Last Wednesday I taught the last class, for this year, in my spring semester Juilliard course, “Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” I had a marketing specialist as a guest, and he asked the students some useful questions. How did they decide which concerts to go to? Because they’re professionals, they actually look at listings, ads, and websites, to find out when there’s music that might interest them. They might be looking for a piece they like, or a piece they’ve never heard live, or something with an important part for their own instrument.

I then asked a followup. Which classical concerts in New York, during the past year, generated a lot of word-of-mouth buzz at Juilliard? Almost as soon as I got the words out, three or four students all answered at once: “The Berlin Philharmonic.” Then, after a pause, another student named the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (the Bayerischer Rundfunk), playing Brahms. He didn’t remember the conductor, but I think it was Mariss Jansons. The student said that when word got out about the first concert in the series, 40 or 50 Juilliard people got tickets for the second one.

And that was it—two events (counting a series of concerts by a single orchestra as one event), out of the hundreds available. And note that these were musicians who play orchestral instruments, picking orchestra concerts. Student singers would probably have picked a vocal concert or an opera; student composers would probably have picked a new music performance. Pianists would have picked a piano concert. I began to wonder if there’s anything that everyone agrees on. Or, more to the point, that everybody even hears about.

I thought back to things I’ve heard or read about that happened in the past. The list of musical celebrities who went to the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 was staggering. Rachmaninoff was there, for instance. During that same decade, a singer I once knew (I studied singing with her in the 1960s) made her New York recital debut. She was very well received. When she came back the next season, she looked out at the audience and saw, she said, Toscanini and Rachmaninoff. (To try to check that, I looked up her New York Times reviews. They were very strong.)

So what was different then? Were there fewer concerts? Or were there certain things that serious musicians paid attention to? In the ‘40s and the ‘50s, Virgil Thomson used to talk about an “intellectual audience,” which, he said, went to certain musical events. (Schnabel, for example, but never Horowitz.) Is there anything like that now? Any audience that goes to chamber music, operas, orchestras, recitals, new music concerts, everything that’s out there, if the individual event is interesting enough? I’m not sure there is. And even within each area, I wonder if there’s any unified audience. Well, pianists always go to Martha Argerich.

But I’ve gone, over many years, to innumerable new music performances, and no matter what they are, I don’t see any large number of composers at them.

Maybe I’m asking the impossible. Maybe things were always like this. But I wonder.


One event I went to very happily was David Robertson’s concert of Berio, Ligeti, and George Benjamin, at Zankel Hall this past Thursday. David was given one of Carnegie Hall’s “Perspective” series, which (within limits) means that he can do anything he likes. So he brought a violist and percussionist from the Ensemble Intercontemporain at IRCAM, of which he used to be music director, to play Berio’s Naturale, and had them join a group of young and fabulous American musicians in Carnegie’s Zankel Band to play the Ligeti Piano Concerto, and Benjamin’s Antara

All of this was crazy music, in a way—well, maybe not the Berio, which hauntingly layered viola and percussion comments on recordings of a folk singer from Sicily. (It reminded me of some of Antonioni’s films, Il Grido and Red Desert, for instance, where scars of heavy industry weigh on human hearts.) But the Ligeti and Benjamin pieces were crazy, full of crazy rhythms, crazy sounds (screeches, tootles, growls), and crazy references (to pygmy music, Peruvian music, the sound of hammers hitting steel).

I loved this concert. If David and the band had wanted to play it again, I would have listened again. And what matters most is that this is music David likes. Carnegie Hall in effect asked him, “David, what would you like to do?” And he answered: “This!”

So how often does that happen in the classical music world? Sadly, almost never. Most concerts feature music from the standard repertory. I’m not going to say musicians don’t want to play those pieces; they do. But we’re all conditioned to expect to hear (and play) the same music over and over and over and over and over and over. Why?

And what does this say about classical music as an art? Again we’ve been conditioned to think that classical music is artistic. But most artists don’t repeat the same things every year, or even every few years. They’re always moving onward, always growing. That’s hard in classical music, because you always have to think of the repertory that you audience demands to hear. Which—sadly—sounds more like commerce than like art.  David’s concert was an art event. He did the music that he loves, and it’s not the music that someone else might love. He had the chance to be himself.

