I rarely go to classical concerts. It’s not that I love the music any less, but over time I’ve become increasingly alienated from the experience of concertgoing: the noisy audiences, the unimaginative programs, the feeling that not nearly enough is at stake. Now that I’m spending less time out on the town, I find that few classical-music events in New York City are capable of inspiring me to surrender a precious evening I could spend doing something else.
Hence it was unusual—extraordinary, really—that I decided to attend the first two installments of Ian Bostridge‘s ongoing five-concert series at Zankel Hall, the miniature concert hall downstairs from Carnegie Hall. What possessed me to do such a thing? For openers, I was curious about Bostridge, the Oxford grad turned highbrow tenor who in recent years has emerged as the ultimate critics’ darling. I’d very much liked The English Songbook, his recorded recital of turn-of-the-century English art songs, and I wanted to hear how he sounded in the flesh. What’s more, the Zankel series, in which Bostridge is singing an imaginatively chosen assortment of music in five widely varied settings, struck me as a kind of best-case scenario for the classical concert as a cultural institution. I was especially interested in the first two programs, an all-Britten evening and a program with string quartet that featured On Wenlock Edge, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cycle on poems by A.E. Housman, and La Bonne Chanson, Gabriel Fauré’s exquisite musicalization of the poetry of Verlaine. So I booked press seats for both performances, wondering how they’d strike me.
I mostly enjoyed myself, though Bostridge himself is an odd cookie, a skinny, stork-like caricature of English youth who looks as though he’d wandered off the set of a stage version of Brideshead Revisited. His voice is smallish, reedy, and hopelessly unheroic, and though he’s obviously in love with the words he sings, his English diction is fuzzy in the extreme. Yet the overt passion of his singing is hard to resist, and once I got past his surface mannerisms and accepted him on his own terms, I found his singing involving.
I had a good time—and yet I can’t help but wonder whether a program less precisely suited to my tastes could have lured me into a concert hall, least of all one whose indifferent acoustics are blighted by the near-constant rumble of the New York subway. The trains roared by, the cell phones twittered, my neighbors coughed at regular intervals…but you know how it is. It’s been a long time since I attended a classical-music concert given in the presence of a silent, fully attentive audience.
I’m writing these words immediately after having returned from a private concert held in the art-laden living room of a friend of mine who owns a wonderful old Bösendorfer grand. The performer was a serious amateur pianist who played two Beethoven sonatas, Opp. 109 and 111 (frivolous amateurs don’t play late Beethoven). I sat close enough to the keyboard to read the music over his shoulder. The audience consisted of twenty people, most of whom knew one another more or less well, and after Op. 111 we retired to the host’s dining room for a sit-down meal. That’s the way to hear classical music.
Yes, my friend is wealthy, and no, I’m not. I don’t even own a piano. But I do have a comfortable chair, a good-quality Nakamichi stereo, and some three thousand CDs, and whenever I please I can take one of them into the living room and listen to it, surrounded by the lithographs and etchings of the Teachout Museum. Had I cared to, I could have stayed home from Zankel Hall last week and spent the evening listening to a recording of On Wenlock Edge by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and the Zorian String Quartet, or a performance of La Bonne Chanson by the great French baritone Charles Panzéra, who knew Fauré and sang for him innumerable times. Can Ian Bostridge compete with that? Yes—just. But not many other classical musicians can.
I still love going to ballet and opera and plays and jazz clubs, mainly because they offer me something I can’t get at home. Hearing late Beethoven in my friend’s living room was a different kind of experience, to be sure, but it, too, was unique and irreplaceable. Hearing a decently played program of oft-recorded standard repertoire in the company of noisy strangers is not. Why should I come hear you play Op. 111 in Alice Tully Hall when I can stay home and listen to Artur Schnabel playing it?
I should mention, by the way, that the friend I brought with me to Bostridge’s recitals didn’t know any of the pieces on either program, and her response to them was little short of ecstatic. I don’t think she even heard the rumble of the subway. So much the better for her. It may simply be, after all, that I’ve heard too many concerts in my lifetime. Anthony Powell remarks somewhere in A Dance to the Music of Time that intensive womanizing leads to specialized tastes. But I think it goes deeper than that. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that the institution of the classical-music concert as we know it has just about run its course—and I won’t be sorry to see it go. It’s way past time for a change.