Saturday Night Live where there is, I presume, a showcase for performers who have a following. Most of these acts seem mostly about showmanship and personal travails and sex--not big social issues. One of my sons, who is both extremely familiar with edgy, rhythmic classical music (Stravinsky, Bartok, and weirdly--the Shostakovich 4th Symphony--but no Romantic stuff for him) and all the "alternative" rock groups (he was at the "Fiery Furnaces" this week) disdains most of the SNL acts. When I asked him about naming a more or less universally admired band, all he could come up with was Radiohead--but what do they (?it) stand for? Does Radiohead really drive the culture? (Aren't they British?) There are just thousands of niches (long-ago predicted by Leonard B. Meyers in his Music, the Arts, and Ideas) and classical is just in one of them. I'm a physician and one of my elderly patients told me that hearing the Beethoven 9th Symphony last year at our humble Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra concert was one of the three greatest things that he that he had experienced in his entire life. Take that, Radiohead! Still, I guess the issue is that that was an elderly guy. Where are the new audiences? Well, now that downtown Chicago is essentially a 40,000-pupil campus (DePaul, Roosevelt, Columbia, Loyola, etc.), there is a distinct bimodal appearance to the CSO concerts attendance. Leon Botstein made the point that there always has been this type of age divide. It's hard to go to classical concerts when in mid young adulthood raising children.

The most important thing may be to "follow the money." As long as we can put on fine concerts, there should be people in the niche to attend them.
Bottstein's concern, and mine also, is that we seem to be losing our sponsors, our patronage. Classical music has always required this. Chicago, in particular, seems to losing large corporations that have supported the classical music scene. The most recent loss is LaSalle Bank which has been gobbled up by Bank of America. How active is the Carolina-based BOA going to be in Chicago?

I agree that it is a bit tougher to talk about a classical concert afterward in the same way that it is a play or a movie. Concerts are abstract, they require attention and listening rather than just "movin' to the groovin." This was Daniel Levitin's asinine suggestion in the NYT's Op-ed page a few days ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/opinion/26levitin.html

I think that festival-type programming where there is a theme to relate the pieces to can be quite helpful in getting the conversation going.

Posted by: Charles Amenta at November 4, 2007 1:23 PM

The problem with our orchestras is not that they have failed to make concertgoing worthwhile. It has never been more worthwhile.But too many
people blindly accept the myth that classical music is stuffy,boring and "elitist".Their minds have been closed,and they are not even willing to give a
chance to something they know nothing about.
It's not their fault. And political correctness tells them that they should never listen to music by those awful "dead white,european males".
We must do something to debunk these myths.

Posted by: Robert Berger at November 5, 2007 9:24 AM

In a speech in June, NEA chair Dana Gioia said: "Marcus Aurelius believed that the course of wisdom consisted of learning to trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones. I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment."

Some commentators are very uncomfortable with this kind of talk; to them it sounds "elitist". But it remains true that what I seek from Stravinsky (see "challenging pleasures of art") is different from why I listen to (for example) The Cure (see "easy comforts of entertainment"). This holds true across the spectrum of performing arts: Sophocles, Shakespeare, and O'Neill offer us something we don't get from most Broadway musicals (even really good ones like "The Drowsy Chaperone").

The "challenging pleasures of art" will continue to be done on a nonprofit basis, and will require a subsidy. The more that individuals realize this, the greater the potential for the subsidy coming in the form of large numbers of smaller contributions, rather than depending so much on a handful of large contributions from corporations, government, or foundations.

None of this means that concerts need to be "stuffy", or that the repertoire can remain stagnant. For an example of what works, look at the Atlanta Symphony, where Robert Spano just was named "Conductor of the Year" by Musical America. The ASO plays and records plenty of new orchestral music. And they have learned to present it in a way that avoids the opposing perils of "stuffy" on the one hand, and "dumbing down" on the other. My favorite instance was a couple of years ago, when on consecutive weekends we attended concerts which included, on the first weekend, music by Osvaldo Golijov, and on the second, music by Ned Rorem. (Each concert also included older pieces.) The composers were present, and we were treated to an interview, or conversation, between Spano and the composer before the piece was played.

Posted by: BPJ at November 7, 2007 10:32 AM

First, I am a he.

Second, I read this blog because I care about what smart people have to say about art and culture.

I posted because I often hear the same arguments which surfaced here- that classical music just needs to somehow be exposed to more people, and somehow, it would again be hugely popular.

