Good things: Erika Lange

My Eastman students  (here’s a link to the course I taught) have been writing some terrific final papers. Here’s part of one by Erika Lange, posted of course with her permission. A delight to read, and important as yet another example of how classical music’s future is already here (or, maybe in this case, coming very fast):

As a performer of classical music, one would think that I would feel completely at home in a classical concert, but this is not always the case. At times even I feel uncomfortable in the stuffy atmosphere of the concert hall and sometimes I wish I could just go to a concert in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of feeling like I need to dress up for the event. I think it would be fantastic if some orchestras experimented with talking to the audience, having question and answer time and even ask the audience to respond during the piece when they hear something they like. Less formal attire for musicians would not only make us more comfortable when we’re playing, but I think it would also let the audience feel more relaxed. Throw in some pop/rock lighting experiments and I think we might be talking about real entertainment.

I went to a recital performed by my teacher John Marcellus and the trumpet professor Jim Thompson earlier this week. During the recital they interacted with the audience, allowed themselves to show their strange but hilarious personalities and got the audience involved in their performance. Suddenly their ‘serious’ classical music was not so serious anymore. We laughed, we were entertained and most importantly, we talked about it to our friends the next day. When was the last time a faculty recital caused such hype?

 Changing the general setup of a classical concert would also be a step in the right direction in terms of audience involvement. I was involved in the performance of an improvisatory piece by Globakov recently, which was to be performed in a circle. At points, we were supposed to turn towards the audience and give loud interjections. Being a trombone player, I knew that it would be appropriate for my loud interjection to be performed on my instrument instead of vocally. I turned toward the audience and played one extremely loud note and not surprisingly, a woman in the front of the hall jumped about two feet out of her chair. How often can typical classical music concerts affect an audience member so directly? Whether or not I gave her a heart condition, you can bet that she’ll never forget her experience that night!

New music needs to take a bigger role in classical music concerts. All of the classical music that we play over and over again today was at one point new and vogue, whether it was accepted or not. When was the last time a new ballet caused a riot as in the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? The composers of new music should also take a greater hand in how they want music to be performed. It is always amazing to have the composer of a work present at the rehearsal giving specifications for staging and performance. What if the composer also specified that the woodwinds should stand and the lighting should be blue during the second movement? Spotlighting on soloists is also a direction that might be interesting in concerts especially for children who are just learning the instruments. Along the same lines, composers could even denote attire for the soloists. I would love to see the trombone soloist in Mahler’s Third Symphony wearing a bright pink shirt. These are just some of my ideas and they might be impossible to reproduce, but classical music needs to change somehow so why not add some spice?

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  1. says

    Apropos of these two students: I went to the NY Phil for the first time in many years and there was much culture shock. After the first movement of the first piece on the program, Mozart’s Flute and Harp concerto — in which the flutist played ravishingly — I felt completely ill at ease in the silence. I just heard something beautiful, why are we not clapping here? There is nowhere else in the world where we would not clap at this moment, and it would feel great for us to do so.

    The other main cognitive dissonance (also apropos) pertained to formality and symphony subscriptions. Is there any leisure activity Americans do regularly all dressed up, except possibly church? It seems to me dressing up is for one-shot deals like funerals or awards ceremonies. So I totally agree with the student who thinks we should be attending the symphony in jeans and a hoodie. In the quest for younger subscribers, this is a part of the equation, albeit one among many.

  2. Eric Lin says

    By the way, fantastic MVs by Greg Anderson. The Ligeti was awesome.

    Unfortunately, not all students or members of the younger generation I know are open to the idea of clapping between movements. I always have the urge to do it but short of having a Boulez-like group flanking me, I still fear the repercussions…wink wink.

    Anyway, Greg, this stuff is great. I wish more universities and certainly conservatories would provide courses like the ones you are teaching at Juilliard and Eastman and make it a requirement. Even if one disagrees with your thoughts on the ‘death of classical music,’ one should at least consider this art form in today’s world. (Just to clarify, I agree with at least 90% of your arguments)

    I’m a sophomore and aspiring composer at Harvard, which is quite simply conservative to the core. I’m hoping to get a student ensemble together to try out some new formats of presenting new music, using groups like Alarm Will Sound and RED as models. (How does commissioning a ballet for Ades’ Living Toys and a film for Reich’s Eight Lines with Ligeti’s piano concerto sandwiched between sound to you?…done by students of course) And none of the formal stuff. All black perhaps and no jackets?

