What’s Wrong with Classical Music? Too Much Agora or Too Much Temple?

Here it is, Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m minding my own business, not worrying about the future of classical music.  Just eating too much, hanging out with my shopping-addicted boyfriend, and spending too much time on Facebook.  But fretting over the future of classical music kept coming to me as links appeared on my computer screen and iPhone.

First was the evidently not-meant-to-be-humorous short essay Agora or Temple?, written with delightfully withering snobbishness by George Slade, on the hard-to-read (white type on a black background) site of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  I wrote members of my first-year seminar class that its alternative title could be “What’s Wrong with Classical Music,” and that depending on your point of view, what’s wrong is either either the clinging-to-the-concert-hall-as-temple attitude of Mr. Slade, or those eating, drinking, socializers he so clearly believes miss the point.

The performance is all—the communion between musician, music, and listener the sacred and irreplaceable triumvirate inspiriting this unique moment. Everything else is trimming. The Dove bars, the money changing hands for discs, deals, and ducats, the jabbering marketplace of the outside world; once you enter the temple, excellence drives out the quotidian. . . . All the portico posers and agora agonists must concede their presumptions and face the music; no, you don’t get time to finish your drink. The performance, not the periphery, is the sine qua non. Someone must have fiddled with the balance sheets to make anyone think otherwise.

Of course, his is a somewhat romanticized version of what actually happens even when everyone sits down and shuts up on time.  My grandfather used to fall asleep in concerts my grandmother dragged him to back in the 1930s-1950s.  I’ve been at extraordinary-to-me concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center where others made their boredom and irritation readily apparent.

It’s not that I don’t like experience-the-music-with-silent–reverence concerts and concert halls, I do.  But come on, the fact is that many people go to concerts to experience connection and relationship with other human beings.

Even Mr. Slade recognizes this: “Ironically, when the Minnesota Orchestra musicians played their Gala Opening at the Convention Center in October, the lobby came alive after the performance, when musicians joined audience members in the afterglow of a uniquely spirited program.” First, I don’t get what’s ironic about it, unless he meant to emphasize after the performance.  (Many great parties have happened after a great concert, just not always in concert hall lobbies.) Second, this could only have happened in a space like a convention center, where the lobby is big enough to accommodate an orchestra’s worth of locked-out musicians and hundreds of audience members.

If I played in an orchestra (or was a fan of its musicians) whose Board and management were asking me to take a major salary and benefits cut (the musicians say they are being asked for 30-50% cuts, while management says the cuts are merely 20-40%) when more than $50 million was just raised to pay for lobby renovations, I’d be pissed, too.  But as I see it, there’s no denying that part of the future of classical music is a greater sense of connection between performers and listeners.

Most concert halls are designed as temples, and the older they are the smaller the lobbies tend to be (think Carnegie Hall).  For better or worse, not many people want to join the participate-in-a-ritual-at-a-temple game.  The relationship between performers and listeners has to be more personal and connected.  I’m sure one of the things that was wonderful about the performance Mr. Slade refers to is that the audience was family, friends, and the most dedicated fans of the musicians.  There was relationship.

If you’re going to have a relationship with your audience, you need a place to relate.  Like it or not, if major symphony orchestras are going to remain financially viable in coming decades, the places in which they play are going to have to be more agora (a public gathering place, according to Wikipedia, that was “the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life”) and less temple.

Meanwhile, today’s New York Times Sunday Review letters section features a discussion on Is Classical Music Dying?  Les Dryer, retired from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violin section, says the classical music recording industry is dying, the NY Phil and the Met are doing almost no free concerts, and we need to wean kids “away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of ‘American Idol’-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music.”

OK, that is funny. Les, just try to get someone under the age of 30 to watch any old movie, classical-music score or not, and let us know how that works out.

(OK, my daughter will watch All About Eve with me, but she’s an actress and I’m her gay dad and she does stuff like that for me.)

The Times posted the original letter online and various reader responses were selected for today’s paper.  Respond they did.  “Mr. Dreyer, you don’t get it. Classical music is dying because it is and long has been an expensive, mannered and stuffy enterprise as far as the public is concerned,” writes Grant Wiggins, who meanwhile dismisses symphony orchestras as “‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.”  One of my students has taken aback by that remark, but I think he has a point.  My favorite letter is from Charlie Hathaway:

[I]f someone is used to frenetic pop music with lyrics and videos, don’t bludgeon them with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Instead, let them see and hear performances of some of the great modern short pieces, which can be frenetic or languid, but never boring. Expose every seventh grader and a parent to John Adams, Toru Takemitsu and Christopher Cerrone, to name just three of the many, many contemporary composers whose work would never be lumped with the dreaded “classical music,” and we might be on our way to a new generation of listeners.

The future of classical music is not in its past.  The future is in the new, exciting, forward-looking music being created and yet to be created.  People are listening to Mozart on the radio?  So what?  We are listening to Brooklyn Rider on our iPhones.

Meanwhile, I found Kevin Stevens’s letter telling.  He stopped going to classical concerts after another patron chastized him for attending a Boston Symphony concert informally dressed, and senses “condescension and class snobbery” at the Buffalo Symphony (which he doesn’t attend).  He’s neither what Mr. Slade calls a “portico poser” nor an “agora agonizer.”

