Quotation of the day

From Pauline Kael’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”:

We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art. The movies we respond to, even in childhood, don’t have the same values as the official culture supported at school and in the middle-class home. At the movies we get low life and high life, while David Susskind and the moralistic reviewers chastise us for not patronizing what they think we should, “realistic” movies that would be good for us–like Raisin in the Sun, where we could learn the lesson that a Negro family can be as dreary as a white family. Movie audiences will take a lot of garbage, but it’s pretty hard to make us queue up for pedagogy. At the movies we want a different kind of truth, something that surprises us and registers with us as funny or accurate or maybe amazing, maybe even amazingly beautiful. We get little things even in mediocre and terrible movies–Jose Ferrer sipping his booze through a straw in Enter Laughing. Scott Wilson’s hard scary all-American-boy-you-can’t-reach face cutting through the pretensions of In Cold Blood with all its fancy bleak cinematography. We got, and still have embedded in memory Tony Randall’s surprising depth of feeling in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Keenan Wynn and Moyna Macgill in the lunch-counter sequence of The Clock, John W. Bubbles on the dance floor in Cabin in the Sky, the inflection Gene Kelly gave to the line, “I’m a rising young man” in DuBarry was a Lady, Tony Curtis saying “avidly” in Sweet Smell of Success. Though the director may have been responsible for releasing it, it’s the human material we react to most and remember longest. The art of the performers stays fresh for us, their beauty as beautiful as ever. There are so many kinds of things we get–the hangover sequence wittily designed for the CinemaScope screen in The Tender Trap, the atmosphere of the newspaper offices in The Luck of Ginger Coffey, the automat gone mad in Easy Living. Do we need to lie and shift things to false terms–like those who have to say Sophia Loren is a great actress as if her acting had made her a star? Wouldn’t we rather watch her than better actresses because she’s so incredibly charming and because she’s probably the greatest model the world has ever known? There are great moments–Angela Lansbury singing “Little Yellow Bird” in Dorian Gray. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend who didn’t also treasure that girl and that song.) And there are absurdly right little moments–in Saratoga Trunk when Curt Bois says to Ingrid Bergman, “You’re very beautiful,” and she says, “Yes, isn’t it lucky?” And those things have closer relationships to art than what the schoolteachers told us was true and beautiful. Not that the works we studied in school weren’t often great (as we discovered later) but that what the teachers told us to admire them for (and if current texts are any indication, are still telling students to admire them for) was generally so false and prettified and moralistic that what might have been moments of pleasure in them, and what might have been cleansing in them, and subversive, too, had been coated over.

[There couldn’t be a better example of “official culture” than classical music, at least as it’s been presented and talked about during my lifetime. Why do we think we’re going to get anywhere by having schoolteachers — whether literally in school, or doing outreach programs for classical music institutions — “educating” people about classical music? With all the piety that this usually implies. Doesn’t Pauline Kael blow up that kind of education, by showing how people in our era really do learn to like things? Especially now, when suspicion of official culture can be taken for granted among the smart younger people the classical music business wants to attract.]

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  1. says

    She blows it up, I suppose, but the more quick-witted of the administrators and journalists among us have been devising programs and have been talking and writing about the music in ways designed to engage curious young audiences for some time now. Those people don’t present the music as something designed to be approached with piety; they demonstrate how composers, both dead and alive, lived their lives and how their music can be a part of ours.

    Yes, of course, and I’ve been part of that.

    But does it work? I’ve never seen any hard-nosed data. I’ve never even seen coherent plans from any of the organizations I’ve worked with. That is, a plan that would at least vaguely specify some measurable goal for the program — with a stress on measurable — along with at least an apprpoximate time frame in which that goal could be realized. Simply having people come to the programs isn’t enough. What measurable change in their behavior toward classical music occurs after they attend?

    But the larger problem, I think, is what you say at the end of your comment. Again, remember that I’ve been part of these efforts. My question would be — if we have to demonstrate that classical music can be part of peoples’ lives right now, haven’t we already lost the battle? And aren’t we indulging only in a less intense form of classical music piety?

    Pauline Kael’s point is that we don’t need to be introduced to movies, or to have movies justified to us. And the things we like about them aren’t the things we’d be taught, if we indulged in cinema education. It used to be that way with classical music. It was part of the culture, and people picked up on it for all sorts of music, some of them disreputable. Do all the programs so many of us have worked on — no matter how informal, how chatty, how enjoyable — have anything like the same effect?

