Sunday, April 17, 2005

Do we have to drag kids at gunpoint to see classical music?

You have to hand it to classical writer Norman Lebrecht: you might not always go along with his ideas but he's still one of the best, most thoughtful scribes in the field. A recent column in La Scena Musicale wonders Who's Afraid of Classical Concerts? The specific concern once again is potential young fans. On one level, this is another article that asks "what's the magic cure for classical music?" or "how do we get audiences that are under 50?" I give Lebrecht credit for pondering novel solutions, in this case making the shows later in the evening to more realistically accommodate peoples' schedules. He brushes aside suggestions about cheaper tickets and he's right to a certain extent- it's part of the solution but that still won't get an audience that still has their hair or hasn't had it gray yet.

One of the reasons that you go to concerts is not just to witness a visual or musical spectacle but also because many times, you want to see some sort of reflection of yourself or what you'd hope to be. It identifies you, like it or not, and puts you literally and figuratively in a type of crowd. With that in mind, how easy is it to tell a teenager that they need to see dozens of seated people play for hours the songs of Europeans who died so long ago?

Lebrecht's reasoning is that this shouldn't be a issue because the same kids can sit through Lord of the Rings. That doesn't hold up though since they're two difference kinds of experiences. One is an epic visual experience with millions of dollars of computer-animated graphics filling a screen the size of a house. Never under-estimate the visual component: this is one of the main reasons that the World Wide Web became such a dominate part of the Internet.

Compare a classical concert to other types of shows and there's definitely a deficiency in terms of sights. Many other styles also have performers remaining stationary- jazz, blues, country in most cases. One thing that's different is that in those cases, the audience isn't sitting on its hands silently for the length of each song (especially significant because in the case of classical music, songs usually aren't 3-4 minutes as in pop). It's not just kids that have problems with attention deficits- a lot of adults find it hard to sit quietly for that length of time. In the case of pop/rock/rap, the performers on the stage usually aren't stationary either- even a little movement or the right gesture goes a long way. And unlike rock or freestyle rap or jazz, there's almost never any room for improvs in old-style classical music. That's not even mentioning the range of clothing style choices or props that a pop concert can bring into play.

Collectively, this is the real problem with trying to get a younger audience into classical music- they're wired to accept so many things from other types of music that classical seems like a cold bore in comparison. That's no reflection on the music itself which obviously can be uplifting, inspirational, maddening, breath-taking and all those other good things that you'd want a musical experience to be. The problem is that all of the extra-musical elements aren't there to draw the kiddies in.

Mind you, visuals don't have to be anything extravagant. When I saw an Austrian orchestra, the conductor did various kicks and waves during some of the musical flourishes and used small props like a gong and a (train) conductor's hat. The crowd ate it up. At a 'recital' at Columbia University, a Stockhausen piece was played and the visual supplied (as requested by Stocky himself) was a single photo of the moon's surface. Even that one image was striking enough to go along with the piece.

Likewise, the notion of having young, comely stars on stage upsets some of the old guard: say Lara St. John. If the end result is memorable music, then ideally, this shouldn't be an issue. How quickly they forget that some of the old masters themselves weren't always choir boys. Rosinni, one of my favorites, was an infamous womanizer- one story was that he liked to have the most delectable woman lined up front row at his concerts so he could pick out his favorites for later.

Another complaint is that anything that whiffs of 'crossover' is treacherous to the cause of classical music. In a New York Times article about the newly named Sony BMG Masterworks, Sony's C.O.O. (who admits that he knows shinola about classical) proudly proclaims "And in my view, getting rid of crossover allows people to be focused." Full steam ahead into the past then. For some reason, that doesn't include Yo-Yo Ma, whose collaborators have included the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Kalahari bushmen and the Cookie Monster (who gave the world the immortal "C is For Cookie").

Presumably, this kind of tunnel vision would also mean ignoring any sympathetic performer with a foot in the pop world: Sonic Youth, John Zorn, DJ Spooky, Coldcut, Spring Heel Jack among others. The main reason that they're probably distained is because they align themselves with the post-Stravinsky era of classical music. In turn, this makes outcasts out of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass among others. Each of them finds it much easier to coral sympathetic patrons outside the classical world than within its bosom, when it should be the other way around. Maybe the mistake that these composers also make is that they haven't been dead for a hundred years.

This isn't even mentioning younger generations of composers who will find it even harder for their works to enter the classical repertoire. Some of the more adventurous orchestras are experimenting with a mix of old classicals and more modern fare, trying to find the right balance that won't offend their old guard too much while also trying to rope in a presumably younger crowd. Unfortunately, when this happens, the composers they trot out are John Adams, Reich and Glass and sometimes Riley (not usually Young, sad to say) as if this represents the acceptible face of modern classical music, not mention a large part of institutional laziness- they're already known, proven names so there's not much risk invovled. As for the pop-associated artists who are sympathetic to modern classical, they're usually exiles from the grand concert hall even though they hold the promise to be maybe not its savior but as least part of the solution- as it is, they're welcome in smaller spaces that are already pre-disposed to modern classical (i.e. Roulette, Experimental Intermedia).

Unless the classical world is ready to address these deficiencies, it doesn't hold any hope of remaining anything other than a fringe style- week after week, there are horror stories of cut-backs or funding deficits for orchestras so obviously, this is a real crisis. Which isn't to say that all of these solutions will be the magical solution that Lebrecht and others have been looking for so long. But it will be a good start.


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