My Juilliard course on the future of classical music is well under way, with a terrific group of students. Including four violists, which makes me wish we were giving a concert. Thirsting to hear music — maybe write music!  —for viola quartet. Such a sumptuous sound.

I’ve offered to teach a shorter version of this course online, if enough people are interested. And we’re almost there! Contact me if you’d like to join in.

stavreva blog

Pianist Tania Stavreva, wearing body paint for a recital last year

You can see what the Juilliard version of the course is about with these two links, to the course overview and to the detailed class schedule, with links to all assignments. We’ve been looking at the classical music crisis, and now we’re spending two weeks thinking about how different — how much looser, less formal, with improvising musicians and an aroused, participating audience — classical performances once were from what they are now.

That could be an inspiration for us now, because if we want to engage a new audience, maybe it would help for us to be more engaging. And to discover that Mozart planned one of his symphonies with an eye toward getting the audience to applaud — during the music — should show us that we wouldn’t abandon our beloved high standards if we thought about engaging the people who hear us. We’d just abandon our pomp.

After spring break, which starts the week after next, we’ll look for a bit at pop music (can it be art, and if it can, what are the implications for classical music?), and then talk about fixing the crisis, with a lot of attention to things the students can do as musical entrepreneurs.

One highlight from the assignments is a Wilhelm Backhaus performance from 1969. As I teach the students (with excerpts from a musicologist’s paper), in the 18th and 19th centuries pianists improvised introductions to pieces they’d play, a practice which continued into the early 20th century, when Backhaus was in his late teens and twenties. In this 1969 performance, you can hear him improvise a prelude to a Schumann piece. (Which, as an announcement tells us, he’s playing instead of Beethoven’s Op. 111; this, as it turned out, was the last concert he played before he died, and he wasn’t well.)

No pianist, I think, would do that today. (If I’m wrong, tell me! I’d love to know who would do that.) To me, the prelude is wonderful. Prepares the mind and heart to listen.

Other highlights from the assignments (highlights for me, anyway; I should ask the students what they think):

  • Some descriptions of performances in past centuries: Beethoven baffling (and in fact annoying) musicians he played a piece of his with, by playing an extended improvisation; singers improvising part of the second act finale of Don Giovanni; the audience, at performances of Beethoven symphonies, crying out in amazement, and making eye contact with the musicians at one key passage; and much, much more.
  • Richard Florida on the nightlife of the creative class: A challenge to all of us in classical music. Florida, a very famous business consultant, wrote about young, creative people, whom he felt were key to any city’s economic development. His ideas have been controversial, but his description of what younger, creative people want to do at night hits the target. And their taste for flexible, eclectic, and authentically honest street-level performances would seem to exclude the formal classical events we keep hoping they’ll come to.

Next week I’ll have a guest post from one of my students, who says that the creative class’s taste in nightlife doesn’t just describe our target audience. It’s her taste, too.

I’ll be giving a talk next Tuesday at the Juilliard Doctoral Forum, about the classical music audience. Morse Hall, 5 to 6 PM. Not open to the public, alas.

And don’t forget the online version of my course! Contact me if you’d like to take it. 

About that photo — go here for more info, and for details on the concert Stavreva wore the body paint for. 

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