How often—honestly, now—does that happen, in classical music?

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  1. Matt Gardner says

    [b] But most artists don’t repeat the same things every year, or even every few years [/b]

    That’s just not true. I’ve been to innumerable gigs where bands like the Chillis or the Stereophonics play music we already know well that differ little to their previous concerts. They’ll put a couple of new songs on if there’s an album pending but its mostly just re-hash, and no bad thing too. After all, that’s what brings the audience together. You stand and sing and know what’s coming.

    In your quest for endless variety you seem to forget that many people like hearing brilliantly written, time-proven works in both the pop and classical world.

    This isn’t to say I don’t agree with a lot of what you say, but you seem to have a bit of a bee in your bonnet about older works being programmed simply because they are old, established and the composers dead. It sometimes reads to me that you think the music should have just died with them and music of the current age take pride of place.

    Good thing you postedt this, Matt. Thanks. What I wrote is open to the objection you made, and you’ve given me a chance to clarify it. The problem with repetition of old music in the classical performance world is that there’s far too much of it. The balance of new and old has gotten way out of hand. No orchestra, for instance, would dare do a season of even 25% new music. When the Philadelphia Orchestra greeted the millennium by playing nothing but 20th century music in the 2000-2001 season, their audience objected, even though the schedule included (obviously) Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Mahler. Classical music is even worse than pop in this regard. Sure, fans of big stars like to hear the stars play their old hits in concerts. But there are constantly new stars coming up, and the playlists of top 40 radio stations (those that are still left, given all the change in pop during the last decade) change constantly. Maybe only classic rock, of all the pop genres, is completely stuck in the past. Well, maybe also the supermarket in Warwick, NY, where I live. Their playlist is so weighted toward ’50s classics that I almost cheered yesterday when they played “Hold On, I’m Coming.”

    So that’s the problem. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing old music, but that in the classical world the playlist has gotten rigor mortis. Try to find an orchestra, any mainstream orchestra, doing a program like the David Robertson event I described in this post, on its main concert series. They’d never do it.

  2. says

    That unrepentent myopia is what makes Juilliard so good at what it does. The trade off is that it’s only good at very little.

  3. Max Scheinin says

    Hi Greg. At Paris’ Cité de la Musique, May’s been largely devoted to a series of concerts that put pieces by Cage and Boulez side by side. (Given, referring to avante-garde ’50’s-era music as ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern’ is a silly habit in which the actual meaning of those words is disregarded and they simply become synonyms for ‘difficult to listen to’ or ‘atonal,’ a really significant problem in itself. Nonetheless this kind of programming is obviously a lot closer to the David Robertson variety you’re talking about). I went to see two in the last couple weeks — the first the Flemish Radio Symphony Orchestra, a really fine group that played the Schumann and Cage piano concertos, Boulez’s Livre pour cordes, and Debussy’s Iberia; the second the Ensemble Intercontemporain, playing Cage’s First Construction (in metal) and concerto for prepared piano, and Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître.

    At the first I sat next to a sweet, grumbly sort of older guy, semi-formally dressed, and we’d give each other our notes after every piece. He scoffed at a lot of the audience for having clapped after the first movement of the Schumann (“this is the Saturday audience, people who don’t know anything”); I didn’t bother to tell him I disagreed. The Cage he simply shrugged at; cheerfully perplexed, he said something like “Modern art. I don’t understand it at all.” The Boulez he liked, the Debussy he loved. A whole lot more relevant than this guy’s tastes is the fact that the audience WAS full of people who perhaps didn’t know enough to not clap after the the first movement of the Schumann; including a lot of casually dressed students, but really people of every age and a lot of appearances, steadily climbing up the ladder from people in their late teens, early ’20’s, to older people who didn’t look much different than those you’d see at most NY Philharmonic concerts.

