Culture wars

Comments on this blog got fierce, over the past week. Comments, that is, to my posts about the NOI students at the University of Maryland. Here and here. I’m partly to blame, I’m sure, because I got heated myself. And I even got accused of brooking no oppositi/or thinon to anything I said.

But I’m easy with the heat, from myself and others, because I think there’s something big at stake. I passed on suggestions, from the students, for changes in the concert format, not for all concerts everywhere, but for a couple of concerts the students themselves will give in Maryland this month.

And some people reacted with alarm, not just disliking some of the specific suggestions, but worrying about all concerts, saying they liked the standard concert format (even if they might want to loosen the rules a little), that other people like it, too, that even some younger people like it. 

And this is where we get a culture war (even if it’s quieter than the huge, sharp culture wars out in the big bad world beyond classical music). Some people like classical music the way it is. Some don’t. This isn’t an either/or thing — it’s a spectrum, with people locating themselves on all parts of it, some wanting no change, some wanting a little change, some wanting radical change.

All of which is natural. But what I see happening is some defensiveness on the conservative side, and some sharpened teeth on the radical side (including mine, I’m sure). This, too, is natural, but the defensiveness leads to a muddle. We lose clarity. In particular, I’ll criticize myself. I’m pretty sick of standard classical concerts. I want a lot of change. But what I maybe haven’t said clearly enough is that I also understand that everything isn’t suddenly going to change completely, that this would kill classical music, that many people in the current audience like the standard concert format (why else would they keep going?), and that classical music institutions, especially big ones, have to cater to these people, who after all are their ticket-buyers, their subscribers, and their donors.

Which means that the classical music world has to move in two directions at once. It has to keep doing everything it’s doing, for the sake of the existing audience, which may be shrinking, but still predominates. And at the same time, we have to go in new directions, so we’ll have an audience in the future.

This isn’t easy. Most classical music institutions, even the very big ones, use all their resources — all their people, all their money, all their energy — just going down the standard tracks. How are they going to go down two tracks at once? Especially if track B, the new track, is going to be anywhere near as big as track A. This won’t be easy. It might even seem impossible. But I think it has to be done, and I imagine that, in the future, when the need for track B is clearer — and when pioneers have shown ways to go down that track successfully — the impossible will become possible. And even be accepted as necessary.

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Comments

  1. says

    After reading your posts for the past week and the comments, I don’t know if I feel it’s as much a culture war as it is a venue war. Many of the suggestions given by the students would work perfectly well in an informal performance space (club, warehouse, indie theater, etc.) but not so much in a formal performance space (true concert hall, church, etc.) for several reasons.

    Once we sit down in a formal space (whether we’re performers or audience members), our senses adjust for that environment – we pick up the most subtle details, but we’re also easily distracted. Move the whole thing to an outdoors pavilion or a clue like Le Poisson Rouge and our senses adjust again (same with the addition of microphones/electronics, same with the addition of dance, and so on).

    Performers will play to the hall – if it’s a dry club or an outdoor venue, they’ll play out, if it’s a concert hall or church, they may adjust their playing for a greater sense of dynamic contrast.

    Other problems that come with formal spaces is the inherent costs involved, which always trickle down to the audience, and the inflexibility of the space – while theatres tend to allow for maximum flexibility in adjusting lighting, size of space, etc., concert halls and their ilk tend to be quite inflexible – players sit here, audience sit here, they play, you clap, everyone leaves at the end in single-file lines, nobody gets hurt.

    I see two main issues that run throughout what’s been discussed so far – not taking into account what works in what venue, and the lack of informal venues for concert music. We’ve got plenty of concert halls, but we don’t have many clubs, art galleries, warehouse spaces that are both utilized and accepted as concert spaces. The problem with expanding the concept of a concert environment isn’t the performers or the audiences…it’s the lack of appropriate space to do so. If more informal spaces were available, the more of these great ideas by the students could be put to the test.

