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The Classical Music Concert

Posted by acdtest on December 11, 2003

The Survival Of The Classical Music Concert

s someone trained as a classical musician who was almost virtually raised in a concert hall (Philadelphia’s Academy of Music), and for whom live orchestral and chamber music concerts were the mother’s milk of his youth, I find just the prospect of the diminishment or, worse, eventual demise of the live classical music concert to be a thing unthinkable. Or rather, a thing I’d rather not have to think about. As matters stand today, however, there’s nothing for it for someone such as myself but to think hard and long about it. Live classical music concerts (the unadulterated sort) are, nationwide, slowly dying out for want of enough audience to adequately support them except in our largest metropolitan centers, and even there the going today is fairly rough, and bound to get insupportably rougher unless a viable solution can be found for the growing problem.

Did I say problem? Why a problem? I mean, if the market can’t support the live classical music concert perhaps the thing has outlived its pertinence and importance for our cultural life, and ought to be permitted to go gently into that good night spared the always humiliating if heroic last-ditch efforts to provide it synthetic life-support. As print media cultural critic and weblogger Terry Teachout says (and I here conflate three quotes from two of his weblog pieces, here and here):

• By the mid-Sixties, it was possible to purchase high-quality [recorded] renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times….

• [A] piece of classical music is infinitely more important than any possible [single] interpretation of it, and once a half-dozen first-class versions are available on CD, the marginal utility of hearing an additional one, whether on record or in person, becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. Therein lies the problem of the [live] classical concert. Believe me, I treasure the “communal aspect” of art, so much so that I go out of my way (and my apartment) to experience it four or five nights a week. […] But I no longer feel any compelling need to regularly experience it in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than I feel the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.

• I no longer go to hear the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example. I’m sure they play well, but I simply don’t feel the need to see them live. I have more interesting things to do with my evenings. Similarly, I haven’t been to a single classical concert at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall all season long-and I’m a middle-aged listener who loves classical music passionately. Granted, I’m just one person in a big city, but if I’m not going to classical concerts, who is? And who will?

Terry certainly has several excellent points, and one hesitates to argue against them, as well as against someone of Terry’s wide professional experience and knowledge. But casting prudence aside, I feel constrained to argue against both.

First off, let me provide some further personal background the better for you to judge what I have to say.

I’m old enough to have been present at the birth of hi-fi in the ’50s, and its subsequent development into stereo in the ’60s. I immediately became what’s (politely) known in the trade as an audiophile, and at one point in my life invested more than $30,000 (1980 dollars) in a new sound system which comprised the most accurate electronics and loudspeakers available at the time, all of it installed in a room acoustically designed (more mega-$$$) to permit it to operate at its utmost potential. And so I’m hardly one to pooh-pooh recorded performances. I love them. I cherish them. I couldn’t imagine life without them. Lots of them.

But a recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert performance. As good as recordings and audio equipment may be today, they cannot reproduce in a home environment the sound of the very same music performed by the very same artists at a live concert in a concert hall, even a lousy one. It’s not that sonically one is necessarily better than the other (although given the quality of the typical home stereo system, and the typical acoustics of the home listening environment, live is light-years better). It’s that they’re two different sonic experiences, and therefore, and more importantly — much more importantly — two different musical experiences. One hears the music, qua-music, differently in a live performance, and so experiences it differently as a consequence. That hearing cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good it may be in both recording and playback, although an experienced and long-time concertgoer may unconsciously “graft” the live hearing of the music, qua music, onto the hearing of the music when experienced via a reproduction, and imagine he hears in the reproduction the music, qua music, as he hears it in live performance.

But imagine is the operative term here. It’s but an illusion; one that requires a long-time experience of live performance to create and maintain, consciously or unconsciously.

I’ll not pretend to know why it is that one hears music, qua music, differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it’s substantial, musically. And, pace Glenn Gould, one should never forget that music’s fons et origo is the sound of the music live. Always. (I, of course, speak here about music written for acoustic instruments. I cannot speak to the case of music written for electronic whatevers as I’ve no interest in, or concern for, such music, and therefore little experience of it.)

All by itself, the above should be enough to counter Terry’s contention vis--vis recorded versus live performance. But there’s more.

Terry declares he “no longer feel[s] any compelling need to regularly experience [music] in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than [he] feel[s] the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.”

If one were inclined to be unkind in the matter, one might suggest that Terry has grown a bit jaded musically concerning the standard classical repertoire; a not uncommon condition of residents of our great metropolitan cultural centers, New York City in particular.

Well, I’m not inclined to be unkind, and so I’ll suggest more gently that I think Terry has grown a bit myopic concerning this matter. Very few persons in this country outside our metropolitan cultural centers have ready or frequent access to live classical music concerts of any kind, much less live classical music concerts performed by first-rate ensembles in a first-rate concert hall, and therefore will rarely have the opportunity to experience what Terry takes for every-day granted. It’s for those persons, the overwhelming majority of Americans, not to even speak of those not yet born, that live concert performances of classical music — even “routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire” — must remain an alive and healthy enterprise.

And how is that to be accomplished in today’s unsympathetic, even hostile, to classical music cultural environment? Well, I can say with absolute certainty how it must not be accomplished. It must not, in any circumstance, be accomplished by “a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’,” which is what a study on the matter quoted by Terry suggested be done to help classical music concerts stay alive. As Terry correctly divined, that phrase is merely “a euphemism for playing fewer classics and more pop-style fare,” and that’s deadly for classical music whether live or recorded. I’d go even further and say, as I have previously, that (and I here quote myself)

[I]t’s nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, [those concerned with preserving classical music in this country have] pursued a model that’s not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People. Or using less euphemistic and less charitable terminology, the concept of pandering to the proles. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on right in the world of mass entertainment, it’s an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the very simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn’t) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elitist enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

Having said with absolute certainty what must not be done, can I say with absolute certainty what must? I can, and have — for the long term.

But that strategy is impossible and totally useless unless classical music concerts survive long enough to make the implementation of such a strategy feasible. And that survival requires a short term solution, an immediate short term solution, and I’ve none that I’d be reckless enough to risk setting forth publicly. Let’s just say that when it comes to generating short term loot funding for live classical music concerts, the tactics I’d be willing to engage in would make Al Capone look like an Italian gentleman and a wuss.

But that’s just me. Perhaps others have a more, um, gentlemanly short term solution that would be equally as effective.


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