Getting out of the classical music biz

Here I want to offer a radical idea: That all of us in classical music should get out of the classical music business. As I stressed at the end of my last post, this doesn’t mean we should stop doing classical music. It means we should think about it differently.

Here’s an example. Someone I know, a veteran arts professional with a sterling resume (among other things, he ran one of the leading performing arts institutions in the US), emailed me about something he found dismaying at the New York Philharmonic. Alan Gilbert was about to conduct a new piece, and had what my correspondent thought was a marvelously engaging conversation on stage with the composer. During the concert, not before.

When they finished talking, my correspondent naturally thought that he’d now hear the piece. But no! Alan and the composer walked offstage, and the concertmaster stood to lead the orchestra in tuning. Only after that did Alan come back onstage to conduct. Momentum gone, moment ruined.

So let me ask you: If we thought we were in the performance business, or in the art business, or in the creating depth and excitement for our audience business — if we conceived of ourselves in any of those ways (or many more that any of us could think of), would such a thing be allowed to happen?

No way! We’d understand that a terrific onstage conversation makes people eager to hear the piece, and we’d dive right into the music.

But no. We think we’re in the classical music business, or the orchestra business, and in those businesses, that’s not how things are done. We don’t think of what makes sense for art, or music, or for our audience. Or even for our own involvement. We just repeat all our rituals.

I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. Of course there’s a middle ground, where most of life (in all areas) happens. A little of this, a little of that, mixtures of opposites. And so it is in classical music.

But we have too many rituals, too many stiffnesses, too many things that don’t make sense. Which is why I say we should get out of the classical music business, or, maybe a better way to put it, drive the classical music business (and all its rules and expectations) out of our thinking. We should think of ourselves as doing something else — playing or singing or composing classical music, yes, for sure, but doing it in the service of art, creativity, performance, human interaction, communication, whatever. And we should put those things first.

I’m influenced here by something I read in an arousing business book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Winby William C. Taylor and Polly G. LaBarre. Like all business books more than a few years old (this one was published in 2006), some things seem a little quaint. Inevitably there are companies (Netflix and Yahoo, to name two which are praised in this book) that later ran into trouble the authors couldn’t foresee.

But still this book hit me like a powerful ocean wave. So many new ways of doing business, from wildly successful companies, almost none of which we see in classical music. That’s the subject for a future blog post.

But what stuck with me and led to what I’m writing now was something about Southwest Airlines. Its CEO is quoted as saying that he doesn’t think he was in the air travel business. Instead, he was in the freedom business. Meaning that he wanted to empower his customers, his passengers, finding ways to make them feel comfortable, unimpeded, to make air travel easy.

And, just as much, he wanted to empower his employees, make them feel free to act on their own in the best interest of the passengers. Hence the famous Southwest practice — is it still in place? — of giving all employees power to spend up to $1000 at any time, purely on their own initiative, to resolve any customer’s problem.

If someone can rethink an airline, why can’t we rethink an orchestra? Or an opera company? Or anything in classical music? The old ways are dying, losing their audience, their vitality, even their appeal for many classical musicians. (By now surely a majority of younger ones.) How do we replace them? Let’s get ourselves out of the classical music mindset — out of the classical music business.

And let’s instead think of some other business we want to think of ourselves as being in, something that will let us play/sing/compose classical music with real power and freedom. And by doing that draw in an excited, smart, artistic new audience.

A wonderful quote from someone I was talking to, yet another person with a tremendously distinguished resumé: “We have powerful, vital music. But we keep it in a cage.”

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  1. says

    AMEN, Brother Greg! I wouldn’t encourage anyone here to quit their DAY job as I have… but for creative persons able to adapt or create music with Finale or Sibelius, or able to articulate like a real person why this next piece ROCKS, there’s a world of satisfaction to be found as a “Relevance Maker”. This is also known as a “Teaching Artist”.

