This week in class…

In my Juilliard graduate course, that is, called “Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” It’s about, guess what, the future of classical music.

We were talking about how concerts might change, so they’d be more likely to attract an audience (especially a new, young one). And, I might add, so they’d be more interesting for the musicians playing them. That’s something the students insisted on. Greg Anderson, a pianist, described what sounds like a stunning concert he gave in the Twin Cities. I’m not going to venture a description myself. Maybe I’ll ask him to write it for the blog. But it involved a great variety of music, much of it 20th century, including pieces by Ligeti, Henry Cowell, and John Corigliano. But also Liszt.

There were thematic ideas linking the pieces—on the first half, an insistence on the note A, but in ways, as he described them, that anyone could hear. And on the second half, an exploration of love and death. But what really got me, on top of everything in the last paragraph, was audience participation. Two pieces required volunteers from the audience.

Greg, you should understand, is a very lively guy, and I can imagine that the concert was great fun, and terrifically engaging. He’s going back there next year, he says, so if you’re in the area, look out for him.

There was also lots of talk about quality of performance. Faithful readers will know that I’ve chewed on that bone myself,  here and here.

My students—and I guarantee I didn’t prompt them at all—said exactly what I’ve been saying. Performances aren’t good enough. They’re not good enough to excite the audience. They’re not good enough to excite the musicians. That even extends, the students said, to how the musicians look. They were very harsh (for instance) on orchestral players who, with nothing to play for a while, look like they’re not remotely interested in what’s going on around them. Note that they didn’t say that these musicians in fact aren’t interested, but that they need to communicate in some way that they are.

I thought of two cases where how orchestral musicians look could be dramatically improved. At the end of the Mahler First Symphony, some conductors like the horns to stand up. (Is that in the score? I’ve forgotten, and I don’t have the score with me to check.) So if that’s going to happen, the horns (eight of them, right?) should work on how they look when they do it. They all stand together, with as close as possible to whipcrack unanimity.

And when the strings—maybe just the first violins, but in a Tchaikovsky symphony maybe the seconds, the violas, and the cellos, too—all join in on a big melody, presumably they bow it the same way. But why don’t they (just like those horns) coordinate their bowing so it really looks synchronized? So all the players are visibly joined together in a single act of musical expression.

Oh, I can imagine the horror if anyone tried to institute these things. “Where does it say in the contract that you can tell me how I should look?” Never mind that orchestras need to rebuild their audience. Never mind that, in fact, whether you like it or not, when you’re playing in an orchestra concert, you’re putting on a show. Never mind that there’s an audience out there (which in fact is quite engrossed in what they see, as any conversation with members of the orchestra audience will reveal). Never mind that eight horns standing at once is a wonderfully dramatic event, which you don’t want falling flat, any more than you’d want a dramatic musical entrance to fall flat. Never mind that you could undercut the moment if it doesn’t look right.

Never mind that in absolutely any other kind of performance, everyone involved would want this to look as good as it could. When are we going to grow up?

Finally, from Sanja Petrovic came something quiet and lovely. Sanja, a pianist, said she’d been involved in a performance of Chopin nocturnes. Several pianists were involved. (Sanja, I hope I’m remembering this exactly right!) The concert began at 11 PM. The space was darkened. Candles were lit. Can you imagine a more beautiful—or more suitable—setting for the nocturnes? No need for program notes. No need to explain who Chopin was, or what a nocturne is, or what kind of unexpected modulations might occur in measure 32. No need, God help us, for any education (the very notion of which, I think, is killing classical music, but more on that in another post). The setting of the concert clarified anything that anyone would need to know. I wish I’d been there.

And of course people will say that not every concert can be like this, that there isn’t always such an obvious theme or such a clear path to an evocative setting. That’s true, of course. But Sanja (and Greg, and others, too, of course) are pointing the way here to something very important. Most classical concerts aren’t events at all. They’re musical performances, defined by the names of the performers and by the repertoire they’re playing. If that means something to you, fine. If it doesn’t, forget it. Why would you go?

But that’s not good enough. We need to give people reasons to attend. And the clearest reason would be that the concert is about something. The staging, if that’s the word, doesn’t have to be as elaborate as what Sanja described (though, really, it sounded pretty simple). Maybe all you need to do—at, let’s say, a piano recital—is put flowers on stage. Or say something interesting. Or play your heart out, so fervently that nobody can miss it. But you have to create an event. You have to give people a hook. You have to enable them to say, “I want to go hear Sanja play because she’s going to…”

And you know what? That’s not just for the great unwashed (who, in fact, are nothing of the sort: As I’ve said here in other contexts, they’re smart, discriminating people who think that the presentation of classical music is empty and dumb). It’s for me, too. Why should I go to all the concerts I get invited to? I’m sure that many, if not most of them, are pretty good. But why do I want to be there?

Why would it be better than going to a Mets game, or watching The Sopranos on TV?

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