Monthly Archives: November 2012

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.



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