  2. richard says

    The “dog and pony” shows of local symphony players

    coming to the schools to perform and talk about music and music appreciation classes are almost worthless. As a band teacher who also maintains a private studio, have found that kids can be “turned on” to classical music by playing it! Maybe the orchestral musicians should play with the kids in a school band or orchestra rehearsal, Or the music director could lead a rehearsal. I think it is these kids are key to future audiences.

  3. BPJ says

    There are ineffective programs taught by imbeciles, and effective programs taught by talented educators. Kael’s comment blows up nothing. (BTW, I think she was a terrific writer whose judgements were frequently dubious.)

    Were Leonard Bernstein’s programs pious or worthless? Didn’t he introduce a lot of people to classical music? Are all the college art appreciation classes worthless? I know mine were not – they opened up a world to me.

    Go to the annual conference of the College Music Society, or talk to people who teach introductory college music courses. You’ll find that there’s a crisis — students actively don’t want to hear about classical music. Teachers therefore are devising new approaches, which take classical music off its pedestal. Last fall, when my wife and I were in residence at Bowling Green State University, we sat in on a meeting of a faculty committee that was planning a new core arts curriculum. The music component of this was going to be genre-neutral. It was going to talk about music as a worldwide phenomenon, with many aspects. The professor responsible for this was writing what I can imagine wilil be a fascinating textbook.

    Did Bernstein’s telecasts accomplish anything? That would be an interesting question to explore. Did they explain classical music to people who were already interested, or did they turn new people on to it? Remember that those telecasts happened at a time when the cultural landscape was vastly different from today’s. One proof of that is the very existence of those telecasts, on network TV.

    Since then, there’s been a cultural shift which can’t be underestimated (though, sadly, people in the classical music business often don’t understand that it’s taken place). One sign of it is the student attitudes I’ve mentioned. But one of the larger aspects of this change is a great suspicion — among smart younger people — of established or official culture, in all its forms. This began to develop even in the 1950s (rock & roll was very much a rebellion against official culture), and picked up speed in the ’60s. This is exactly what Pauline Kael addresses. How to separate classical music — with its government and corporate funding, and its wealthy audience — from official culture is going to be an intriguing problem.

  4. says

    Greg, thanks for bringing up this excellent Pauline Kael quotation. I feel that it highlights how human beings like to watch other humans beings being human, even in less than great art. To me it relates to your earlier post about Bjork compared to Florez and the opera singers you value. Their ornaments are interesting to you not as ornaments but as fingerprints of a human engagement in the moment. I agree with your point that an audience does not need to be taught, and probably cannot be taught, to perceive this. Certainly program notes that tell us that “composers are people too” are useless. It is about the performer in the moment. Kael wrote about actors, not screenwriters. I think pop music delivers this aspect more often than classical music. Is that necessarily a problem?

    Meanwhile, here in San Francisco classical music continues to extend its death scene even longer than the last act of Manon Lescaut. The three scheduled San Francisco Symphony performances of Mahler 7 sold out, so they added a fourth. Last night, we sat next to a group of 4 twentysomethings, possibly there to celebrate a wedding engagement. It was clear that they were not regular symphony goers but they were sure screaming and clapping at the end of the performance. (And Michael Tilson Thomas did not even chat beforehand about the piece!) MTT and the orchestra gave a very present performance, connecting a lot with the audience, despite being a concert in the old deadlyboring format. I have no idea how the San Francisco Symphony marketing is connecting with these people but, anecdotally, something seems to be happening here. Could it just be the music-as-performed? At a recent Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg recital here in SF, despite the unexciting Brahms program, there was much applause between movements. She clearly brought in an audience unfamiliar with classical concert formalities. She certainly was an example of a performer putting a lot of personality in the moment. I have no doubt you are correct about the demographic trend. (The only people under 45 at a favorite local chamber music series tend to be performers.) But it is easy to be dazzled by the surface vitality . . .