    What you say sounds reasonable, Rob, but actually I’ve both seen and heard of informal things being done successfully in formal concert halls. Vengerov, for instance, giving a recital on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, and stopping midway through to ask if anyone in the audience had any questions. That led to a lively conversation, with people shouting questions from the balcony. I wasn’t there, but my wife was, and wrote about it for the NY Times.

    When I hosted a concert series for the Pittsburgh Symphony, we did all kinds of crazy things in Heinz Hall, including getting the audience to clap the moment they heard anything they liked, right in the middle of the music, and shaving the head of a volunteer from the audience during the Bacchanal from Samon et Dalila. It was amazing how quickly the formality of the big concert space disappeared, the moment we did something fun and colloquial.

  2. says

    Greg, to your Track A versus Track B point, perhaps part of the problem is that classical music, as currently delivered live, is too much of a monoculture.

    Suppose you looked at Rock generically and then evaluated the entire spectrum of how and where the music was performed. Most would probably agree that the range is far greater than for classical music.

    As I often say, the Future is a Niche Market, so an entire genre which serves up roughly one variety of its product will suffer in perception as a result.

    (I’m aware there are differences in where and how classical music is performed, but if you take out the outliers, you’re talking about differences that any but enthusiasts look pretty faint.)

    Hi, Jim. I think you’re exactly right. Pop music has especially a diversity of audience. So if you’re doing something unusual, you don’t have to foist it on the people who’re going to a Neil Diamond show. You just go out in the world and play your music, and find ways to attract the audience that’s going to like it.

    In the classical world, there are differences between the opera and orchestra and chamber music audiences, but they have one thing in common — none of them are a new music audience. The new music audience — outside of the alternative classical explosion in NY and I hope elsewhere — is very small, and consists largely of professionals. So anyone wanting to bring new music out of its ghetto (or to do a new orchestra piece, which would be too big for most of the specialized new music events) has to play it on regular concerts, for an audience not very interested in hearing it.

  3. ken nielsen says

    Just a general observation about this debate: a danger in selling a product (and, yes, that is what we are talking about) is that you can become hostage to your audience. Afraid to offend it, afraid to change, afraid to take risks.

    Worthwhile change comes about as a result of experiments, most of which fail and are forgotten.

    If some or all of the students’ suggestions were tried it would not be disastrous or threaten the art form. “Oops. sorry about that, worth a try.”

    If we believe that some change is classical music is desirable, we will get good improvements by experimentation.

    You should never be the captive of your audience, but you also have to be realistic. Outside the classical music world, someone with a new kind of product would — without any need to think about this very much — go out to sell it to a new audience. In fact, that’s often how new products are conceived. A company with a line of products becomes aware that there’s a new kind of buyer out in the world, and then designs a product to sell to that new kind of buyer.

    Classical music is very backward here. We try to sell new kinds of products to the same people who buy the old ones, and we don’t notice when a new kind of buyer emerges, as I noted a while ago in my Wall Street Journal piece on the alternative classical audience.

  4. says

    First of all, the term ‘classical music’ is by now, utterly infantile in my opinion. Classical is a short period in history, pertaining to art, music and literature, the age of perfection. So, if I, for example, program a Beethoven Sonata (he was never considered purely ‘classical’ anyway) with a new work on a program, and play a pop arrangement for an encore, this is classical music? Liszt’s First Concerto (highly charged ‘Romantic’ period music) with Keith Emerson’s (1977–hardly ‘Classical’) Piano Concerto on the same bill is a ‘classical’ concert? I’d like to see more musicians make a case for creating new terminology for concerts today. ‘Classical’ music sounds like a room devoted to music in a museum which relates to something in history–not the present. So much of music that is created today has its roots in music of the past. I have said many times, that we need more pop writers working together with ‘classical’ (did I say that?) writers of serious music, to bring their collaborations into the concert hall. Only now can we see the influence from Prokofiev on Gershwin, and Chopin or Debussy on Gershwin. How about Chopin and Tschaikowsky on Billy Joel? And Bach to the Beatles? Now, this is one case.

