'What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?'

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'What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?'

Ago 9, 2020, 1:03pm

It's rare that I agree with someone so much... a marvellous article.

What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?

... For a moment, I want you to suspend your disbelief as I flip the argument on its head. Try it this way round: there is absolutely nothing wrong with classical music. It cannot pretend to be anything other than it is. And perhaps it’s the wider cultural environment which surrounds classical music that has a problem.

In a culture increasingly obsessed with ephemeral celebrity, fed by a spin drier of rehashed PR trivia presented as ‘news’, where sport is the new religion, where Saturday night fluff like Strictly Come Dancing is analysed seriously and given acres of press coverage, then a cultural landscape invested in supporting all that activity damn well ought to have a problem with classical music – with its difficultly, with its emotional ambiguity, with its allusiveness, with its celebration of individuality, with its refusal to conform, with its ability to move our emotions beyond something that can be controlled and manipulated into turning a profit. ...

What I’ve called in my writings ‘pretendy’ classical music serves up the spectacle of classical music – you see an orchestra or an ensemble on stage, you see opera singers producing vaguely operatic sounds as they open their mouths. But invariably tepid cross-over projects exist precisely because musicians have failed to grapple with the big questions at play here. Fusions of minimalism, ambient electronica, pop structures drizzled with world music ‘flavas’ – Karl Jenkins, Max Richter, Ludovico Einaudi, Roxanna Panufnik – have become a ubiquitous sub-genre with relevance to the future of classical music only in the sense that EL James is relevant to the future of the novel. No boundaries are being pushed at all. Instead, this is a corporate, boardroom idea of music designed specifically to shift units of CDs. ...

That music is now post-genre, that with their bullet-proof techniques musicians can play Haydn with the same facility as they can play Jimi Hendrix or improvise, is dangerous nonsense. Music is more subtle and nuanced than that, and the major problem with ‘classical music’ as it is being sold and marketed in concert halls is that the term has too often come to mean a very carefully controlled repertoire that begins somewhere around Haydn and ends with Mahler and Stravinsky. Earlier music and later music are occasional interlopers. ...

Ago 10, 2020, 5:58pm


Oct 24, 2020, 9:39pm

The problem with 21st century concerts is quite simple: the music 'business' that has taken on itself the role of 'hard selling' so-called classical music. To be honest the 'business' side has been horrible since the mid-20th, let alone the 21st century.

Oct 27, 2020, 10:00am

I found this bit the distillation of the article:
And rather than impose gimmicks onto a Beethoven string quartet, or trying to fool people into believing that the musical equivalent of fast food contains any nourishment, they start with the music. They build concerts from the music up. Podger’s take on Bach finds an expressive world too often lost when he is played on modern instruments; Mitchener’s piece forces our idea of what a musical experience can be to shift through the breadth of her interests. Boundaries crumble because they have no choice.
I find that superficially, gimmicks look identical to what Clark called "essentials" earlier in the paragraph. The difference is obvious from inside the experience, but for the throngs only looking from outside, there's no distinction. I don't mean the people don't care; I mean literally, there is no distinction from that vantage point.

The question, then, is whether it matters how many are interested in experiencing from outside, or how few from inside. If the objective is selling (CDs, tickets, whatever), then it matters. If the objective is to experience music, it matters not a whit.

Editado: Nov 10, 2020, 8:58am

>1 LolaWalser: The musical world has gone mad. I sit here whilst listening to the viol consort music of Gibbons and William Lawes, which reading your comment. Thank goodness we still have Radio 3 in Britain (not what it was, but certainly a giant leap away from Crassic FM), where real music is still played.

One can see, in recorded music at least, how things have changed in my sixty-odd years. My parents' collection contained many LPs for which the covers consisted purely of text, giving the name of the works and the performers (and in the case of Archiv, a lovely little filing card giving relevant information). Over the years following, the cult of the personality has completely taken over the music business - a scantily-dressed female with an average musical technique will sell more than a middle aged average-looking person with a phenomenal technique.

