Recently, I saw Renee Fleming on one of the morning news shows where pedestrians outside the television studio are visible through a glass wall. Svelte in her contemporary hairstyle and pantsuit, Fleming looked nothing like a stereotypical diva. She began to sing and people on the sidewalk gathered to listen, their faces becoming calm and beatific. Almost certainly, some of them would have said they didn’t like classical music and yet all were mesmerized by Fleming’s simple, moving performance.
Watching the impromptu audience confirmed my belief that everyone possesses an innate feel for music. Classical music uses the same twelve tones and rhythms as pop tunes which sometimes borrow symphonic melodies verbatim — so why are the classics often perceived as foreign and difficult to comprehend?
In the case of Renee Fleming, the music was brought into the listeners’ everyday lives; they were not plopped into a world of classical music that can seem forbidding, from price to protocol. As other TAFTO contributions have pointed out, today’s concert format bears little resemblance to our 21st-century lifestyles. With so many fast-paced entertainment options available today — many of them interactive and involving multiple senses — asking a newcomer to pay top dollar to sit still for two hours is asking a lot.
Let’s follow “Eric,” a fictional friend who works as a web designer. He’s the go-to guy in his office for different musical genres rock, zydeco, hip-hop, anything but classical. But Eric rented the film, “Amadeus” and was surprised at how much he liked the music. He decides to try the local orchestra’s Mozart festival that was featured in yesterday’s newspaper. After checking for tickets online, he almost changes his mind because admission costs more than he’d anticipated. Still, he buys a single seat and randomly selects a date since he doesn’t recognize any names or works on the schedule.
Once inside the concert hall, Eric feels like he’s landed on Mars. Is anyone else wearing jeans? Why are the musicians costumed like extras for a Victorian-era film? He relaxes upon recognizing the first piece from “Amadeus” — he loved that music! He moves to applaud when it ends. But no one else is clapping, and the man in front of him glares. Eric slides down in his seat, feeling hopelessly stupid. He’s so intimidated he can’t even focus on the next piece. He leaves at intermission. “What was I thinking?” Eric mutters to himself. “This classical stuff is over my head.”
Imagine Eric told you about his interest in classical music instead. You load three different Mozart works into his iPod and ask him a week later which one he likes best. Although he doesn’t know the name of the piece, he mentions a work for piano and orchestra. That particular concerto is programmed on the Mozart festival, and you arrange for two tickets to hear it. You add the Idomeneo overture and Jupiter Symphony to Eric’s music library, since they will round out the program. Eric attends the concert with you, looking forward to exciting live performances of the music he has become passionate about through recordings.
When music is introduced into ordinary life, a newcomer is free to evaluate what he or she likes without feeling like an outsider. The music speaks for itself, and it’s essential that a new concertgoer feel confident, intelligent — that his taste is valid and he holds ownership of his concert experience.
I’d like to offer some ideas and they are only ideas, not prescriptions — for introducing a friend to live classical music:
- Let your friend discover his taste in music. Lend him CDs of four works from different periods perhaps Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a Mozart piano concerto, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Mahler’s Fifth or pick works that are actually scheduled to be performed in your area soon. For a more advanced listener, diverse contemporary works might be more appropriate. After a few days, ask which piece is his favorite, and to describe why in his own words. By choosing the concert based on these preferences, your friend will approach the performance with a point of reference so that the environment will not seem so foreign.
- Consider informal concert formats for first-timers. Many orchestras have become sensitive to changing American lifestyles by offering shorter rush-hour concerts at convenient times. Outdoor concerts and open rehearsals are other possibilities.
- Choose a concert that includes a descriptive work, like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a Strauss tone poem, or Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. As a little girl, I was bored by long evenings of concert music but loved opera because of its story line a phenomenon that might explain the enduring popularity of film and theater.
- Look for concerts that feature a lively pre-concert talk or a conductor known for interacting with the audience. For example, Michael Tilson Thomas’s comments from the podium are balanced to embrace neophytes without patronizing subscribers. Another great communicator is Robert Kapilow, whose “What Makes it Great?” programs educate in a smart but fun format.
- Consider taking not one, but two newcomers to the concert. Their shared experience may lead to a more candid conversation about the music they’ve heard.
By offering these suggestions, I don’t advocate dumbing down the concert format or suggest that recordings substitute for live performance. What I propose is to separate pure music from its ritualized presentation, and to gear an introduction to classical music to each person’s personality and level of knowledge.
Who’s the “Eric” in your life?
– Blair Tindall