    As I think I may’ve written here before, we’re not in the music business; we’re in the INSPIRATION business… thru music. And that means more than just playing the notes “correctly”, leaving artistic responsibilities up to a director. It means adopting an “audience-centric” attitude, choosing to powerfully inspire even at the expense of the art (which, in this new attitude, WANTS to inspire more of humanity also).

    If we’re never going to record for DG anyway, we might as well try to make a real difference for those around us, esp. those who don’t believe there’s anything here for them. Let’s keep a foot inside the box while we place a foot in the club scene because there’s so much potential to UNCAGE “the music formerly known as classical”.

    • says

      You go, brother Rick! Rick, for those who don’t know, left his long-time position in the bass section of the Detroit Symphony, to strike out on his own, and make the future of classical music happen. A brave move!

      Being in the inspiration business — what a great idea. I’m going to use it, with full credit to you. I don’t mean what I’m going to say as any criticism of the Detroit Symphony. Or, rather, I don’t mean to single them out, since they’re no more in the inspiration business than most other big classical music institutions. But if they *had* been in the inspiration biz, maybe you’d never have left!

    • says

      I’m loving the enthusiasm and positive perspective on classical music! You both have emphasized the excitement that can and should exist around classical performance and throughout the audience. With such heaviness weighing on us in every other way in daily life, it would be wonderful to establish the symphony orchestra as a source of constant uplifting excitement for audiences everywhere!

  2. MWnyc says

    Excellent point, Greg – especially the first story about the NY Phil. That sort of thing has always bugged me as well. But the musicians are sure to resist the particular change you suggest – “What, you expect us to play out of tune?” How to convince them? (Or somehow give them the chance to tune up without breaking the momentum and atmosphere for the audience?)

    (A few months back, someone on one of the Yahoo Groups Bach lists suggested that the function of Bach’s chorale preludes for organ was to give the instrumentalists the chance to tune up – covered by the organ’s sound – without breaking the solemnity of the church service. I wonder if we couldn’t emulate that practice in at least some circumstances – not least, Baroque concerts.)

    • says

      So many things that happened in past centuries are worth our attention. Pianists used to improvise preludes to each piece they played at recitals. I have a recording of Wilhelm Backhaus doing that as late as 1969. It’s just gorgeous — his prelude serves as a palette cleanser, so to speak, putting our minds at rest so we can focus on the Schumann piece he’s about to play.

      And yes, the musicians tuning, and resisting any thought of not doing it. I thought of that too. Shows misplaced priorities, if you ask me. The same person who made that fabulous remark about putting classical music in a Cage also said to me that if we made performances 2% less technically polished, but 50% more forceful in other ways, wouldn’t we have gained a lot?

      I remember a performance of the Makropoulous Case (Janacek’s opera), by a visiting British company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with David Atherton conducting. You sat in the audience, waiting for the show begin — and it began with an explosion. Atherton was already in the pit. There hadn’t been any formal tuning. Suddenly the lights went out, and the music started. No way to resist that. You were hurled right into the opera.

      Another thing we should avoid is long setups between pieces, so unfortunately common at new music events. Better to leave all the setups already onstage, and have pieces played from different areas. The setups are simply dead time.

      • says

        Talking about setups: When I was in St. Louis, MO my husband and I went to their open air opera to see several of their performances, one of which was “Fiddler on the Roof”. All chairs were filled and people standing and all were mesmerized because we got to watch the scenery being rolled on wheels between acts. The folding and unfolding of walls was as mind boggling as we could wish. Reminds me of the latest in the “Valkyrie” Series. I couldn’t believe the background. Fantastic engineering and mastering of it by the performers!!!
        I never missed a “Saturday at the Opera” from high school on through my 50’s or so. I watched some on t v, also, but now I don’t seem to . I probably wouldn’t have gone to opera if in the town of the performancees as I couldn’t haven’t afforded to go. Like you said they are all whit, etc. prices are to high and they are ancient pieces, but even the latter wouldn’t be too bad as I appreciate the past. I’m between two age cultures and I have learnd to appreciate some of the contemporary and modern operas and music. Just don’t give me too much of it at one time. Give me variety. I guess my age of 86 is showing. hahaha Phyllis Rush

      • Nicole says

        I’ve done a couple of performances where we tuned backstage before the concert. I really liked being able to just come out and start playing. Especially when you are dealing with more experienced musicians, they are fully capable of doing that and remembering what they need to do to play in tune just a few minutes later.