    Venues and programs are another case. I’ll never forget a November day in 1988, when Lucille Ball asked me in her home, “Do you talk to your audiences?” She felt there shouldn’t be such a distance between the performer and the audience, and the performer should be as close as possible with the audience. I said that, in many situations, the recital or concerto appearance is simply a musical event, and it is not customary to speak. She asked, “Why not?” So, I incorporated open discussion and musical explanation into my performances, which worked well. Not always, but more often. By the way, look at all the ‘classical’ music on You Tube–historic recordings and home-made videos. Look at all the digital recordings available online–not just in record stores. True, the economy has hurt us a good deal, but isn’t there more ‘classical’ (there you go again!) music available than ever before? Aren’t the conservatories brimming with musicians in this serious music market? Shrinking audiences in some ways, but with the new venues being utilized by soloists, such as clubs etc, very slowly, I see a return to the solo performances, recitals, which will indeed take time to bring back into vogue. Remember–everything cycles.

  5. says

    First of all, the term ‘classical music’ is by now, utterly infantile in my opinion. Classical is a short period in history, pertaining to art, music and literature, the age of perfection. So, if I, for example, program a Beethoven Sonata (he was never considered purely ‘classical’ anyway) with a new work on a program, and play a pop arrangement for an encore, this is classical music? Liszt’s First Concerto (highly charged ‘Romantic’ period music) with Keith Emerson’s (1977–hardly ‘Classical’) Piano Concerto on the same bill is a ‘classical’ concert? I’d like to see more musicians make a case for creating new terminology for concerts today. ‘Classical’ music sounds like a room devoted to music in a museum which relates to something in history–not the present. So much of music that is created today has its roots in music of the past. I have said many times, that we need more pop writers working together with ‘classical’ (did I say that?) writers of serious music, to bring their collaborations into the concert hall. Only now can we see the influence from Prokofiev on Gershwin, and Chopin or Debussy on Gershwin. How about Chopin and Tschaikowsky on Billy Joel? And Bach to the Beatles? Now, this is one case.

    Venues and programs are another case. I’ll never forget a November day in 1988, when Lucille Ball asked me in her home, “Do you talk to your audiences?” She felt there shouldn’t be such a distance between the performer and the audience, and the performer should be as close as possible with the audience. I said that, in many situations, the recital or concerto appearance is simply a musical event, and it is not customary to speak. She asked, “Why not?” So, I incorporated open discussion and musical explanation into my performances, which worked well. Not always, but more often. By the way, look at all the ‘classical’ music on You Tube–historic recordings and home-made videos. Look at all the digital recordings available online–not just in record stores. True, the economy has hurt us a good deal, but isn’t there more ‘classical’ (there you go again!) music available than ever before? Aren’t the conservatories brimming with musicians in this serious music market? Shrinking audiences in some ways, but with the new venues being utilized by soloists, such as clubs etc, very slowly, I see a return to the solo performances, recitals, which will indeed take time to bring back into vogue. Remember–everything cycles.

  6. says

    Greg, as is often the case, similar thoughts happen at different places in the world simultaneously. This morning I led a short group presentation on “future orchestra concerts” in an exec. MBA program of the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Distinguishing track A and B were important part of it. Venues: great and very important subject. Lack of good informal venues – absolutely. Any solutions/suggestions?

    Yes, there’s a revolution/evolution going on, in response to changes in the larger culture. It’s not at all surprising — and it’s a very good thing — that many of us in different places are thinking in the same ways.

    As for venues, first, as I said in response to another comment, even formal venues can become informal in the fabled twinkling of an eye, if we do informal things in them. And venues outside formal concert halls shouldn’t be that hard to find. Classical musicians in the US have done very well find these venues on their own. So have large classical institutions from time to time. In Switzerland, hasn’t the orchestra in Zurich, under David Zinman, done performances in dance clubs?