    That same range of people were there for the Ensemble Intercontemporain concert. My experience going to concerts in France has been that, just as in the States, everything is responded to at the end as though it’s been a manifestation of pure musical genius — except that rather than jumping to their feet, people go on and on clapping rhythmically. Because there seems to be this same kind of ultimate irrelevance to how good or mediocre or bad a concert’s been to how rapturously it’s received here — and also, of course, because there would be a strong hint of knee-jerk “Europe’s just smarter than us”-ness in imagining otherwise — I’m not certain that this variety among concertgoers really attests to France having a classical music scene in which people are more actively engaged than they are in the States. Maybe a lot of people in either case are just sitting there, waiting to applaud, and it’s nothing more than a ritual to them. Still it does strike me as significant that older folks show up for programs you’d expect them to avoid in New York, that there’s no unofficial dress code (the guy who scoffed at the inter-movement clapping didn’t raise an eyebrow at me for being in jeans and a t-shirt), and that students are there.

    Some possible reasons for all this are swimming around in my head…

    (1) The Cité de la Musique concert hall is a pretty amazing place to be able to see orchestras, because it’s damn small — even if you’re sitting in the back, you’ve got a clear view of the stage and you remain fairly close. Furthest thing in the world from my experience seeing James Levine and the BSO at Carnegie last season, when I might as well have been listening to a recording. Likewise a lot different from the other American halls where I sometimes see orchestras — Avery Fisher in NY, Kimmel in Philadelphia, Davies in SF, the Richard B. Fischer Center at Bard College (in NY state). Very far from an exhaustive list of U.S. concert halls, but a pretty representative one. And maybe, given how popular the L.A. Philharmonic has been since moving into Disney, there’s a lot to look at simply in the question of venue.

    (2) A long-lingering European sense of owing something to modernism — the audience still feeling that it has to expose itself to this kind of ‘seriousness.’ I’m no sociologist, I have no idea if there’s something to this, it’s just an idea.

    (3) The decades-long presence of Boulez in Paris, some civic sense of deference to him?

    (4) I’m sure that the presence of people in their teens and 20’s is largely explained by the fact that there’s a conservatory at the site of the Cité; but I wonder if it is entirely and, if so, whether conservatory students there turn up in larger proportions than, say, Julliard students do at Avery Fisher concerts.

    These are just my own thoughts. I’d love to hear yours, and if you’ve had any such experiences with concertgoing in Europe generally or Paris particularly.


    Max, this was fascinating to read. I don’t have any particular thoughts; I don’t know the European scene well at all. in fact the only country on that side of the Atlantic where I’ve heard any classical performances is Britain. I can well imagine, though, that things might be different in Europe, and maybe especially France. To all the excellent reasons you suggest, I’d add this: That classical music didn’t take root in large part as a cultural adornment for an emerging wealthy class, as it did in the US. I suspect that this can make an enormous difference, in large and small ways.

    When i see younger people at new music events, or events that include new music ,in New York, I often wonder if they’re music students, including student composers. I’ve read some rapturous comments in reviews of new music concerts, about the presence of rock-oriented younger people. But these could easily be student composers. The critics may not know that student composers look pretty much like the alternative rock audience. Of course, if there are very many younger people attending, most of them probably aren’t composers. There just aren’t that many young composers around.

    You made a very good point about the use of the term “contemporary music.” I saw it once used in a way that underlines what you said. This was in an extensive catalogue of old 78 rpm opera recordings, mostly of course single arias. The catalogue had been scrupulously annotated at great length, with biographies of the singers represented. There must have been 200 pages of listings, with the biographies in quite small type.

    A fair number of the singers, especially the Italians, had participated in world premieres. In Italy, between the wars, there were a lot of new operas done, by composers like Mascagni. So if someone was a star soprano in Italy during that time, she may well have sung in these works. This fact was noted in the biographies in this catalogue, with no special emphasis.