      • Andrew says

        Mr. Sandow,
        Good article, and thoughts. The NY phil concert issue that your friend mentioned is an easy fix, and I can think of concerts with my orchestra where the tuning note simply happens before the conductor walks on stage to introduce the new work. The set-up issue is not so simple. Odd setups can cause very practical ensemble concerns, surely a five minute break for a stage-change is preferable to a bad performance. I can think of a specific example of a new music concert my orchestra played where our organizers tried to avoid a stage change between pieces. The effect was that during rehearsals the string sections were several meters further apart for John Adams “Shaker Loops” than we would have been, otherwise, and we simply couldn’t hear each other! In the end we did have a stage change, and the performance was a success.
        I think MWnyc underestimates the creativity of the professional orchestral musicians as a whole. The problem is that many organizations right now are trying to both loosen work rules and slash wages at the same time, and musicians are understandably resistant. Musicians are not blind to the fact classical music is struggling in this country, but if managements feel like they need new tools and more flexibility from musicians in order to increase relevancy and revenue, have THAT conversation before trying to implement massive pay cuts.

        • says

          Excellent points all around. Thanks for bringing your professional expertise into the discussion. If long setups are unavoidable, I can think of two fixes. First, don’t do the program if it forces you into a long setup. Or, rather, it’s a tradeoff, and anyone planning a program like that should think long and hard about whether alternative programming might be just as fulfilling, without the setup.

          The other fix is to do something while the setup is taking place. Anything from talking to the audience to (in settings where this makes sense) involving the audience in a group improvisation. A fine opportunity to be creative.

  3. says

    I’m re-submiting my comments as I think I lost the other one. I agree with your article wholeheartedly. I think our egoes sometimes get in the way. I have met musicians amongst my fellow organ and piano teachers who won’t teach organ to students unless they have a year minimum before taking on the organ. I have taught organ students organ without this requirement and they have learned their notes and scales very well on the instrument of their choice.
    It is very hard to find organists for churches and choral positions now, due to a lack of good organists.
    Let’s not turn off aspiring students.
    Let’s keep up with the times, also. Showcasing is good when kept up to today’s demanding expectations.

    • says

      Such a good point, Phyllis. At music schools, I’ve seen a lot of discouragement — teachers and administration more often saying no than saying yes. In the Mavericks book I cited, there’s praise for a bank, which instituted what I think is a very progressive rule, if you want businesses to care about the people they serve. Any employee could say yes to a customer request, without seeking further approval. But you couldn’t say no without getting agreement from another employee. Can we imagine what music schools — and classical music generally — would be like if we worked that way?

      • says

        A case in point of teacher ego! A group of us (piano teachers) went to a seminar and during one of the groupings we were to see and hear a young (maybe 9 yrs. old) student give her next day’s piano recital number for us and the judge was then to show us how judging was done.
        When that judge got done denigrating that poor student the girl was in tears and hid her head in the lap of her teacher, crying her head off. I don’t know if she was able to give her recital performance the next day or not.
        Needless to say, this judge was forever lost to the rest of us. It was so demeaning to the child. I think the judge was a hater of children or was trying to build up her ego to the rest of us.

        • says

          Fantastic rule for a bank. I enjoy your articles very much and found about you through my grandson, Jonathan Rush, who is doing graduate work in univ. in Florida.
          I am a former church musician, singer and choral director, now retired, also piano and organ teacher. I also was an elementary school teacher and Laubach, ESL and GED tutor.
          I am a widowed minister’s wife with four great children and their spouses, and ten grandchildren, one of whom is married and the other to be maried this month. I had three boys and one girl, and my grandchildren are nine boys and one girl.
          I also worked on a three generation family newspaper as copy editor, am a published poet, and am in the process of trying to rewrite an arrangement for a wedding song I wrote for a young couple in one of our churches.
          I learned to love music through my mother who was a violinist and singer. She had a scholarship for operatic training but gave it up to care for her mother as some children often did in those days.
          I have lived for 86 years and am in the process of trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life when it is getting harder to get around.
          I hope to read more of your articles. You are saying what needed to be said for some time. Phylis Rush