    Despite the adventurous mindsets of some musicians, I still have many classmates and acquaintances (including composers…beats me why) that harbor conservative viewpoints towards music. They’re great performers, but I think it must be the result of teacher indoctrination or something…they can’t seem to do or want to do anything outside of the standard mold.

    Certainly, another problem is whenever I bring up ‘contemporary music,’ (being a composer myself) some student musicians roll their eyes. Most associate the term with atonality. How do I convince them that not every piece of new music is atonal and ‘ugly?’ (I’m not even going to try to explain that not all atonal music is uninteresting…)

    As with audiences here, the anecdote that your student at Juilliard recounted is pretty accurate. Most of the audience consists of friends of the members of the orchestra…

    The performances are routine.

    I’ve asked some of my so-called ‘culturally aware non-attendees’ why they don’t go; Very interesting responses. Perhaps the most honest was: “I love classical music…but I don’t go to concerts because they’re not fun…”


    I’m very glad you posted this comment. So thoughtful, honest, helpful. The response your non-attending friends give — purists will bristle at the word “fun.” “Classical music is not fun,” I can hear them say, pursing their lips. Which is just one of the many cultural gaps we have to deal with. I think your friends, in a larger sense, are saying that classical concerts aren’t events. Nothing really happens. Except the music (the purists are screaming again), but the music doesn’t come across because it has no context. It’s not projected in any way.

    I’ve found my students are often wary of new music. They still find it odd, uneasy, unusual when a piece isn’t tonal in some old-fashioned way. I don’t mean to criticize them for this. It’s an honest reaction. They just haven’t been around new music enough to feel differently. And of course the classical music world, with its emphasis on old music, shapes us all to be that way, until we move to a new place on our own. But still I shake my head. I hear students expressing wonder and caution about styles that have been around for 50 or 100 years. I play Webern in class, and no one can identify the composer. (Whom I would have thought — in all his later pieces, from around Op. 21 onward — has one of the most unmistakable styles of any composer who ever lived.) It makes me wonder about the education students are getting.

    One of the best dress plans I’ve ever seen, at the Brooklyn Philharmonic (for a new music event), was that everybody wears black below the waist (skirt or pants), and then any color they like above. Keeps everything within one ballpark, but still provides variety. And individuality.

    I like the program you propose. If you have enough rehearsal time! And the film and ballet, both new, might pose some production problems, both leading up to the concert and during it. Even if they weren’t new, they’d add some difficulty to a concert that’s already musically difficult, by giving you two more production aspects, each very different from each other, to manage. Coordinating the music to the film would require some extra rehearsal, very likely, and would pose a challenge for the conductor. None of which is to say you shouldn’t do it! But just be aware of some of the things that might happen. One simple way to put it is that the more elements there are in any concert, the more things can go wrong.

    Finally, I’m glad you like what I’ve been posting. I really want to encourage many people to do what — in my experience — they’ve already been thinking about on their own.

  3. says

    It may only be a start, but this year’s ASOL conference is featuring an ‘innovation EXPO’, which seems to be an outgrowth of their on-line Innovation Forum (

    Not too much there that’s truly groundbreaking… yet… But it’s certainly a way for those who wish to innovate and explore to work in less of a vacuum.

    Greg, read the last couple of posts with particular delight. It’s great to read/see some of the positives in the industry – Greg Andreson’s site is truly outstanding!

    Thanks, Jonathan. It’s good to hear from you, and good to know you’re as delighted with the things I’ve been posting about as I am.

    About innovation expos, and the like…I’m certainly glad the League is doing this, and I’ll support them very strongly. And at the same time, I have to confess (based on long experience) a little wariness with people who talk about innovation. In my experience, the people who innovate the most don’t talk much about it. They just do it. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Greg Anderson say “innovation” even once. And now, of course, someone’s sure to find the word on his site, and prove me wrong! But I stand by my point. Innovators just go out and do new things, not because they’re looking for something new to do, but because they love the things they’re doing.

