Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Help! Save me from the people who want to save classical music. Please?

One of the issues surrounding classical music and opera is the perennial "Why oh why is classical music/opera dying?" sorts of wailing and lamenting. After hearing 20+ years of this apocalyptic hand wringing, I'm starting to suspect the question itself might have serious flaws.

I sometimes think that what this boils down to is "Classical music isn't featured on the cover of Newsweek anymore, how do we remedy that?", i.e. the health of the art form is based strictly on its cachet in the mass media and pop culture. To say I think this is the lamest possible metric to use is a vast understatement; the idea that some hipster doofus who thinks Conor Oberst is a musical god should know what the best recording of Le Sacre du Printemps is should be mocked and scorned. Now, undoubtedly, there are challenges:
  • The financial health of some orchestras and opera companies is not the best
  • Finding funding in a system that does not have any governmental support of note is always a problem (this does not apply to Europe, for the most part, though that's changing too)
  • According to studies, the average age of a concert goer is 106 or: from the pearl clutchers perspective: it's not hip 20-somethings buying those $80 L.A. Phil seats
  • The possibly past its sell-by date use of subscriptions as the major source of ticket revenue
  • The collapse of the record industry and the transition to The Glorious All-Digital Future
  • The dullness of programming (overture > concerto > big piece) and safety of the choices for those slots; if new music is played, it's often wan 10-minute pieces picked because they won't send anyone scurrying towards the exits before the Beethoven violin concerto

From my perch here in Los Angeles, these points have been around as long as I've been going to concerts, since the mid-1970's, when my Dad would take me to the Hollywood Bowl and the sadly underused Ambassador Auditorium. So, when I see articles like this, I'm torn between rolling my eyes until they almost pop out of my head, weeping in frustration or resorting to mockery and scorn. I'll settle for the last option here.

Obviously, this is nothing personal against Rob Kapilow, who it seems is quite sincere in his mission (and is totally adorable to boot), but rather my frustration with the position he and others like him occupy within the classical ecosystem.

His niche is an important one: grooming audiences that in 20 years will buy the subscriptions that underpin the funding for most orchestras and opera companies in the United States. I simply think they're going about it the wrong way. Why? Because they misrepresent the art form, I think.

I fully realize that music obsessives like me are rare, someone who has dozens of recordings of some pieces, has the full score, reads every book and article he can find on the piece and its composer etc. That's fine; it's the height of arrogance to assume my obsession should be your obsession. I know that most people treat music as just another form of entertainment, they don't really want to spend the time digging in to it and that's fine. However, one thing I know in my bones: to get even minimal enjoyment of a piece of classical music takes a little bit of effort for people who are new to the genre. I've long thought that the focus on "converting" 10 year olds is futile, why not focus on late 40-somethings and above who are likely settled in their careers and their kids (if they have any) grown up enough not to need constant attention, who have more free time to devote to exploring new things? Hint: that won't land you on the cover of Time.

While Mr. Kapilow's laudable efforts are aimed at youngsters, whose attention is notoriously hard to attract and even harder to keep, there's some assumptions in the article that drive me mad.

I've had this experience over and over: a friend who knows I'm a big classical/opera fan will express interest in going to a performance. I'll then pick a symphony program that features, maybe, shorter pieces or something so well known that one of its tunes were used in a soup commercial. After the usual instructions about not dressing like a hobo and staying quiet until the music stops, we go to the concert. We listen to the first half of the program and while chatting at the intermission, a variation of this inevitably happens:

Them: There's too much music, I don't know any of it, it's confusing.
Me: I offered to burn you a CD of the pieces they were going to play so you could listen to them in your car or wherever but you weren't interested.
Them: I wanted to experience them for the first time here, come to it with fresh ears. [cue much rolling of my eyes]
Me: I told you that the music is complex and that there's a lot of it, it's not like it's simple to grasp stuff like They Might Be Giants that comes in 3 minute chunks, you usually have to listen to a piece numerous times, you have to hear it over and over for it to begin to make sense, what on earth were you thinking?
Them: You're such an elitist snob.
Me: [quietly dies a little inside]

What bugs me about so much of the "get new audiences" programs is that it doesn't address a simple fact: enjoying classical music takes work, it takes *gasp* effort. It's really, really time intensive because of the complexity of the music, the length of the pieces and the sheer density of information that one has to process when hearing a full orchestral piece for the first time. It is not an immediate art, it doesn't reveal its strengths via 3 minute sound bites (for the most part), it requires that you be an active (if silent and non-fidgety) participant. This runs counter to how most music is listened to and how art in general is experienced. Then there's this kind of stuff.....

From the article:
Classical music should not be scary, he says, "but so many things surrounding it are almost designed to intimidate. The sense that it's hoity-toity -- you have to dress up, know when to clap -- is, in a weird way, foreign to the music itself."
How is that any different from being a normie at a hardcore death metal concert or a drunken lout at a mostly acoustic singer-songwriter gig at a club? There's norms of dress, behavior and so forth at those events that are just as rigid as at a Cleveland Orchestra concert, but somehow the ones attendant to classical music get portrayed as this stifling straight jacket at Severence Hall.

Ah, the old "you have to dress up" nonsense. In the late 80's, I rebelled against wearing a nice clean shirt, slacks and Hush Puppies and went to a few concerts at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion dressed like I was going to see the Grateful Dead: t-shirt, ratty jeans, a dirty pair of Reeboks. I did shower beforehand, however; I'm a bit of a hygiene freak. "Hahahahaha, you stupid old fuckers", thought I, "it's about the music, maaaaaan, not the clothes, that's bourgeois conformity, dude, I'm going to show you the future!".