          • says

            Thanks so much for your comments, Phyllis, and for introducing yourself. Lovely to meet you! And thanks so much for the support. More and more of us feel the way you and I seem to — that classical music needs to come into the present day. I love it that people of an older generation — you and me — can feel this just as much as younger people do!

    • says

      As a long-time pipe organ builder and organist, I’m also struck by the tendency in our little corner of the arts to insist that we need to “educate” our audience as to what they “should” like to listen to, rather than giving them music they will enjoy and (*gasp*) be entertained by. While we have some amazing young musicians with excellent training, and a few of them are certainly making waves in our chosen area, I’m afraid most are still being trained in ways that will only have other organists going to hear them. Rather a limited audience, that… Here’s hoping that more in our art will catch the sort of vision you have put forth and become Inspiration Builders like Rick. Bravo!

      • says

        Thanks, Shawn. I especially appreciate your remark about education. So many people in our field look to it as a panacea — we can educate a new audience! Except our new audience doesn’t want education. It wants inspiration, challenge, a chance to experience something new. Oh, and entertainment, too, just as Haydn and Mozart’s audience wanted. It’s sadly arrogant to go out in the world thinking we need to educate people before they’ll like our music. We sell ourselves and the music badly short, if we believe that. And we’re building barriers, instead of tearing them down! Telling people they don’t have the equipment to understand us — just as they always feared. We’re also subtly patting ourselves on the back. “Oh, our music is *so* complex. No wonder people don’t listen to it. They don’t know enough!” When I think of the smart, excited, thoughtful people included in that, I just shake my head in dismay.

  4. says

    I have always stated that there is a need for live orchestras as opposed to synthesizers making orchestral music. Who is going to attend a concert with nothing but synthesizers? The music may be beautiful, but an imitation of a real orchestra. It would be quite boring looking at synthesizers. Maybe there would be pictures and videos on the side. Operators of these machines see music more as a business; to save money not having to pay musicians. They fail to realize the human value of real musicians performing live.

    A real live orchestra does bring inspiration, beauty, intensity, movement of the musicians, the potential of the instruments individually and as a group (working together, role playing, etc.), humanness, emotions, expression, and everything else synthesizers cannot do. The orchestra experience is one that brings something out of the people who attend the concerts, especially children. That can even include genius in children who want to play classical music. Many children who do play classical music do very well in school in all academic subjects. It stirs the mind in a special way.; even turns it into a computer that figures out all of these mathematical formulas, science formulas, creates a communicable language, etc, but with “humanality” (if there is such a word). I am an orchestra teacher in metropolitan Atlanta. I will have beginning string students play a James Brown tune where the students would move a certain way. With my youth orchestra (Still Waters Youth Sinfo-Nia), there is a gospel song that has a section where the players move a certain way.

    Of course symphony players perform to make money and make a living, but it is much more than that.

    By the way, that is my brother, Rick Robinson who made the first comment who just resigned from the Detroit Symphony. He has taken orchestral music to a whole new level through his Cuttime Productions. He takes it to the people in various venues outside of the concert halls (coffee shops, shopping malls, taverns, etc.) and finds new people that appreciate it who might not hear it otherwise. This is a revolution; making change from the norm.

    • says

      Thanks, David, for your comment and for introducing Rick. He and I know each other — had lunch in Washington a year or so ago. I think the world of him. As who wouldn’t, who had a chance to know him? He’s a terrific spirit.

    • says

      Synthesizers have their place but I don’t care for them when it comes to practicing with choirsl
      To me, synthesizers have too much of a bass sound and lose the soprano melody line. Maybe that’s because I’m a soprano and choral director. One of my choir members was upset because they had spent a very large amount on a synthesizer and why wasn’t I using it for the choir? I finally did to appease the church and choir members but why use it when I had a great piano and a fantastic pipe organ in the church? People get carried away by the hype, whether it fits their situation or not.

  5. says

    To quote Mark Twain, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Whilst it’s always good to be novel, different, innovative, and inventive, throwing out the baby with the bathwater is a really dumb idea. If you don’t like Classical music as she is, Greg – take up Jazz.

    • ken nielsen says

      Chris, if you don’t believe that what we call classical music is facing a crisis – its audience growing older and few younger people buying concert tickets – then you are quite right to oppose change. Most of us here do believe that the crisis is real. In his early posts, Greg convinced us of that. You might like to read them if you haven’t so far.
      As for babies and bathwater, I prefer to see the kind of changes that are being suggested here than the increasing load of classical pops that the Australian orchestras feel they must do to attract audiences.

  6. Nicole says

    I wholeheartedly agree. I am a member of a chamber ensemble, and we do our performances a little differently. We put up our program on our blog and have links to relevant websites and encourage our audiences to pull out their smartphones to learn more as they listen. We have even put out drawing materials to keep our audience involved (and awake) and have them draw whatever the music inspires them to. Some are willing to turn their drawings back in, and we put those up on our website for others to see. We have gotten feedback from our audience members about these things.

    • Nicole says

      Sorry, I’m on my smartphone. I meant to say “We have gotten *great* feedback from our audience members about these things.”

    • says

      I love it, Nicole — giving the audience drawing materials. Would you share the name of your group, and your website address? I’d love to know more, and I’m sure others would. I’d love to see some of the drawings, and some of the feedback!

  7. says

    Great article and great food for thought. There are creative ways to break some of the old habits of performance standard operating procedure. I had the privileged of playing a couple of times with the New Sousa Band, conducted by Keith Brion. What he has the group do is warm up and tune somewhere far enough off stage not to be heard. All players then walk onstage together, followed closely by the conductor. The band sits and the downbeat is immediate. The effect is powerful. I’ve always hated that 15 minutes of musicians sitting on stage, warming up, noodling and practicing passages from the upcoming music. Then comes the entrance of the concertmaster and the tuning ritual, which in my experiences has ballooned to giving the A up to three separate times and often again between movements of a longer work. Only then does the conductor come out and the performance begins. It’s a ritual more than anything else.

  8. Kyle Carmack says

    As someone in a school music school at the moment pursuing a degree in musicology, I see a lot of these old ways that take control of people around me. I also see that a lot of people are resisting. I work with intertextuality between popular music and classical music and explore the relationships between the two, but mainly how popular music will adopt classical ideas, structures, and genres to express itself (it is almost never the other way around). I think that popular music is evolving and changing with the times, while classical music is trying to desperately hold onto the highbrow class stratification that has been in place for hundreds of years. The illusion that classical music is complex art, more advanced, more subtle and meaningful, or any other crazy excuse perpetuates the idea that classical music is a privilege, or can only be understood by the musically trained/educated elite. Now, when I look at popular music (popular, meaning outside the classical sphere) of the past 5 years I see so many wonderful trends. These artists are adopting and exploring form in classical music through a popular medium. Examples: Edges by Pasek and Paul is a musical song cycle, Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown is a folk-opera adapted from Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love is also practically an opera that even has a short harpsichord recitative in one of the songs. These are all highly acclaimed works that appeal to a large audience and are using musical tools outside of what is normal for their art. These works combine two different sides of the same coin and bind them into one highly-nuanced and satisfying experience. They appeal to more people because the work feels more universal. I’m not saying that classical composition needs to change, but maybe those involved should start looking for some new inspiration. Popular music is so broad in scope that everything is fair game, and classical music is so narrow that really only works from 1650-1950 dominate the concert landscape. Some interesting pairings or themes on a program could open up a world of possibility, and possibility to audiences around the world. It has never ceased to amaze me that something so simple could change so much. For Example: the musical Rent and La Boheme are the same show. Why not market them together so try and broaden the audience. If someone can do multiple shows for Der Ring des Nibelungen then this is possible. Look at Joanna Newsom, the harp songstress who writes epic and long-form songs, who will team up with the Chicago and Austin Symphony Orchestras. Classical music isn’t boring, but the way we treat it is. It’s time to mix things up.