  4. says

    For several years, we lived in Dayton, Ohio, where the orchestra has a program called Classical Connections that performs many of the functions mentioned in Erika’s paper. The orchestra is dressed in casual clothes, including a lot of denim. The concert is generally devoted to a single piece, generally the one that will be performed in the second half of the big classical concerts. When I saw them last year, the piece was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and I see they’re doing Holst’s Planets at an upcoming concert next month. So the first piece is a short work by the headliner, just to get everyone warmed up. Then, the remainder of the first half is a sonic introduction to the main act, led by Neil Gittleman, the charismatic music director, and using musical illustrations played by the orchestra. When I saw the Bartok, one of the main themes of the presentation was Bartok’s use of folk music. So Gittleman played old 78s of Transylvanian singers that Bartok had collected, followed by an example from the concerto where the tune was used. Later, the concertmaster and a guest violinist played fiddle tunes as a duet, again used by Bartok in the concerto, and again, followed by an example from the orchestra as a whole. The orchestra played snippets of the work, and the concert was really fun. Gittleman took questions and comments from the audience, and the audience (largely composed of families with children) responded with alacrity. The second half of the concert was the complete concerto, uninterrupted. This program brought listeners who did not attend the more formal classical concerts, and introduced listeners to a work that most of them would probably have avoided without some kind of introduction. Several of my colleagues took their families because the concert really was fun, something all too lacking in many concert experiences.

    Yes, that really does sound like fun! And it sounds interesting, as well. Carnegie Hall has been doing occasional concerts with just this format — first half, explanation; second half, performance — with major conducting stars. Pierre Boulez did one, Michael Tilson Thomas did another. But I’ll bet that there’s some extra warmth — and extra interest from the audience — when the home team (so to speak) is presenting the event. I’d love to hear about more things like this, from all corners of the US. And from other countries, too. Thanks for sharing this, Caleb.

  5. Chris says

    A quick comment on attire: I like getting dressed up to go to the orchestra. When I put on a fun dress and a great pair of shoes (I’m sitting down for two hours, so stilettos aren’t a problem), it heightens the experience. It’s fun and special and takes me out of my everyday life. Have I worn jeans to concerts? Yes. Nowadays a nice pair of jeans with a special top and a blazer can be just at home at the orchestra as a suit or cocktail dress.

    And attire for musicians? A well tailored tux makes men look sexy and smooths over flaws from age and lifestyle. All black with no jacket? One word: waiters. For women? If women are given reasonable parameters, they are able to meet those while still expressing their personal styles. Have you seen the different ways that “long black” can be interpretted? The uniform also reminds the players, at least subconsciously, that they are a team. There is no “i” in orchestra, but there is in “diva.”

    Should composers dress soloists? No. Many of them cannot properly dress themselves. (I say that as someone who enjoys new music, especially Higdin.) And while one soloist may look ravishing in a pink skirt, another may find it washes out her skin and would prefer a deep blue.

    And just because I like to dress up to listen to an orchestra doesn’t mean I don’t think classical music is fun. I just think that fun and dressy aren’t mutually exclusive terms.

    No, they’re not at all exclusive. Thanks for saying that. Maybe one problem is that there’s not much flair in the way people dress for classical music, either on stage or in the audience. So if people dress up, they don’t do that in interesting ways. Which I’m sure isn’t the case with you! On stage, it’s fascinating to see how blah orchestras often look, even though they’re wearing some variant of fancy dress.

  6. Paul H. Muller says

    I prefer going to rehearsals when they are open to the public. I am a player so I want to see the conductor working with each section on the various passages. But the conductor also offers comments to the audience about the composer, style, etc that add a lot to hearing the music. So I am in favor of adding more non-mucial content to a performance, even at the risk of making the experience seem like watching the History Channel for two hours.

    Maybe the people who go to formal concerts just want to be seen there, and are not engaged by the performance. But I like dressing up for the occasion because I think it is important. Getting the music out of the concert hall – Bach in a church, or Haydn in a museum – might be one way to make a concert less intimidating.

  7. says

    I agree with much of Erika Lange’s comments, and having spent the last 15 or so years working in classical music in Vancouver, I decided to do something about it. Since the fall (of 2006), I’ve been presenting classical music in a couple of different neighbourhood venues, including a jazz club. People can drink at the bar, talk to each other and then really listen in a casual, salon-like environment. And it’s working. Musicians are loving playing for audiences who are listening intensely (maybe it’s the wine…) and audiences – both new and established audiences – are loving listening to serious music (from Bach to Shostakovich to Steve Reich, R. Murray Shafer and Vancouver composers) at Music on Main concerts.