    My guess is that MTT, by his mere presence, creates the sense of a present reality. That’s the result of his personality, and his visibility in San Francisco. This, in turn, would help attract a younger audience. I’d be curious to know what the numbers are, though. I do know that the SF Symphony, like all big orchestras, is selling fewer tickets than it did 10 and 20 years ago. From everything I’ve seen, San Francisco and Los Angeles, for all their comparative success, haven’t shown that they can reverse this trend. None of which should take away from the success of what you’re describing! I wonder what the SF Symphony’s plan for the post-MTT era might be. The LA Philharmonic handled their succession very impressively.

  5. says

    Greg, your Kael citation wonderfully underlines the points you’ve been making for some time here. Since she’s discussing a genre, film (and we could include video), that people encounter frequently–ubiquitously we might even say–from a very early age, how might people involved with classical music apply her argument to a body of art that, in the United States at least, receives increasingly less attention across the media and which is probably not encountered anywhere near as frequently as it once was? Where are *most* people going to hear classical music to the extent comparable to the filmic experiences Kael is describing? Except, ironically, in movies, because she’s talking about movies that are not for the most part considered classics or works of art, but which have elements with which people deeply connect. Outside of classical music, or forms of it in films and advertisements, where else might most people actually *hear* it and have these kinds of human moments? We simply do not hear classical music in all its varieties in the same way that we encounter films; right now, on cable, I can choose from at least 50+ movies of varying quality, but there is no place to do so (outside of my CD collection) to hear classical music. Does this make sense?

    You’re making wonderful points here, John. And that was really what I was getting at. If there’s no natural way to come across classical music, the “unnatural” ways — well-meaning formal introductions to it, sometimes aimed at a captive audience of kids — aren’t going to do to well. At least we could make those official introductions a lot less official, so that people could listen with the same open-eyed (or in this case open-eared) interest we all bring to the movies. But of course the larger problem is that we just don’t have natural ways for people to get into classical music — which was emphatically not true a couple of generations ago. I’m thinking of someone living in Vienna between the world wars. Opera stars then were glamorous figures, often with an air about them of something dangerous or forbidden. Of course people were drawn to classical music. It spoke powerfully both for the current life of the city, and of course for its heritage.

    But now? We’d do much better (to segue into a slightly different, but I think strongly related topic) if most of the music we played at classical concerts was new.

  6. David Irwin says

    Excellent discussion. I always enjoyed Pauline Kael’s pieces. Her critique of Midnight Express is one of the finest critical essays I know (And it made me rush out to see the movie.)

    I teach at a small liberal arts college and I have noticed some of the trends people mention here. I teach a music fundamentals course which begins from the ground up–“Let’s number our fingers and thumb on the right hand from the thumb to the right 1,2,3,4,5. Now, place your thumb on the white key to the left of two black keys under the brand name on the piano.” etc.) I also have a band and an chamber orchestra. I enjoy all the classes enormously, but the populations are very diffferent.

    Most of the students in the music fundamentals class have no interest in learning about classical music and almost have to be dragooned into even using the syllables do, re, mi to sing. We usually end up using numbers.

    I find that they are enormously sophisticated in their downloading music life, listening to a broad cross-section of music and musicians; however, they are usually very shy about approaching the keyboard or even uttering a musical sound. It would astound me to see one of them at an orchestra concert.

    My band and orchestra members, on the other hand, regularly request that we make field trips to hear the local orchestra, and many of them have attended operas for the first time when I was able to get them vouchers for our Opera Tampa performances of Sacco and Vanzetti by Coppola and Romeo and Juliet by Gounod.

    I keep thinking of two quotes–this one from a source I can’t identify: “The come, they admire, and they flee.”

    The second is by Brother Dave Gardner, the Tennessee comedian who was not in good taste: “Truly, Dear Hearts, what if Leonard Bernstein was to conduct the Grand Ole Opry………and then explain it.?”

    Very, very interesting, David. Among much else, you’re describing a situation I know very well, and my Juilliard students do, too — a world in which most younger people don’t care about classical music, but a few (more than enough to repopulate the profession for the next generation) study it intensively.

    About those students who listen voraciously, but are wary about touching the keyboard. Are any of them in bands? One additional aspect of the situation I described above is that many of the non-classical kids (or so I’ve always thought) make music for themselves.

  7. Ries says

    I wonder about the assumption that everyone should like classical music.

    Isnt this a bit like saying everyone should love broccoli, or hiking in the mountains.

    There are plenty of people who have been exposed to classical music, who are not ignorant of it, and have then decided it is not for them- I am one of them.

    I grew up in a house where classical music and opera was always playing, I had music appreciation classes at a fancy private school- All the right things were done, by knowledgeable, and intelligent teachers.

    And still, I prefer other types of music.

    There is a difference between education, which I would agree, is a good thing, and taste, which cannot be dictated to others.

    A certain percentage of the population will come to love classical music, just as a certain percentage will be alcoholics, or wear short pants in public, or love sushi.

    But unlike its formative years in europe, there are many alternatives available to anyone today, and so classical music is only one of many genres to choose from.

    Interestingly enough, I have, in the course of raising two kids, found them picking up on certain classical pieces on their own- my 13 year old’s I-pod has some Beethoven on it along with the rap and Johnny Cash.

    I have met a sprinkling of kids who on their own, choose classical pieces or composers to listen to.

    But to them, it is not some higher, purer form of music, its just one more potentially enjoyable alternative.

    Media is so democratic these days, that modern kids believe all music exists on an equal plane.

    This might be good, and it might be bad, depending on your opinion, but it seems inevitable, and true, nonetheless.

    Thanks so very much for this, Ries! I think you’ve described exactly how things are.

    I think the classical music world does suffer, at least to some extent, from a belief that people _should_ like classical music. Or at least that more poeple should than currently do. The belief comes in part, I fear, from a sense of entitlement: “This is the best music there is, so people should like it.” But there’s also great wistfulness involved, as well. I’ve heard this many times from classical music lovers: “It’s such wonderful music. I love it so much. Why can’t others love it, too?” What both points of view often lead to is the determination that people be taught about classical music, on the assumption that one reason people don’t like it is that they don’t understand enough about it. Which maybe is true. But it’s also true of many other worthy kinds of music — jazz, blues, various non-western musics. I’d think it’s especially unfortunate for American kids to grow up without knowing about historically important — and influential — American music like jazz and blues (and gospel, my current favorite). As I’ve often said before, I find it really sad — and even vaguely shocking — that most of my Juilliard students have never heard Charlie Parker. And that, listening to Robert Johnson, they can barely hear what’s going on in his blues, even though they’re trained musicians.

    Often enough, when I speak in public, I’m asked how people can be made to like classical music. Part of my answer is always, “In many cases, maybe you can’t do it. You have to get used to that.”

  8. Robert says

    As a retired university music professor and composer, I have watched the decline of music education in the past 30 years and the ” dumbing ” down in college music theory classes. It’s a sad time for classical music.

  9. David Irwin says

    Yes, Greg, many of the students make their own music. The quality and styles vary hugely. If you own a drum set you automatically organize a band.

    The best of these groups graduated two years ago. A violinist, guitarist, drummer had a fabulous style and their student following was loyal.All of them sang, and the lyrics were incredibly witty and musically clever.

    The violinist was the leader of my violin section, but I had never seen the other members of the band until I went to hear them at a local pub.

    I try to adopt the stance of an artist when it comes to expectaions. I don’t think everyone should like classical music, but I think it has a place, and should be practiced with the care of one who respects artworks by others.

    I think I have seen you comment elsewhere that jazz has become a classical music and is already considered elitist in some circles. Much of what we are discussing here regarding classical music could be said for jazz as well.

    Jazz most likely has a harder time finding an audience than classical music does. Serious jazz, I mean — typically, from everything I’ve heard, the only people at many small jazz shows are jazz musicians.

    I like what you said about classical music having a place, David. It’s as if you’d expressed my own thought.

  10. Paul A. Alter says

    Greg nailed it.

    Richard also nailed it. When the local orchestra comes to perform for a captive audience at a school, it calls it “outreach.” It’s not: it’s largesse. It’s like the Lady of The Manor distributing baskets to the poor on Christmas. The poor accept it, but hate her for having so much more than they do.

    When the symphony plays a school concert, a small percentage of the audience will enjoy it; a larger percentage will tolerate it, glad for a break from class; another percentage will develop a life-long hatred for symphonic music based on their resentment of having to endure the experience.

    It would be outreach if, in line with what Richard suggests, the event were to be developed and participated in by the school faculty and students. Having the school band/orchestra director conduct a piece is good. Having the chorus director conduct the orchestra and school chorus in a number is good.

    Presentation is hazardous. Interaction is an almost sure thing.


  11. says

    Part of loving music, at least for me, is thinking that there’s someone out there whose life would be improved by also loving the music. I suspect the population of people for whom that is actually true is some small subset of all the folks I know.

    When I write about music, I do my best to avoid technical language, but sometimes it’s really hard in a newspaper to get away from a term like “cadenza” that contains a whole bunch of concepts. I wish I had the space to be more clear and less pedantic, but that’s how it goes.

    I don’t think people can be educated into liking anything. But people can be excited when encountering a work of art, and that excitement can sometimes be productively guided by people who are really good at explaining things about art. This normally happens after the fact, though, rather than through prior preparation.

    For example, you can tell me all you want about Mahler’s first and I’m still not going to respond emotionally to it. But when I first heard the finale of the second Rasmunovzky quartet, which (of course) begins in C major, the “wrong” key, I felt the impact viscerally, and wanted to know exactly why that had happened. Having program notes and educational resources deepened my intellectual understanding and satisfaction, but it never would have happened were it not for that initial visceral thrill.

    So I think there is a place for musical encomia and a place for education, but we have to allow space for everyone to either have or not have their own thrills and sighs and shocks. And as Pauline and Greg state, those are the beginning of fascination with art, not the other way around.

  12. Bill Brice says

    “Movie culture” does, indeed, make for interesting comparisons. I believe another useful world to compare ourselves to is the world of spectator sports. Having grown up more or less as a classical music nerd, I never was able to really “get” how a football game could hold so many American men in thrall. Of course, the core “audience” for football is guys who spent some part of their youth playing the game.

    Later on in life, I began to work on golf, then tennis. Suddenly, I noticed myself really paying attention to TV tennis games and golf matches. There is something about physical participation — no matter how unskilled — that opens a door for us into the inner game of a discipline.

    I believe it’s much the same with music. People who, at some point in their lives, had a participatory experience in music simply listen differently than do people who have just been told it’s good for them. And, as with my poor tennis playing, it works that way even when the participation was not at an especially high level.

    So, what’s it all mean? I think if there were lots more kids involved in amateur (classical) music making, at least through their adolescent years, we’d see audience growth for the music. But I don’t know how to bring about that condition.

    There are studies that show that the best predictor of classical music attendance — of anything ever measured — is playing classical music on some instrument.

    But I think that’s not quite the same thing as saying that there’s a causal effect — that if people only would study classical performance, on whatever level, then later they’ll go to concerts. Not that it would hurt! But Bill, your football analogy suggests something further. People grow up playing football, and also watching it. They grow up in the middle of football culture, in other words. The same thing happened to me when I was growing up, with baseball. I played it (well, softball), and listened to it on the radio, and went to games, and followed it in the newspaper, and talked about it with my father, and with all the other guys in school. Baseball culture. I was right in the middle of it.

    So I think it’s not simply participating somehow in the music that makes for future listeners. I think it’s being part of classical music culture. I suspect that many of the older people in today’s classical music audience were part of that culture when they were young. I know I was. My mother and father listened to classical music on the radio at home. My mother was a piano teacher; she taught people to play classical music .She practiced at home. How surprising is it that I learned to play the piano, and started listening on my own? I’m not saying that everyone who now listens to classical music had quite that intense a home experience, but I’d guess that many of them had classical music playing at home, parents who perhaps attended concerts, and an expectation that the kids would take classical music lessons.

    And Bill, when you got so much into golf, I could imagine that it wasn’t just that you were playing. It was also that there was a golf culture ready for you to join, a culture I can imagine many people you know were part of, and which of course is featured in the press and on TV every weekend.

    There are plenty of examples of people getting into new styles of music without actually playing them. The rise of rock & roll in the ’50s — that didn’t happen because teenagers were playing R&B at home, or taking drum lessons, or singing in gospel choirs. They just heard the music and loved it. Same with the vogue for bebop in the early ’50s. All the beat generation writers loved that music, but they’d never played it. It simply spoke to them. I could extend this list. How about the many people who bought the first Buena Vista Social Club CD? Had they been studying Cuban drumming? Of course not. Electronic dance music? That didn’t get popular because people were creating it on their computers at home. Instead, people began creating it because it was popular. And so on…the relationship between making music oneself and listening to it is a fairly complex thing.