    • says

      Great thoughts, Kyle. I do think classical music is changing, luckily for all of us. Younger composers are mixing things up with pop music quite a bit. Or at least they are in big cities. I remember, some years ago, someone telling me that the typical composer at Princeton is writing electric guitar quartets. Getting inspiration and sounds and techniques and sensibility from pop music is very common. Look at groups like the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Alarm Will Sound. I remember one of the All-Stars saying that the composers they play have a heritage that includes Stravinsky, Ligeti, and Jimi Hendrix.

  9. says

    the Atlanta Symphony is 20mil in debt — the problem for classical music is large and mostly tied to those folks who still have disposable income to hear music concerts, without them, there ain’t no music….

      • says

        Most big orchestras have difficult finances these days. Falling ticket sales, the economy, the ongoing depredations of the cost disease (though as William Baumol’s new book on the cost disease — which he was the first to propound as a principle of economics — shows that healthcare and universities suffer far more from it). And then some orchestras are better managed than others, or in a city more favorable to orchestra finances (which can be due to many factors). An orchestra in an unfavorable place with less than stellar management is likely to be in serious financial trouble.

  10. says

    As a small-time former professional oboist, I was taught early on that the on-stage tuning was just a formality and a last final “check”, and have been in several student orchestras where we would NEVER take the stage without checking our intonation on our own backstage or in the dressing areas first. This is especially true for string players. The “A” from the oboe is to make last-minute adjustments due to the temperature changes from backstage to the stage, the shuffling around, and to make sure your personal tuner wasn’t inadvertently set to something other than A-440.

    Some feel the tuning is a kind of warm-up, giving the audience time to settle in, and setting a kind of anticipation. I personally think it’s a bit silly, boring, and one can hear the most awful sounds during this time, which I feel takes away from the upcoming performance.

    If you are an accomplished musician playing at the professional level, you should know by now about where your instrument and intonation will be given any set of circumstances. About the only exception to this rule would be playing with instruments that cannot change their tuning, such as pianos. But you can set your tuner to their pitch, and tune that way, so really there is a way around most anything if one wants it badly enough.

    And if you are playing at the professional level, and tune and play from ‘the bottom up’, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to find a common pitch, whether it’s dead-on A-440 or not. What matters is that your are playing in tune with one another, not a tuner.

    So, I find your point to be dead-on…in today’s society of gotta have it now and in an easily digestable form, long classical pieces can lose our youth’s attention, and they are our future. If we can’t retain them and keep their interest, we are looking at a dead form of music that will eventually go the way of Latin, a dead language. Everything may be based on it, but no one speaks it, and it’s beauty and meaning become more and more lost as time marches on.

    Let’s hope that is not the future of classical music.

    • says

      Thanks, Angie. I fear the comparison with Latin is all too reasonable. 100 years ago, any educated person would know Latin. But by the mid-20th century, that was gone. Which shows what kind of large cultural changes can happen, in things formerly thought unchangeable. But we can make a difference, by changing the way we do classical music.

      Maybe early music groups need to tune onstage. I’ve heard that their instruments can go out of tune very quickly, especially in wet weather. But maybe that’s exaggerated.

      It’s good to see musicians agreeing that the onstage tuning isn’t really necessary.

      • says

        Onstage tuning is very good in y op9inion. The heat from the lights onstage play havoc with pitches of the stringed instruments. Besides, I love the sound of the tuning pefore the perforance. It’s sort of exciting letting you know things are ready to be happening. Many of my friends feel the same way. Speaking from the audiences point of view.
        I am of the opinion that we as a country have priced ourselves out of the market. The average person cannot afford movies, theater, let alone smyphonies or operas. So these latter get known for only the elite audiences.
        Education of the youth comes in many forms. Allow them to do their thing and they educate themselves upwards. Case in point: My oldest son fell in love with the Beatles and we let him and his siblings do their thing, so to speak. He would bring music records home saying: “Hey, Mom, I got a new record. Let me know what you think of it”. So he would play it and I let him know I liked the music, not the words, or may be I didn’t and told him so and why. By the time he finished high school he had upgraded his own music upward, getting rid of the worst and keeping the best, working his way back to Bach! The main thing is to not jump all over them re their choice of music but discuss it with them, etc..
        Today he and his siblings appreciate all kinds of music, and so do I.

  11. Donnell O'Brien says

    There are two competing forces: the “classical mindset” posited eloquently by the author of this article, and a constituency that is being introduced inadequately to classical music and its subsequent joys and discipline. While we can agree that “something needs to be done,” it is not merely framing the business of classical music that will bring back audiences and revived interest. The issue, I believe, is much more involved, beginning with the attitude that music programs can be cut from school curricula much more frequently and “understandably” than any sports programs. In this dwindling environment of participation, only the most devoted – teachers and students, will hew to the necessary regimen of learning about the great composers, learning how to listen to some of the greatest works in the world, not to mention the necessary hours of practice required to learn the instruments of the orchestra – either as a performer or as a conductor. Unfortunately, in the vacuum of musical diversity, only the most common or frequently heard commercial products get replayed and performed leading to an atrophy of exposure to the great works. The question remains: how can we get people to *value* the greats, or more to the point, feel the value, when this music is not a frequent diet?

  12. M.Abe says

    I don’t entirely disagree with your article, but what do you suggest we rethink? Contemporary art music has broken all sorts of stiff rules, for aesthetic purposes.

    As for the stiffness of the orchestra… there is a long line of tradition behind that. It would be a shame to take older works out of context in order to please the masses, as in to pervert what they were meant to be. I am a young musician, naturally drawn to music from a young age with no coaxing from my family or educators. While things like Bugs Bunny was a good appetizer for some more extravagant pieces, there`s nothing like sitting down to enjoy the piece in it’s entirety as it was meant to be presented by it’s author.

    I just hope you are not suggesting a cheapening of our art… it means far too much to me to dismiss MUSIC as the main event, not pyrotechnics or whatever. Some music was meant to be played in concert halls, some music is meant to furnish empty rooms and time…

    • says

      I’m always fascinating by how quickly people rush to protect classical music, as if they thought it was being attacked. Bugs Bunny? I’m not aware I mentioned him, much as I love him.

      My own thought is that classical music, as we currently present it, doesn’t seem very artistic at all, especially when you compare it to what goes on in the other arts. Read the arts section of the NY Times, for instance, and see what they review in dance, theater, visual art. It’s so much more creative than the constant repetition of old works (in high-quality but routine performances) that we largely see in the classical world. I don’t feel, when I enter a standard concert hall (like the Kennedy Center in Washington) that I’m entering any kind of art space.

      As for great music in its proper context, history has some surprises there. Mozart, for instance, expected — and wanted — his audience to applaud during his pieces, the moment he heard something he liked. There’s a famous letter he wrote to his father about the premiere of his Paris Symphony in which he makes this clear, glorying in his success in making the audience cheer right in the middle of the piece, more than once. At the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth, the audience applauded the brief timpani solos in the scherzo. At the premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, the audience applauded the cadenza. Verdi, late in his life, cherished a moment during the premiere of Aida in Parma, when the audience stopped the performance in the middle of a duet to demand an encore of a phrase they’d just heard.

      And this only scratches the surface of the things that went on — the freewheeling improvisation, and so much else. Pianists, up to the early 20th century, used to improvise preludes to every piece they played on recitals. What we see in our concert halls today is our own context, one we’ve invented. It may have little to do with how the music was conceived or first performed.

    • says

      M.Abe: The point I believe is to accept other Americans for who they are and how they enjoy many styles of music; to meet them with classical where they live… in clubs, bars, restaurants, churches, warehouses, house parties, etc. Some of these were places unthinkable before smoking bans in most states. And, while not ideal, amplification technology allows everyone to hear without enforcing “a spirit of meditation” as I like to call it.

