Classical Notes

Can Classical Concerts Continue?

treble clef graphic It's so ironic – for hundreds of years mankind longed for the dawn of the third millennium to fulfill our fondest dreams for a new era of awe and wonder, but once it finally arrived we just prayed that our computers wouldn't crash. Oh, well ...

Having survived Y2K, we can look forward to whatever the future holds. The prospects for most types of music have never gleamed brighter. Building upon the advent of jazz, electronics and home listening that marked the 1900s, the next century promises a further exploration of roots, melding of influences and enhanced exposure to enrich all our musical lives. Classical music, though, faces a daunting challenge.

We can take great comfort nowadays from the profusion of phenomenally gifted young artists who crowd competitions and promise to carry on the tradition of classical performance. But the other side of the marketing equation remains far more troubling – where will the patrons come from to attend their concerts? Audiences are graying as never before. What can be done to develop new generations into the classical concert-goers of tomorrow? For that matter, short of bribery or kidnapping, what would it take to get a typical young adult to attend a classical concert?

But before despairing over such gloomy prospects, perhaps it makes more sense to address another question – is this really a problem at all? Maybe it's time to admit that after a rich history of centuries of cultural service, the era of classical concert-going may have outlived its usefulness and reached the end of its natural life. I can only look inward – I consider myself deeply devoted to classical music and immerse myself in it hours each day, but I go to very, very few classical concerts. I'm not sure I miss them, either.

Opera, theatre, ballet, rock ... Nearly all other types of performing art are far more vivid live than when reduced to home media. There's simply no comparison between the two types of experiences and so their future in live performance seems secure. But classical music is more intimate. Aside from an occasional artist with huge personal charisma that begs to be felt directly, I can create a deeper personal bond alone at home with a record without the noise and distractions of an audience.

Concerts also can be too fleeting to afford full appreciation of a musician's achievement. Although some artists philosophically oppose the permanence of the recording process, it affords listeners a needed opportunity to immerse themselves in an artist's outlook. I find so often that I am indifferent toward a new CD at first, and only come to understand and appreciate what the artist accomplished after many hearings.

Of course, nearly all the classical music we cherish was written with the intention that it be experienced live in a concert hall atmosphere. The traditional procedure of having to make advance plans, buy tickets, arrange transportation, dress up, go to the venue, await the artists' appearance, hear the specific program they selected and be forced to devote full attention all create an aura of importance and enhance the significance and meaning of the experience. But that process, in part, was born of necessity in an age centuries ago when there simply was no other way to hear great music or musicians.

Now, of course, that's all changed. The traditional concert-going routine is out of phase with the tempo of our age. Technology has enabled us to cram so much into our busy lives that it seems a needless luxury to spend an entire night on a single event. We've also become spoiled with choices – if we're in the mood for Bach, Puccini or Ligeti (or, for that matter, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis or Ravi Shankar), they're all just seconds away. And if we want Beethoven's Ninth, we can opt for the drama of Furtwangler, the drive of Toscanini, the warmth of Walter, the determination of Klemperer, the probity of Celibidache, or the humanism of Bernstein (to mention only those who have passed on but whose artistry lives through their recordings). It's astounding to recall that even the most ardent fan of the 19th century might have been lucky to hear the glory of Beethoven's Ninth a dozen times in his or her entire life.

And yet, perhaps something is lost amid our accelerated pace and electronic luxuries. We experience far more music now, but it's a much more superficial encounter. The notion that we can read, eat, watch TV, talk on the phone or drive while listening to classical music would have appalled its creators. Having so much music available at the push of a few buttons (and being able to change or dismiss it just as easily) cheapens the experience. When you sit in a concert, you have little choice but to heed the music and to probe the depths of the composer's and performers' intentions. It may not be an efficient use of our precious time nowadays, but it succeeds in focusing attention on an art form whose complexity and subtlety repay deep concentration.

So by expanding the quantity and convenience of our exposure to music, perhaps we're sacrificing much of the quality of the encounter. I may have heard far more classical performances last year than devotees of a century ago heard in a lifetime, yet they undoubtedly cultivated a deeper appreciation for the awesome majesty of an exalted art. But the reality of modern life can't be ignored. For better or worse, concerts may soon be left behind as a relic of the past.

Before we bid them a permanent farewell, though, let's not forget that concerts serve at least two vital and irreplaceable purposes. First, they're the means through which artists achieve their interpretive growth – their maturity and brilliance are nurtured by applause and human interaction, not from a monthly royalty check. How will artists of the future rise to transcendent heights of expression without a foundation of concerts on which to climb?

Second, while studio efforts often yield refinement, polish and subtlety, our greatest musicians invariably take more risks, generate more excitement and achieve more intense communication in concert. Indeed, our most inspired records were all made live. Just compare the sleepy studio sides cranked out by Toscanini, Furtwangler or Richter with their stunning contemporaneous concert performances of the same works, often made only days apart. Records of concerts just may provide the best of both worlds by lending permanence and a world-wide audience to brilliant spontaneous artistry. But without eager audiences, how will there be concerts to record in the future?

Indeed, the excellence and durability of those concert recordings presents a further challenge. Music lovers of the past had no choice but to regenerate their fading memories through new performances. But with so many superb and varied recordings now an everlasting part of our culture, we may have reached a saturation point. Will classical fans seeking future thrills be willing to venture away from their stereos and out of their homes to hear Joe Blow conducting the Podunk Philharmonic? How could such a concert ever hope to compare to the supreme masters whose interpretations are now forever ours to enjoy and pass on?

So as we enter the new millennium, perhaps all that can be said for sure is that the opportunities and choices created by modern technology will only continue to increase, and probably at the expense of the concert experience. The overriding question for the future, for which there is no ready answer, is how we can prevent the demise of concerts from ultimately draining music of its essential spirit.

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One final word, offered to temper these concerns with a splash of optimism. Two summers ago, I attended my first Sunday afternoon Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood. It was truly incredible, but not because of the music. Thousands upon thousands of fans paid their $13, found a spot on the huge lawn and became deeply enthralled. (And this wasn't an upscale geriatric Woodstock; while a few sported bow ties and sipped wine on portable chairs, the crowd was overwhelmingly young and informal.) Yet, except when I briefly snuck into the performance shed, I could barely see a thing, the amplified sound was no better than a cheap boombox and the program was light and familiar Mozart. So what was the attraction there? And what of the tens of thousands who routinely turn out for free classical events in public parks? To this day, I have no rational answer, other than the mystical yet potent appeal of a live concert. If these events can attract such hordes in such circumstances, the age of concerts really can't be finished after all.

Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann

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