Um, no. I simply looked like a hippie who'd taken too many drugs and wandered in to the Dot. I soon went back to the button down shirts, slacks and Hush Puppies. Just as I'd not show up at a Mastodon gig in a three-piece suit and tie, I'd not show up to Covent Garden dressed like a bum. I've been to concerts and operas in the United States and in parts of Europe, and except for a very few patrons, the old tuxedo and haute couture thing simply doesn't apply; it's business casual dress. Here in Los Angeles, I can wear my nice black Levi 501's and raise nary an eyebrow. It might be different at the Wien Staatsoper, but oh well.

When to clap? Again, how is that different from clapping at great sax solo in a jazz club before the player is done and has passed the musical argument off to the next player? It's mind bogglingly simple: if you don't know when to clap, don't clap until you see other people do it! Jeebus.

Let's dispense with the other reasons that allegedly keep people who would otherwise be amenable to hearing Birtwistle's Exody away from concert halls:

The no talking rule

In this day and age of home entertainment centers, the concept that when one is in a public space that one should not talk while the music in playing (or the movie is playing or the actors are still on stage doing the play etc.) is increasingly contentious. I had an acquaintance up in San Francisco who would give death glares at people who talked after the music started. Since he was 6'4" and had a mean glare, they would shut their yaps immediately. There is simply no excuse for continuing to talk about little Bobby's soccer game that afternoon once the music starts, none at all. Unless you feel a heart attack or gran mal seizure approaching, shut. the. hell. up.


The don't fidget rule

I once sat in a seat at the San Francisco Opera during a performance of Britten's Death in Venice. The man next to me, obviously dragged there by his female companion, equally as obviously did not want to be there and expressed his boredom by contstantly lifting up his left arm, almost sideswiping my jaw, and checking his watch. OK, the first time, it was rude due the almost contact between my cheek and his elbow, but about the 20th time he did it, I was getting seriously pissed off. After the curtain was down for the intermission, I turned to him and said "If you don't stop looking at your watch every two minutes, I'm going to complain to an usher that you're ruining my enjoyment of the performance. If you're bored, please leave so I can concentrate on the music and the performance". He was not happy at this impertinence from someone of an obviously lower social class than he --I had splurged for orchestra seats instead of the usual spot in the standing room in the balcony-- but wee! he and his companion didn't return to their seats for the second act.

If you're so bored that you're rustling your programme or hitting the people sitting next to you with your body, leave at the first stoppage of music. If it's the first act of Parsifal, I'd say it was preferable that you climb over people to leave, risking their wrath, rather than fidget and distract others around you. Remember, when in a finely tuned concert hall, dropping your purse sounds like a bomb going off.

"But...but....Henry Holland!" I hear you exclaim, "we want to make performances more inviting to attend, not straight jacket people with arcane rules that aren't universally shared or known". So true! That's why most orchestras and opera companies have sections like this to help out. If for some reason you're unfortunate enough to sit next to me at a concert and I give you a Stare of Death because you choose the exact moment when the only sounds coming from the stage are a delicately plucked harp and a flute playing ppp to open up your tinfoil candy wrapper, don't take it personally. Just don't do it again!

I have no empirical evidence, being a secretary not a sociologist, but I wonder if the misplaced emphasis on clothes, clapping and the like by neophytes isn't a smokescreen to cover up the fact that they feel kind of lost when faced with, say, a Mahler symphony for the first time. It's okay, I'd tell them, observe a few simple guidelines that are there not to oppress them but make the music the sole focus of attention, pay attention and the rewards can be astonishing.

Finally --finally!-- this from the Rob Kapilow article had me groaning:
Based at Lincoln Center, Kapilow began his musical mission because, as a conductor, "all I wanted to do was turn around and say, 'Did you hear that? Isn't that a beautiful chord?' But if you did that, they would cart you away".
Yikes. So, Mr. Kapilow, would you prefer the good kicking before or after they cart you away? I know that the sub-Lenny music proselytizers rely on endless supplies of enthusiasm and "golly gee Beav!" good cheer, but damn! it's not about you. It's about the music, full stop, you should be striving to remove your ego from the process as much as possible, not place it front and center.

Still, he's really totally adorable.


The Opera Tattler said...

*chuckles* I was dragged to one of those SF Opera performances of Death in Venice. I distinctly remember being confused and taken by the choreography. But I promise I was sitting quite still.

Henry Holland said...

[sharpens elbows] Good, I like it when people sit still! :-D

I saw two performances during that run: the first was a disaster, Kenneth Riegal's voice just wouldn't work; the second performance, he was in fine voice and the whole performance was shattering. Good choreography too, especially during The Dream sequence when the corps lifted Tadzio over Aschenbach. *sigh* I love Death in Venice, despite its flaws, I can't wait for the New York City Opera to do the awesome ENO production in 2010 or whenever it is.

Ned Handsome said...

Couldn't agree more with ALL of the above. Why is it so hard for people to shut up and sit still?

Barenboim recently made a similar point in an interview (can't find the source) - that classical music requires preparation and effort, and it is mere pandering to anti-intellectualism for (mostly) American companies to pretend otherwise.

What is the url to subscribe to your blog as an RSS feed?

Henry Holland said...

Yes, I agree with Mr. Barenboim--what makes me roll my eyes when I see these "Hey, we'll play *less* music but have a great time drinking in the bar afterwards" things is that they're not building long-term audiences, they're just hoping for a spike in ticket sales. Nothing wrong with that, but don't promote it as audience building if the whole draw is to make the Disney Hall a singles bar.

Um, RSS, yeah..... This whole blogging thing is new to me, so I'm still trying to sort it out on my end. What about: