I was reading Evan Eisenberg’s book The Recording Angel when I came across the following sentences: “Most concert music written before the present century strikes the casual listener as a little too noble, too pure. As Nina put it, ‘I don’t want to be ennobled.’ Her urban nervousness won’t be Platonized away, and only sometimes submits to the fine alembic of a Beethoven sonata. The raw materials are too coarse, the premises too ugly. Most of the time punk rock works better, even for a woman who grew up playing Chopin on a blond piano.”
Some years ago, I’d defected from classical music to pop, and I was working as senior music editor of Entertainment Weekly. I had a girlfriend with no classical music background, a smart woman in her late thirties, a good example of the kind of person orchestras now want to attract. Sometimes she’d suggest we go to a classical concert, but I wasn’t interested. At least for a while, I’d put classical music behind me.
The orchestra has become an institution where the rituals of attending a concert have replaced a transcendent musical experience. Unfortunately, with the limited rehearsal time and a long season of uninspired programming it’s easy for a musician to feel that he is not any more special than a plumber. When going to a concert, being a savvy shopper can do you some good. If you look at your concert schedule you have many types of concerts to attend; First Nights, Thursday Masterworks, Featured Soloists, and my current Los Angeles favorite, Casual Fridays. This entertainment oriented marketing approach is akin to putting “old wine in new bottles”.
Summer of 2000. My two sons, then aged 16 and almost 20, were
having a seemingly endless conversation about cars. The older one was
at the computer and the 16-year-old was standing nearby. Feeling the
inspiration for a bit of mischief, I thought to interrupt their
conversation with something – anything – that they had absolutely no
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.
So, it’s Take a Friend to the Orchestra month, and you’re casting around among your friends, trying to figure out which one to invite along on your extra subscription ticket. I have a suggestion for you: take a kid to the orchestra.
(The Scene: Late night…… wispy fog…… clock tolling the hours in the distance…… cat knocking over a trash can……. entrance to a dark alley………… Humphrey Bogart look-alike in rain coat and Fedora hat……..)
May is “Take a Friend to Orchestra Month,” a new initiative started by Drew McManus, author of the blog “Adaptistration”, in order to bring newcomers to the concert hall. In the spirit of the month, Drew has taken host John Schaefer’s brother Jerry to a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry has previously never been to an orchestral concert, busy as he is running a lumber yard in Queens. Today, we get Jerry’s reaction to the experience when both he and Drew join us on the program.
“Taking friends to a concert” can be a metaphor for the task of revitalizing classical music in
America. I make no apologies for being an end-member proponent of
audience empowerment, I disagree with recent writers who variously
opine that classical music is moribund, or was only superficially
connected with the U.S. in the first place (Joseph Horowitz). It has
indeed declined – but McManus’ initiative is an example of emerging
movements that have the potential to revive it.
When people ask me what it’s like to play in a symphony orchestra for a living, I generally respond that it’s just like everyone else’s job, with all the office politics, boring meetings, and meddling middle management, except that the last few hours of the work week take place on stage, in formalwear, with 2,500 people watching to see if you screw up. That having been said, it is a job which a great many people pay to watch us do, and this gives rise to certain, shall we say, specialized areas of concern.
Have you ever run into a member of your local orchestra in the grocery store and actually known their name or recognized their face? Really? Was it because they were still wearing their concert clothes? What if they were in street clothes? Would you still recognize them? Chances are, it might prove to be a little more difficult without the wardrobe assistance.
There are two important principles I’d urge every newcomer to any new kind of music:
1) Never give in to the pressure to be impressed. There are many reasons that performers, composers, pieces of music become famous, and quality is only one of them. A lot of pieces of music get celebrated for stupid reasons of musical politics; many performers are swept into prominent places in the public eye by aggressive PR agents; some composers elbow their way to the top in what we can now call a kick-down, kiss-up fashion; critics have blind spots and hidden agendas. This is not to say that the music world’s a terrible and dishonest place, but to say that there’s no substitute for using your own judgment. Names mean nothing; Mozart wrote some trivial pieces.
I was a little taken aback last March when Drew contacted me to take part in this online symposium. Unlike most of the other participants you’ll find here, I’m a rank amateur and something of a dilettante when it comes to classical music; as a performer, my musical experience extends no further than six years of piano lessons when I was a kid; as an essayist and writer, my interests lean far more to drama and the theater than they do to the concert hall. But in my nearly two years of writing about theater at my blog, I’ve corresponded with several of the more musically-inclined people in this virtual seminar room, and this provides me with just a thought or two about broadening the appeal of classical music concerts to a wider listenership.
When I was about 16, I played in a youth orchestra. We spent two weeks in the beautiful city of Durham rehearsing, and proceeded to the cathedral for a powerful programme of In the South, Lutoslawski 4, and the Alpine Symphony.
I’m a professional musician, so I’ve not had the opportunity to invite friends to a concert and sit with them. If I could be an audience member I think I’d make a night of the event; beginning at my house, I’d play a few snippets of the pieces … the parts I like best and explain just why. We’d enjoy a leisurely dinner at the restaurant right across the street from our newly refurbished hall. We’d get to the hall a bit early so we can first check out the fabulous restoration and then hear the pre-concert talk. Oh … and I’d choose a concert that wasn’t too long and wasn’t too difficult for a first timer.
In 1986, when I was executive director of the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, a truck carrying CSO instruments from Arizona to Texas on a
tour turned over in Texas.