My own interests include the plucked keyboards, and in the '60s to '80s, it was almost 'de rigeur' to name the makers of the instruments on the covers of the records: today, one has to dig deep into the booklets hoping to find such information. Moving away from my own interests to that of 19th-century opera: can one imagine Joan Sutherland making a name for herself these days? One of the truly great coloratura sops, but not blessed with the best of looks. Today I doubt she'd even be auditioned for a part, let alone gain one.

Returning to Radio 3, I remember the turning point when it ceased being the wonderful being it was. I was listening some decades ago just before closedown, when it was announced that Peter Barker and Malcolm Ruthven were leaving. It turned out that they were being virtually 'fired' due to the station being too 'clubby'. They actually expected their audience to understand the basics of music: apparently that was too 'elitist'.

Anyway, enough of my rant: back to my 1980s recording of Fretwork...

Editado: Nov 7, 2020, 12:45pm

>5 JacobKirckman:

Yes, I agree, today the visual has taken on a prodigiously expanded significance even in music, and especially in opera. Really hard to see that as a plus, or even neutral. Although, when it comes to what sort of talents are available today, the seeming dearth of "great voices" (such as were still common in the 1960s) apparently is a complex problem, with multiple causes.

I love Fretwork; it was their recordings that introduced me as a young teen to the English Renaissance beyond Dowland.

Editado: Nov 10, 2020, 9:01am

>6 LolaWalser: i really think that this is down to the music colleges. There is no doubt that the quality of the 'average' professional performer is light-years away from how it was fifty or sixty years ago; however, (and here's the rub), the top tier of great singers or players has been averaged down. Gone are the days when one could hear Milstein, Heifetz, or Kreisler, and know who was playing within seconds.Individuality has been erased. The bottom of the graph has been raised no end, but the very top tier has definitely been dragged downwards as a result.

As for Fretwork (this is much more my period, musically), no other ensemble has the ability to 'drag' one back to period as they can. I must add that if you don't own the recording, their 'Hearts Ease' is utterly magnificent - especially the second half, which concentrates on the Jacobean and early Caroline repertories.

Nov 27, 2020, 12:10am

Just off the top of my head – because I really need to go to bed – is that a good deal of what's wrong with the classical music experience relates to what's "wrong" with classical music and that, particularly with regard to large ensembles, largely concerns expenses.

Some years ago (so my recollection of figures may be a bit off) I dug around in the newspaper archives to find out what a ticket cost to the first performance of Britten's War Requiem in Toronto. I chose this work because it's programmed alone and any professional performance is going to use virtually identical forces. In 1963, the top-price single ticket price was $5. The TSO's top-price season ticket was $50. Running $5 through an inflation calculator gave a current price of $35 as I recall. In fact, a top-price ticket today to that work costs $100 or more. It's great the musicians and support staff are receiving better pay, but even at that price the orchestra loses money on the concert. A chamber War Requiem is out of the question, and a five-thousand-seat hall isn't viable, so what do you do?

Nov 27, 2020, 9:21am

>8 librorumamans: There are probably few, if any, western orchestras and opera companies which could function without substantial philanthropic donations to add to ticket revenue, particularly, at least in the UK, with the decline in state subsidies. The high ticket prices are not enough on their own.

It might be interesting to look at what has happened to the price of cheap seats - I wonder if there is an element of cross subsidy between the Grand Tier boxes and the Gallery.

Nov 27, 2020, 10:50am

>9 abbottthomas:

Oh, sure. Music has always had patrons. But tripling the price of tickets at any time is going to shrink your potential audience. Your point about cross subsidy is an interesting one; we'd need someone in arts management to talk about that.

Jul 10, 7:08am

>10 librorumamans: However, even tripled, the price of tickets is still not as steep as tickets to sporting events or rock concerts.

What I would like to see (and which the CSO in my town has done, on occasion) is offer a "talk with champagne" one hour before the concert. During this time they have several speakers talk about the composer, the story, nuances, etc. They also take questions from the audience. Unfortunately, they have only done this twice in the last 3 years---and for a rather steep additional cost--come on, 1 glass of champagne does not cost $49! For that, we should get a meal!