My point was that there are many people like me, who have heard classical music, who intellectually understand its appeal, and still are more viscerally attracted to other types of music- which I attempted to explain above.

I dont think classical is stuffy, or elitist, or too complicated.
When I listen to John Zorn, or Lightning Bolt, or Ornette Coleman, or Godspeed You Black Emporer, or Kid Koala, or Jah Wobble playing with Cambodian musicians, its challenging, and complicated, and far from easy and comfortable.

I just think its a fact, perhaps a sad one to many people, that there are many other types of music to choose from nowadays, many of them just as complex, rewarding, and intellectually challenging as classical.

I am not attacking classical- merely trying to add a slightly different perspective to the conversation.

Posted by: Ries at November 8, 2007 12:21 PM

"Call me childish, and lacking in rigor, but one of the things I enjoy in all the arts is the ability of humans to "vamp". To improvise, to react to changing situations, to play off what the other musicians are doing."

This happens at a symphonic performance all the time. No two performances are ever alike.

"Then, there is the beat. As in, I like the old African Drumming, the beat of the heart, as opposed to the sterile and mathematical beat of the mind so prevelant in most classical."

Spoken like someone who thinks Serious music ended in 1802. Do you perfef the monotnous 4/4 time of virtually all pop music as opposed to the complex poly-rthyms of the likes of Ravel and Stravinsky?

Posted by: Tony at November 15, 2007 6:31 PM

This has been an interesting thread, which has caused me to think about my own reasons for being a regular (and sometimes obsessive) concertgoer.

My reasons have changed over time. As a teenage music student I spent a lot of time in bands and orchestras, and went to symphony concerts in large part to hear the pros (including my teacher) in action. This continued through college, for even though I had no plan to pursue a music career, I had become a great music lover, and live performance was always more compelling for me than recordings. Plus, I've always known how hard it is to land a position in a major orchestra, so I have the utmost respect for the people who have managed to do it, and try to show that by going to concerts and watch them work.

In the early 1980s in Seattle the symphony was in dire straits; their music director had died quite young, the orchestra's finances were in a mess, and there was the real prospect that the orchestra would fold. Yet the orchestra had been steadily improving for years, and I often went simply to see (if not actually support with my purchase of a cheap ticket) a group that with each concert was literally playing to survive (and a new music director eager to prove himself). (The downside of this is that once the orchestra and conductor achieved a greater level of stability, it wasn't always so interesting anymore.)

For two years in Montreal I was a regular at Montreal Symphony concerts. Largely because I just wanted to hear how this highly-renowned orchestra played (very well, it turned out). Sadly, I was one of the few with such a motivation - attendance, even when Dutoit was still there - was usually quite mediocre.

Skip ahead to two years I worked in Moscow, and frequently attended concerts at the Moscow Conservatory or the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Just as people think of Yankee Stadium as the place where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio once played, I thought of the Conservatory as the "home stage" of such greats as Oistrakh, Richter, Gilels, Kogan, Rostropovich, Rozhdestvensky, etc.. This was a place where music was made in a political environment where composers sometimes feared for their lives (inconceivable in our own country today), and the big musical stars were also the Soviet Union's cultural ambassadors (and sometimes propaganda vehicles). There is a photo in one of the lobbies of the Conservatory faculty of 1936; I couldn't help wonder how many had survived the war or Stalin's purges. It was the place where Bernstein and NY Philharmonic played during the height of the Cold War, where Van Cliburn came to fame, and, not least, where Sir Georg Solti and the CSO performed in 1990 shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed (I'll assume there wasn't a cause-and-effect there). Things are different in Moscow now, but knowing the history of the place made going to a concert there a very compelling experience, making me feel connected to a lot of events in the "real world." It was as far from cheezy orchestra marketing campaigns of "Mellifluous Mendelssohn" or "Bold Brahms" as you can get.

Now I live in Yerevan, Armenia. The orchestra is competent but not world-class. And I go mostly out of curiosity to see how they play - I'll even go to hear works that in the U.S. I would probably avoid. The cheap tickets don't hurt, either.

Everybody has their reasons for going to symphony concerts - entertainment, socializing, search for meaning, or, like me, simply because they're orchestra geeks. I'm really not sure what orchestras can do to give people reasons to go; I've had plenty of reasons - none of which ever came to me through a marketing campaign.

