Many paths

This came in an e-mail from John Steinmetz, who’s often

made comments on blog posts. John had trouble posting it as a comment (sorry,

John), and I thought it might as well be a post by itself. I love its good

sense, good cheer, and also the necessary dose of realism.

Maybe there used to be a sense that

there was One Right Way to present classical music—one right repertory,

one right standard of quality, and one right way to be an audience

member—but there is no longer one right anything. Shifts like this are

happening all over our culture. This may be a source of sadness or frustration

for people who loved the old one right way of presenting and organizing

classical music, but we now have the possibility of multiple right

ways—including the old one—suited to different people’s different

enthusiasms. (Why did we ever think that all the music between Bach and Bartok

belonged in one bucket anyway, or that those musics

should be separated from all other musics?) Sure,

there are problems, not least that nobody knows what

will happen to the tons of money that used to follow the one right way. But

this is a huge set of opportunities, too.

 Underlying some of the

arguments about classical music is an assumption that the old one right way

will be replaced by another one right way, so of course people argue for their

preferences. Fear not!

There is not going to be one right

or wrong way. The road ahead splits into multiple paths,

and people are free to follow more than one.


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  1. says

    John Steinmetz is absolutely right. One problem that we have now is that our musical history, do to the work of a lot of musicologists and recording companies, is growing all the time. It’s hard to keep up. I can’t imagine that anyone has enough time in the day to listen to everything of value from the past 1600 years. Musicology, and by extension Music History, has only officially been around since the 19th century. Before that people, who were not practicing or composing musicians themselves, relied on contemporary composers to give them music that was popular. Some people were hungry for the next “big thing,” and when it came they embraced it critically. The larger musical world didn’t really start looking at music in a “backward” direction until the first publication of Bach’s complete works during the second half of the 19th century.

    I’m actually very excited about the many paths we all now have to the musical future, and I am grateful to musicologists for making it possible for people to read about, listen to, and play music from the ever-growing past. Anyone who wants to can take the path backwards and find a whole lot of treasure there. And the good thing is we don’t have to live without indoor plumbing, electricity, or all the present has to offer to do so.

  2. says

    John has encapsulated (elegantly, as usual!) what it is we are trying to do at Red {an orchestra}: redefining the concert experience to meet the needs of multiple audiences, attracting the as-yet-unattracted, finding myriad ways to connect classical music to people who enjoy music of all kinds. We gladly go where no orchestra has gone before, and are achieving some measure of success. As our artistic director likes to point out, one of our best “reviews” came from an audience member who said, “I hated the music but I LOVED the concert.” Over time we have found our “One Right Way” audiences not only receptive but eager to discover new ways of experiencing classical music. And we’re not on a cutting-edge coast: we’re in Cleveland.

    Bravo, Laura. Red is a great success story. I’m surprised that other orchestras haven’t tried to emulate what you’re doing. If you can do this in Cleveland, what could the New York Philharmonic (just for example) do in New York, if it diversified what a profit-making business would call its product line, to offer something like what you’re doing. In addition, of course, to its regular concerts. And think how many people they’d attract, who currently don’t go to the Philharmonic. And think how happy they’d make these people.

  3. Robert Jordahl says

    What a great blog!

    Thank you!

    And feel free to be just as vocal, if you read something you disagree with.

  4. Cedric Williams says

    Our understanding of classical music, at least for many people, has generally speaking been presented through the medium of radio; our individual purchase of recorded music aside. Few people are prepared to pay for tickets to concerts that feature ‘unknown’ names. So it is that the ‘education’ of the general listener is through the medium of radio and sadly there are few radio stations out there that are prepared to expose their audience to works that are ‘new’. Even many of the ‘Classical’ station presenting traditional classical repertoires are now presenting ‘tastefully chosen’ excerpts rather than full performances of works.

    Consider this, all other art forms receive much more media attention; we can be educated in the visual arts, even if we don’t wish to, through magazines, TV, poster, Internet, etc., that is even without stepping into a museum or art gallery. Contemporary literature, dance, can also be accessed with equal ease, and of course contemporary pop/rock have more than adequate radio outlets; but contemporary classical music….? The only radio station that I have found that consistently has provided its listeners with this optional ‘education’ has been the BBC ( Radio 3 where all performances are in their entirety; many being live performances. The BBC has always put out its programs in an educational format without overdoing it, presenting background material and often featuring the works of single composers and soloists (including modern) over the period of a week. It is also a station which carries a large selection of contemporary music slotted into concerts of traditional music as well as commissioning and performing many new works. Each week there is a 2 hour slot (Her and Now) devoted exclusively to modern works which can often feature interviews with the composer or conductors/performers, which to listeners who have not been schooled in music, provides a great insight into the workings of a composers mind.

    So, sadly, unless the media get involved in promoting modern classical I don’t think we are going to see much progress. The odd film soundtrack that crops up with some modern snippets is hardly going to suffice.

  5. Dave Irwin says

    Greg, Thanks for posting that insightful comment by John. It offers a different way to look at the changes taking place in audiences and performers. I particularly like his idea that there won’t be a new orthodoxy to replace the old.

    I loved John’s comment, too. Among much else, he has the gift of saying breathtaking things in such a calm voice. That’s a talent I envy.

  6. Henry Fitzgerald says

    I’m not sure I can find anything sufficiently concrete to object to (or agree with) in Steinmetz’s remarks, but this bit:

    “Underlying some of the arguments about classical music is an assumption that the old one right way will be replaced by another one right way, so of course people argue for their preferences.”

    …is surely wrong.

    I’m reminded of the countless arguments-at-cross-purposes one comes across regarding colourising black and white films. For every person willing to say that this is an abomination, there are three who will respond: “But the old black and white print is still around, you can still choose to watch it if you want to, etc.” – all of which, even when true, is beside the point. If colourisation is an abomination it should not be done AT ALL. Something is either an aesthetic crime or it isn’t, an it doesn’t cease to be an aesthetic crime just because there happen to be alternatives.

    Concerns about misguided performances have nothing to do with whether or not there’s One Right Way to present a classical concert. Whether there’s one right way or 75 right ways or a infinitely many right ways, there are also [i]wrong[/i] ways. As a matter of fact, nobody ever asserted that only one waywas right; the worrying thing is that there are now people who assert that no ways are wrong.

    And another thing: since the classical audience is shrinking, if you value diversity for its own sake, you should be alarmed, not heartened. The fewer people who are interested in classical music, the fewer different sub-genres, styles and practices it’s possible to sustain.

    Aesthetic crime?

    People who assert that no ways are wrong?

    Does anyone else here see the world around them bristling with such horrors?