    But every once in a while, as I turned the pages, I’d come across a singer who’d sung Schoenberg! And these people — there were very few of them, of course — were always described as people who had sung “contemporary music.” The term, in other words, was used precisely to mean atonal or otherwise difficult music. A new Mascagni opera, as tonal as Cavalleria Rusticana (but without good melodies, which is one big reason we don’t hear these pieces now) was new, but not “contemporary.”

    Thanks again for taking so much trouble to write such interesting observations. I’m told, by the way, that the same thing you observed can be seen at the Proms, in London. And I love the guy who likes Boulez, but thinks Cage is “modern art”! He’s using that phrase to mean more or less the same thing as “contemporary music.”

  4. Tom Hartley says

    Is it worth noting that all three of the pieces in Robertson’s program of “new” music are 20 years old?

    Tom, that’s well worth noting, but not as any trash on David. It shows how carelessly I used the term “new music.” Neither David nor Carnegie Hall claimed this was a new music concert. Or a contemporary music event, or anything like that. It was simply music David liked, and what I might have said was that clearly he inhabits a space where the age or sound of a piece — very refreshingly — doesn’t need a label.

  5. Tom Hartley says

    I didn’t mean to trash David Robertson, and I’m sorry my post read that way. It sounds like a great concert. I love the Ligeti Piano Concerto and would have enjoyed hearing the other two pieces for the first time.

    My point, which I should have expressed more clearly, is that if an evening of 20-year-old music is considered adventurous, then this is evidence of how stodgy classical music has become. Imagine if, in 1916, Leopold Stokowski (to name a conductor who shared Robertson’s taste in adventurous music) presented a concert of new music. I don’t think Also Sprach Zarathustra or Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony would have been on the program.

  6. says

    That’s just not true. I’ve been to innumerable gigs where bands like the Chillis or the Stereophonics play music we already know well that differ little to their previous concerts.

    The extreme case of something like this in the rock world (not counting what are essentially repertory bands) is Magma, which announces ahead of time what “numbers” it will play on a given tour, of which two or three (out of a total of three or four) will be renditions of material from the 70s.

  7. says

    “But I’ve gone, over many years, to innumerable new music performances, and no matter what they are, I don’t see any large number of composers at them.”

    Amen. I run a small regional composers service organization in Washington DC, and I have a very hard time getting composers to attend concerts (or any other type of event). Don’t we need to be out hearing what our peers are doing as part of our own artistic process? And if not, couldn’t we at least be showing support for our peers by filling up a few seats?

  8. Aurelia Loveman says

    When “our peers” produce something as dreamy, elevating and gorgeous as the B- Mass, Requiem, Rodelinda (for starters), of course we’ll go to it! We’ll run! And what is so terrible about being 60+? We all get there. Cage can get to be a pain but Mozart never is. How come?

  9. Evan Kuhlmann says

    Just for the record – the conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra concerts you mentioned was Lorin Maazel. Juilliard students who were there (a lot of us) still talk about how infrequently that kind of high energy orchestral performance is delivered by American professional orchestras.

    Thanks, Evan. And how interesting that Maazel doesn’t appear to deliver the same excitement at the Phlilharmonic.

  10. Evan says

    Thanks for asking again, I got to addressing the question in the reply on the other thread.

    Re: Maazel – it’s interesting. Maazel’s “Rite of Spring” with the NY Philharmonic is another one of those rare performances that Juilliard students still talk about two years later. He was so energetic and passionate, and the players responded with the best rendition I have ever heard of the piece live OR on recording. Simply put, it rocked. I wish I brought more than one of my non-classical friends to the performance. A folk singer/songwriter, he bought the Seattle Symphony recording (which is also quite passionate) of The Rite and listened to it 3-4 times a day for the next week.

    On the other hand, after cancelling John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” the previous season, many of us were looking forward to the Maazel’s NY Phil “Naive and Sentimental Music.” It was pretty lackluster and messy. The kind of performance you drag a non-classical friend to and then wish you had just played them the LA Philharmonic recording instead. So I guess my experience with Maazel and the NY Phil is that performances can be anywhere from ‘disappointing’ to ‘mind-blowing’ depending on the kind of energy exerted, but I would say that most of them at least hover around ‘good.’