    (though Bill, your experience with golf certainly shows that it

  13. says

    What a great conversation. But so much of it is speculative. Is anyone doing research, even just broadly anecdotal, about the backgrounds of young people who are passionate about classical music? Perhaps those of us who are music teachers should start asking more questions.

    I’ve been a big advocate that playing classical music early in life leads to more regular concert attendance later in life. But that doesn’t seem to hold true for many of us who actually grow up to be professional musicians–I know plenty of musicians who love to play but don’t enjoy going to classical concerts.

    OK, maybe many of us who get our classical-music fix by playing don’t need to go to that many concerts (I go to a lot, more than many of my playing or teaching colleagues). Greg, you’ve pointed out before that many young classical musicians in particular don’t care for traditional classical concerts, and I see that a lot myself.

  14. Eric Lin says

    Well, I can’t speak for my performing friends or anyone else for that matter–but, here’s my own personal take. (Which means more anecdotal evidence)

    I’m still in college studying music (among other things) if that helps: The only ‘classical’ concerts I regularly go to these days are those with new groups like Alarm Will Sound (or other Miller Theatre concerts which George Steel dreams up). Zankel Hall concerts in New York aren’t bad for the most part. The BoaC Marathon this year was fun too–and far from being a traditional concert.

    Now, lest anyone accuse me of only likely contemporary music since I’m a composer, I’ll admit that I love many works in the Canon. I recently went to hear the Emerson String Quartet play some of the late Beethoven quartets at Carnegie with a friend and I was expecting to really enjoy the concert. It was one of the most horrendous concert experiences I’ve ever endured, and I’m pretty sure my friend didn’t enjoy the night out much either.

    We found ourselves surrounded by an audience whose average age is anywhere from 40 to 50 years older than my friend or myself. I’m not in anyway being age discriminatory, but the discomfort was real. I love the late quartets and I was certainly excited to here Rihm’s ‘contemporary’ quartet, yet when the old lady next to me started dozing off, I found myself getting sleepy too. I never would’ve imagined that I would start falling asleep during a Beethoven quartet.

    Sadly, the most energetic period during the whole concert was the standing ovation given to the quartet at the end of the concert. (Some fearless soul gave a timid-yet provocative-clap between the first few movements of the Op. 132…only to give up after he/she was greeted with awkward silence and a few odd gazes. I should’ve started clapping too.)

    I don’t think I’m going back to another purely “Classical” performance anytime soon. It’s expensive and suffocating. And I like Classical music. My poor friend.

    Thanks, Eric. You’re very eloquent, and you cut right to the core. I hope many people read this.

  15. a reader says

    Was the Emerson concert bad? Did they play poorly? Or are we just going to concerts to find more problems and point fingers?I agree with much of what I read here, but I do find it distressing that we often can’t hear what is great even if the situation is not ideal. I cannot think of any presentation of anything that is perfect for me. In the rush to condemn classical music performance I think we fail to appreciate what is going well. Namely the music. If all you notice at a concert is there are a lot of old people and sour faces on stage, why are you there? These are the faces of this industry by and large. The people who come to concerts week after week love music. even if they doze of now and again. They have not done anything wrong by supporting a format that some people on this blog despise.

    I don’t think anyone said that the people at the Emerson concert — or at any mainstream classical event — have done anything wrong. Of course they love music. That’s why they’re there. But that doesn’t mean that everyone else will be comfortable at the event. In a survey taken in Houston about 10 years ago, people in their 20s were asked why they didn’t go to classical concerts. They gave three reasons. First, that the performers don’t react to the audience, and thus that the concert would be the same, regardless of who was there. Second, that classical music organizations don’t give money to charity. And third, that the audience was made up of people very different from the people in their 20s who responded to the survey.

    Now, anyone can think that these reasons are good reasons, or bad reasons. But in order to deal with the reality of classical music’s situation, we at least have to acknowledge that people have these feelings. Eric Lin’s feeling — whatever anyone might think of it — was apparently shared by a large number of other people approximately his age. We have to deal with that.