What a lovely posting this is - filled with what music can mean to us. I was the President of the Chicago Symphony during that 1990 tour of Russia, and actually it was after the fall of communism. It was during the Gorbachev era - communism had fallen, but they were still working out what would follow it. People were free to talk openly about the government, but the supermarkets were still empty. It was a fascinating time to be there -- and it was thrilling to see the impact the CSO concerts had on the people. The concerts were not only sold out, but whatever fire laws the Russians might have had were ignored, and each concert in Moscow and St. Petersburg had a few hundred more people inside than the hall had seats. They were in all the aisle on all levels - and the audience response was so overwhelming in its emotional exuberance that it was deeply moving to the musicians and those of us in the administration fortunate enough to be there. One understood that these concerts provided some emotional sustenance to those people who were there.


Posted by: Marko Velikonja at November 18, 2007 7:58 AM

Classical music is as relevant today as it ever was. It is not elitist, for anybody with ears to ear and a bit of patience can appreciate it. On the point made about the replaying of the same pieces over the years in orchestral concert performances; well, you are right, but I feel it is neccessary because the younger audiences need to be exposed to these works to get aquainted with the all time classics in the cannon. You mentioned Brahms and Beethoven - I feel that if these composers were ignored for the sake of variety it would be a great loss for the aforementioned upcoming audiences. Another point made was that you have nothing to talk about after a concert performance - not so! You can talk about the parts that really stood out for you - maybe a seminal climax or a passage you really felt was played well. You could talk about the way the soloist was dressed or the conductor's eccentricities or his overall demeanour. This brings me to my next point - one who is thinking of attending a concert should already be aquainted with it from repeated listenings of the piece(s) on a CD. A one off listening to a complicated piece is rarely fully appreciated in one sitting. If it is, the piece is usually extremely repetitive. I can't think of one major work that I ever was enthralled with on first hearing.

Posted by: Roger Seery at November 20, 2007 11:13 AM

I love classical music, but I do not attend symphony concerts regularly because the cheapest tickets to the New York Philharmonic are more expensive then tickets to almost every other art form.

I would rather pay less to go to the opera or ballet than to see a symphony orchestra concert (unless one of my favorite soloists is performing).

If the subscription prices were lower, I would attend concerts gladly and regularly. Unfortunately, my current financial situation will not allow me to do so.

@Coe Tug

The general public is not allowed backstage in most venues. Have you experienced something different?

Also, I do not find formal dress off-putting in the least. I find nothing wrong with tuxedos.

Many orchestras, indeed most, offer very low priced tickets -- usually the day of the concert and often even a few days before concerts. I find the implication that opera tickets are generally cheaper than symphony orchestra tickets to be somewhat puzzling. Particularly in the New York area there are dozens of orchestras that produce good concerts at all price points.

David Snead, director of marketing at the New York Philharmonic, adds, "Our prices start at $29 for regular concerts. For most concerts we also offer $12 student rush tickets online beginning one week in advance."

Posted by: Daniel at December 23, 2007 7:57 PM

The NY Philharmonic ticket prices vary depending on the program and the soloists. With a subscription, the cheapest tickets (third-tier boxes with partial view) range from $22 to $33. Without a subscription, they range from $26 to $39. The only discounts that I'm aware of are for students.

The Metropolitan Opera has $15 tickets in Family Circle. If one subscribes to the opera, the better Family Circle tickets can be had for $24/piece Monday through Thursday. The weekend tickets cost more.

Please tell me the names of the "dozens of orchestras that produce good concerts at all price points" in the New York area because, aside from the Brooklyn Philharmonic, I am unaware of any.

There are indeed a number of orchestras in the New York area with relatively cheap tickets. Here are a few examples from a quick survey:

-American Symphony Orchestra: $20 student tickets, subscriptions start at about $20/ticket
-Brooklyn Philharmonic: $10 student rush tickets, single tickets start at $20, subscriptions start at $16/ticket
-Carnegie Hall: $10 student/senior rush tickets, $9 tickets for family concerts, and a limited number of partial-view seats are available for $10 the day of the performance
-Greenwich Village Orchestra: $15/single ticket, subscriptions start at $12.50/ticket, and $10 student tickets
-New Jersey Symphony Orchestra: $10/ticket for family concerts, $12 rush student tickets, average regular single ticket is $20
-Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: $10 rush student tickets, single tickets start at around $25/ticket, around $28/ticket in subscription series

Posted by: Daniel at December 29, 2007 11:32 PM