    I don’t think that what performers or audience members wear matters at all. It’s the venue and the environment that’s created by the presenter. (Personally, I abhor the “black bottoms and colourful tops” approach to dressing. I’d much rather see something hip and homogenized from an ensemble so that we can tell they think about what it means to perform and that throwing on clothes isn’t an afterthought. I side with Caleb Deupree on this one… Dress up and dress well; it’s an important job.)

    And everyone who says that “classical music is dead” is right. Because the people who say that tend to refuse to listen to any music written by living composers. Wouldn’t we be appalled if a major theatre company didn’t produce any contemporary theatre? Or if significant museums barely showed contemporary art? Or if libraries didn’t house contemporary writing? Yet we (as presenters and audience members) allow symphonies and opera houses and concert organizations to get away with presenting dead music in antiquated formats.

    I love Bach and Beethoven and Brahms. But there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of an art form and that art form’s engagement with contemporary creation.

    I believe strongly that great performances don’t need anything more than a good environment in which to take place, and an audience who is opening to experiencing the performance. That environment will undoubtedly include good lighting, decent acoustics, and a friendly – and serious about listening – vibe. But whether it’s in a concert hall, a bar, a living room or a church, a great and genuine performance will engage anyone with any imagination.

    And often we’re afraid to objectively address the level of performance when we’re analyzing why sales are down or young audiences aren’t engaged.

  8. says

    I’m curious – does everybody at Eastman always dress up for concerts?? That was not the case at Brandeis in the 70s. It’s not the case anywhere in the Bay Area in the 21st Century, except maybe opening night at the Symphony & Opera.

    Students at Eastman don’t dress up for concerts, any more than students at Juilliard do.

    But they’re also taught the dress-up ideology, if that term makes any sense. That is, that classical performers ought to dress up when they play. Which generally happens, around the country. And the older audience at mid-American classical music events still at least wears business dress to concerts, though the younger audience might not.

    But you raised a good question, Lisa. I think the practice of classical music is changing (changing a lot, in some places). But the prevalent thinking in the field isn’t changing as quickly. Erika wouldn’t have brought up dress as any kind of issue if it didn’t seem like one to her.

  9. says

    She says specifically “At times even I feel uncomfortable in the stuffy atmosphere of the concert hall and sometimes I wish I could just go to a concert in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of feeling like I need to dress up for the event.” It sounds like someone is keeping her from dressing comfortably – this isn’t the case, you say? If so, why is it phrased that way?

    C’mon, Lisa, there’s a nuance here. Nobody’s forcing Erika to do anything, nobody’s telling her in so many words, “You MUST dress up for concerts.” But still she feels pressure to do it, because in the places she’s been, it’s the general rule. You’ve never encountered situations like that?

    Here’s another example. Allan Kozinn reviews concerts for the New York Times wearing old clothes and a backwards baseball cap. Many other male New York critics wear jackets and ties. So now some new guy comes on the scene. What’s he going to wear? Could you blame him if he felt safer dressing up? And wouldn’t you understand if he whispered to you one day, “Hey, I really wish I could dress like Allan, but…”

    One more example. I went to a concert of David Del Tredici’s music tonight. David was interviewed at it. He talked about teaching at Yale, and encouraging composition students there to write things they thought they weren’t supposed to write, like rock songs. Nobody ever told them they couldn’t write rock songs, not in so many words. But they knew the rules. Even with David encouraging them, and even though they wanted to do these unofficially forbidden things, David said they were wildly nervous.

    And come to think of it, when I went to the Yale School of Music as a composer in the early ’70s, nobody told me — in so many words — that I couldn’t write tonal theater music. But when I did, it turned out that this didn’t count as composition. Again there were unwritten rules, which everyone seemed to understand, except (in this case) me.

    David, by the way, was in a very different position when he started writing tonal music. He’d been working in a composition world where tonal music really was explicitly forbidden. He was enormously brave to break out of that. As he said tonight, the composing world was very small, and essentially you wrote for your colleagues. To do something they’d reject would be very, very scary.