    I’d add two things. First, that people who feel comfortable at mainstream classical concerts — the person writing this comment seems to be one of them — often talk as if the environment is neutral, and that one should simply concentrate on the music. But not everyone feels that way. And the situation could easily be turned around. I might say, for instance, that Radiohead is a terrific band, and that anyone who appreciates the complexity of classical music ought to go to hear them. And so now imagine some of the gray heads (I have white hair myself) from the classical audience going to a Radiohead show. They’d very likely be uncomfortable. They’d be older than everyone else, and the atmosphere — with people talking, shouting, and moving around — would strike them as unsuitable for listening to music. Who’s right, and who’s wrong?

    My final point is this. The person writing this comment has every right to believe whatever he or she wants to believe. And if he or she thinks that Eric Lin was caricaturing classical concerts, or being too impatient with them, fine. That’s what he or she thinks.

    But this person should also recognize his or her own bias. Eric Lin didn’t say the Emerson audience had done anything wrong — just that they weren’t to his taste, which seems fair enough. He didn’t say he “despised” the standard format of classical concerts, but only that he didn’t care for it. And above all, I don’t think there’s any “rush to condemn” standard classical performances. To say that there are problems with these concerts, at least for some people, is perfectly legitimate. Why can’t those performances be criticized? If this reader thinks Eric Lin (and others here, maybe including me) are rushing to condemn classical music in its present form, I”d think that this reader might be rushing to condemn Eric Lin. Or at least, from our side of the fence, it might look that way.

  16. Eric Lin says

    Thanks Greg for coming to my defense.

    I do feel inclined to clarify a few things about my post however, in part in response to ‘a reader’s’ post.

    From a musical level, I though the Emerson Quartet’s performance was superb. But the disconnect between the energy level on stage and the lack thereof in the audience was rather painful. Honestly, I thought a lot of people looked rather bored; it’s a subjective observation, yes, but it’s my honest opinion.

    I certainly don’t attend concerts to nitpick and ‘find’ what’s wrong with them. The cheapest ticket for the concert was 35 bucks, they didn’t offer student tickets and I’m a poor college student. I certainly do not have that sort of money or time to do so. I went hoping for an enjoyable night of music.

    I’ve been to concerts where the audience members (both young and old) walked out ACTIVELY talking about how exciting the music was. I remember overhearing some kid my age at a performance of Music for 18 Musicians talking to his kid brother about all the other Reich pieces he’s heard and how cool they were AND how the music works (i.e. how phasing works, what minimalism is etc !!!!). There were also older audience members (some of whom were probably the same age as Reich himself and they seemed equally excited).

    The whole place was buzzing. As a result, the standing ovation given to So Percussion at the end of the concert felt genuine and I eagerly joined.

    Perhaps it’s not so much my discomfort with the age of the audience as with the feeling that for a good portion of the audience, going to hear the Emerson Quartet was something routine rather than special. Nobody seemed excited, or perhaps I missed something and they all felt the Beethoven quartets were such introspective music that it should only be received with drooping heads, yawns or a hand on the face, supporting their head.

    Perhaps my problem isn’t with the presentation but with the audience itself. I’m sure they love Beethoven, but some certainly didn’t show it.

    So not only do the performers not react to the audience, the audience didn’t seem to react much either–until the standing ovation at the end of the concert of course, which ironically also marked the moment when a good portion of the audience started exiting the hall in a rush.

    If you know the end of the first movement of Op. 132, it ends with a brief majestic forte coda. Someone started to clap–it was a natural reaction. Yet, the person stopped when nobody else did, because the oppressive cultural police tells us that clapping between movements is improper.

    There’s a story about Beethoven reportedly calling the audience “Cattle! Asses!” when they requested encores and cheered after the inner movements of op. 130 but not the Grosse Fuge which originally ended the piece. (Ironically, this little anecdote was printed in the even more oppressive program notes.)

    I’m not asking for much (I’m really not even complaining about the concert format…); I just wish the audience can and would react more naturally to what is really great and visceral music.

  17. David Irwin says

    Eric Leinsdorf conducted the Boston Symphony in a performance of Deserts by Varese at Constitution Hall in Washington DC in the late 1960s. Part of the audience began to boo, and some of us began to stand and cheer. It was unusual for DC.

    On this final curtain call Leinsdorf raised his hands and asked for silence, then said, “It’s nice to know that something besides politics can be controversial in Washington!”