Today I was catching up with the first episode of Treme, David Simon’s new series on HBO. Simon being the creator of The Wire, an epic which, to my mind, is one of the best things ever on TV, and a standing rebuke to classical music.If, for instance, an opera company would produce anything as epic, as probing, as crucial to our understanding of the civilization we have right now, I’d fall off my feet with shock and, yes, respect.
So, Treme. Takes place in New Orleans, just after Katrina. Starts with preparations for music, a band getting itself together. And then the band marching through the street. People dance with joy. Um, have we ever seen anything like that with classical music? Maybe the famous Leonard Bernstein Beethoven 9th in Berlin, after the Wall fell, with (in the last movement) “Freiheit” (“freedom”) substituted for “Freude” (“joy”). (Thanks, by the way, to Ray Nagrin, one of my Juilliard students this semester, for reminding me of that.)
But can we think of other examples? Other times when classical music plays, and the crowd is on its feet, dancing, singing, responding?
A few years ago, I was at a private gathering of orchestras, held in Cleveland. On the schedule was a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After it I chaired a panel discussion on the differences or links between classical music and rock. Several orchestra musicians, thinking of videos they’d seen in the Rock Hall, wistfully said they wished the classical audience could be as excited as the rock audience they saw in the videos.
Once I went to see Neil Young with three other people. One was a straight-ahead classical music person. Who said, emphatically, that everyone in classical music should go to a rock show, to see what it’s like when an audience really cares.
But then rock — by its very sound, its inherent informality, its beat — just invites participation. (Not to mention its familiarity, and its ease, the way it invites just about anyone to start a band and join in.) While classical music is dished out from the top down, with everyone involved knowing their place.
See this chapter from Christopher Small’s book Musicking for a trenchant look at classical concerts, and how they encourage separation, not participation.
So what do you think? Can classical music ever arouse people in the simple, human, ecstatic, participatory way that rock does? Is there any hope? Or is that even necessary? Does classical music walk its own austere road, with all the excitement going on inside?