    Just look around. Or, better still, decide what you want to do before worrying what venue you’ll do it in. It’s hard to believe that, in any reasonably large city, there won’t be a venue where your new idea will fit.

  7. Joe Shelby says

    Well, some parts of the country are (somewhat) spoiled. The National Symphony Orchestra, for example, has their primary concert season in the Kennedy Center, with all its requisite stuffiness. However, it also does a short summer season (consisting at the outdoor venue of Wolf Trap, where they perform for the seasonal opera or musical (often G&S), with pop stars, or in concerts that mix classical works with others (like the obligatory sci-fi soundtracks + Holst’s Planets).

    Like with the Lord of the Rings performances (play while the movie is being shown in the background), and the Bugs on Broadway performances, they’re also going to do the same to the Wizard of Oz.

    So yes, these NSO @ Wolf Trap concerts tend to be more “pop” classical (Beethoven’s 6th will certainly show up before Mahler’s ever will), but it is exactly that Trend A vs Trend B: the winter season gets the necessary indoor Kennedy Center, the summer season gets the looser environment of Wolf Trap, where people can sit “classical” style up close, or relax with beers and lawn chairs.

  8. Joan says

    Greg–

    I agree with many above that it’s possible to tweak the format without changing the whole thing. And talking to your audience is important–not talking them to death–but offering some context. In 2008 our chamber series commissioned a piece by composer Libby Larson. The night of its premiere, Libby was in the audience and she spoke briefly about creativity, inspiration, and composing. It helped that she is a good speaker: succinct, sharp and personable.She impressed on all of us that we were all stakeholders in the premiere of a work, that as the first listeners we were part of the process. That was worth listening to. Hearing the eqivalent of liner notes is not. So as in so much in life, it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it.

    Libby is irresistible. Of course everybody loved her.

    Often the mere fact that the audience is talked to — if whoever’s talking is even remotely friendly — is what makes the difference. Suddenly the audience feels cared about, and typically will like every aspect of a concert better, even the parking.

  9. Yvonne says

    That’s an interesting observation, Greg. At least in Australia, my observation is that the “mere fact” of being talked to is not enough, or it makes a negative difference.

    There’s a general intolerance of talk from the stage unless it’s extremely well done. And it’s not because audiences are against talking from the stage. When it is well done – which I’ve witnessed on many occasions – it’s definitely enjoyed and praised. But they can be unforgiving to those who intrude on the concert in clumsy or ill-judged ways or who are simply not very good at communicating in this way.

    That makes a lot of sense. If an audience is used to really accomplished musical performances then it’s not unreasonable for them to expect everything else to be superbly done too. And it’s also not surprising that poor or inept presentations are given short shrift, no matter how friendly or well-meaning – that kind of thing doesn’t necessarily make the audience feel respected or cared about at all.

    So while I agree that talking from the stage can definitely have the effect you mention, I think it has that effect when it’s well done. (Sounds like this was the case with Libby Larson: “succinct, sharp and personable”.) I’m not so sure that it’s enough simply for someone “remotely friendly” to address the audience.

  10. Robert says

    As a local Washingtonian I was initially interested in attending the free NOI concert on the 25th because of its program of contemporary composers, but when I saw all of stuff the concert would be doing in addition to playing the classical music I have to admit I was turned off. Cartoons? A video? Stevie Wonder? It seemed like a couple gimmicks too many. But now that I’m reading your blog I understand why that’s the case.

    I do think the classical music culture needs to become more flexible in doing different modes of presentation and marketing. The standard doesn’t necessarily need to be abandoned, but an opportunity should be given to let “all the flowers bloom.” Large venues dependent on ticket sales and donations are generally conservative about trying different approaches, but institutions that don’t rely on ticket sales, such as those at state universities, have more freedom to experiment with different means of presenting and marketing classical music. So I think you’re doing the right thing in using the NOI concert as an opportunity to experiment with different modes of presentation, even if they might not work.

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