      Contemporary classical is potentially very influential (arguably I write some myself)… but I believe it’s important to make the case for the historic masterworks and why they still matter for many of us. I find it beneficial when transcribing symphonic movements for my ensembles to play in clubs, to CUT an 8-min. work to a 3-min. “taste”; by jumping to the recapitulation in sonata form for example. This avoids wearing out both players and audience. This is also perfect when playing for school kids. And I don’t cut every piece; but shoot for HALF in order to have a balanced variety in the books to draw upon at Classical Revolution events especially.

      The best thing is that “introductory services” like CR need not REPLACE traditional concerts. They are simple, loving arms to embrace a wider community curious but alienated by classical. Rather than a “dumbing down”, new formats can be the “warming up” the art form is missing. The cogniscenti need not attend, although I find a few DSO patrons attend my events out of curiosity.
      This can be done cheaply, but understanding the potential of the original works, we can craft reasonable adaptations to share humbly and personally the power of what several REAL Detroiters called “beautiful music”. Beautiful music can become REAL music for REAL people!

  13. randallpacker says

    Excellent article. Isn’t this exactly the point of the alternative arts? To redefine performance as and the way in which we as listeners/viewers engage with it. Venerable arts organizations such as The Kitchen, or the distant memory of New Music America, were experimental platforms for new performance sensibilities and concepts. So yes, the world of “classical music,” the very use of the word classical makes me cringe, can take a lesson from its downtown brethren as to how to bring back spontaneity and magic to the field.

    • says

      Good point, Randall. And as I’ve often said (see a reply to a comment below), even mainstream arts — dance, theater, visual art — are very fluid and inventive these days. Classical music can learn from them. And certainly from the downtown things you mention, on which I cut my teeth early in my career as a critic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk into a concert hall, and know right from the start that we were in a creative place?

  14. Jim Norman says

    I recently went to a performance where the conductor stepped off the podium after one of the middle movements of Scheherazade so the orchestra could retune. All the momentum and magic of one movement ending and another starting was lost. And the intonation didn’t get any better after the orchestra retuned!

    If I could have my way, the musicians in an orchestra would not be allowed on stage before a concert. I’d rather not hear the cacophony of a symphony warming up. The members would be responsible for warming up and tuning off stage. When the time comes for the performance, the lights dim, the musicians take the stage, the conductor comes out and talks to the audience (no program notes allowed), and the concert starts.

    Maybe the audience could sit on couches instead of seats, and there are tables for things like drinks. Maybe people could be encouraged to clap when they hear something they like, or when a movement ends. Maybe there could be seats on stage for audience members….

    Oh, and no more tuxes please! How about nice suits instead?

  15. Shannon Cline says

    As someone who has worked in the administration of orchestras, chamber music presenters, and now a Renaissance consort, I’ve been struck by how much creative thought is given to how performances are presented in the world of early music. Both the history of the genre’s revival (it’s amusing that these musicians were considered nutty hippies by their peers 40 years ago), the lemons-into-lemonade difficulty of finding suitable venues, and the open-mindedness on the part of the audience thanks to the absence of centuries-long rituals (really!), allow a refreshing freedom to explore. At the same time, the love and respect these performers have for their repertoire, and the ownership of the creative process, generally keep it from getting gimmicky. Of course, this music predates the very concept of concert halls; as far as we know it was taken for granted that it was interwoven into the daily rituals of life – worship, celebration, courtship, etc. In any case, I think the orchestral world (which I love and don’t intend to belittle) should look to its little brothers and sisters in small ensembles and “weird” genres for inspiration that retains respect for the music.

      • Shannon Cline says

        Agreed, Greg, and it makes new music ensembles GREAT collaborators! Here in Philly my “historically-informed” musicians really enjoy projects with ensembles like The Crossing and Orchestra 2001. It’s very exciting – even for those of us in the “back office”!