He’s a stay-at-homer.

“We survived Bush, you’ll survive Obama” is the name of one Facebook group.  Classical music can not just survive but thrive in the new century and its evolving culture.

More agora, less temple.

7 Comments

Filed under Brooklyn Rider, crisis in classical music, future of classical music

7 responses to “What’s Wrong with Classical Music? Too Much Agora or Too Much Temple?

  1. As long as there’s no velvet rope at the agora, either. I don’t mind the temples much; I figure in most public city spaces, I’m more likely to sit next to a bus driver there than at a chi-chi club, and I do like the city patriotism inherent in a concert hall.

    But wherever the music is played, I’d like to see the velvet rope removed. I keep fantasizing about an orchestra program where the first half is, for example, a Haydn thing, followed by a few chamber groups of the orchestra members messing with it, followed by an intermission, followed by Brahm’s Variations on a Theme of Haydn, followed by some more orchestra chamber groups (which must exist) messing with Haydn in any way they desire. Turn it into a salsa! Do it in the style of Big Band! Do it like blues! (Trans: do it so that the conductor doesn’t have final say in how it sounds — gasp!)

    I just want a program that implies that this stuff is alive and that there’s no plexiglass between me and it. (Juxtaposing the players’ variations alongside Brahms’ would further illuminate that there never was.) It would imply that maybe anyone in the audience can and should mess with it themselves as well, maybe not even on conventional instruments.

    I don’t much care where the location is, temple OR agora. And the temples are often easier to get to on public transit so I don’t have to find and pay for parking. Although the agora allows for more of what you described above, which sounds an awful lot like tailgating, although I’d like to see it done before the concert rather than after. I’ve never once in my LIFE been able to take part in the wine-and-cheese socials after classical concerts I’ve gone to; the last thing I want immediately before hopping into my car and driving home is a glass of wine. (I often wonder who in gods’ name can hang around for a further half hour, at least, and sip wine at 10:30pm on a weeknight.) Tailgating beforehand lets you sober up before you need to get back on the road. :-)

  2. “‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.”

    That’s the perennial joke about Orchestras by pop musicians–or at least pop musicians at the local level. It’s something that occasionally pops up when a discussion about the “covers versus originals” debate flares up. If you do a web search for “covers versus originals” and you’ll find thousands of bulletin board arguments about the relative merits regarding cover bands and original music bands which will more often than not be some of the longest (and most frequently appearing) threads at online forums.

    I think the thing to consider is the fact that cover bands (in all their variant forms, e.g. Tribute Acts) generally do make more money and play more often than bands that write their own material. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were actually more of them than not.

    The point here, I think, is that audiences generally want to hear things they know–whether it’s ‘high art’ or ‘low art’–and making categories that divide music into high and low obliterates how different types of musical groups function in any society as well as the trends for the sustainability of the different types of functions!

    • I’m assuming this is still in moderation because of the links–re-posting without them.
      ________________________________________
      “‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.”

      That’s the perennial joke about Orchestras by pop musicians–or at least pop musicians at the local level. It’s something that occasionally pops up when a discussion about the “covers versus originals” debate flares up. If you do a web search for “covers versus originals” and you’ll find thousands of bulletin board arguments about the relative merits regarding cover bands and original music bands which will more often than not be some of the longest (and most frequently appearing) threads at online forums.

      I think the thing to consider is the fact that cover bands (in all their variant forms, e.g. Tribute Acts) generally do make more money and play more often than bands that write their own material. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were actually more of them than not.

      The point here, I think, is that audiences generally want to hear things they know–whether it’s ‘high art’ or ‘low art’–and making categories that divide music into high and low obliterates how different types of musical groups function in any society as well as the trends for the sustainability of the different types of functions!

      • Hi Jon–
        I just realized that I do not get an email notification when there’s a comment awaiting moderation, so that’s why there was a delay in getting your original comment with the links (which I appreciate very much) posted. I’ll look into this and figure out how to get notified in a more timely manner, or to change the setting to allow more links. Right now, I need to go teach a lesson!

  3. Think this is pretty spot on! Don’t have more helpful thoughts past that, b/c I’ve been tuned out of the classical concert-going world for years (in part b/c of this whole temple thing)

    -Mike

  4. I feel compelled to add though, I am hoping to go see Steven Isserlis play at 92Y in January… so I guess I’m not totally tuned out of the whole thing…

    Of course, he does make an effort to connect with his audience on some personal level (both in person & through the web)

  5. so I’m a little behind on my reading as i see this was posted over turkey break… oh well!

    In my theatre classes we’ve been discussing a bit of the off-off broadway movement and am wondering if musicians just need to start playing at places like Cafe Cino or La Mama (although Cino doesn’t exist anymore…). When these places opened they put on plays and musicians without fancy sets and lights. The words and the music and their relation to the supporters in the audience was central to the performance. Do places like this exist today? I know there’s Le Poisson Rouge.

    I’m leaning away from the “temple” because I do think symphonies will eventually die out for the most part. And this is normal. Part of the music history cycle. A genre is perfected, and then it falls apart, and it is reorganized into something else – repeat.

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