Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Eternal "Concert Halls are Too Offputting" Debate

Crossposting a long comment I wrote on Greg Sandow's blog, since, well, content is content...

Sandow's original post is here, which was followed by comments that people, especially the young, are loath to replete shrinking classical music audiences because the concert hall is too restrictive and doesn't allow for enough audience expression.

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I guess I just find it hard to believe that anyone who is likely to actually be interested in classical music is being kept out of the concert hall because of these petty prohibitions. At some point you have to want to sit through 40 minutes of Beethoven, not just try to endure 40 minutes of Beethoven by distracting yourself with your phone and intermittent clapping. And if you don't want to sit through it then why should you have to? Look, if the goal here is to trick people to get some extra butts in the seats and massage hurting orchestras' revenues, that's a business decision and you gotta do what you gotta do. But that's a conversation for business development departments or something, not for people interested in broader questions about how to best serve music they love.

On who has the etiquette rules, I made careful to specify "not in a bar". I like going to bars, and I like to hear music in bars, and I think that these efforts to do chamber music in bars and bar-like venues is great. I'm hoping to finally get to a show at Le Poisson Rouge the weekend after next and am very excited about it. But it's a different etiquette because its a space with multiple purposes. And while it's great for some things, it's kind of hard to fit the CSO in most bars, not to mention major dance and theater, which have similar if not identical etiquette. I was at that CONTACT show that had Nico's pieces in it, and I agree that the Harris theater is a big hulking space far better suited to opera or dance than the kind of intimate, personal chamber music they were doing, and the atmosphere was stilted. Presenters can always do a better job of choosing an appropriate venue. But the point is there are different levels of appropriate interaction in each that would feel out of place in another.

It goes to the heart of why Sandow's comments sometimes feel problematic to me, i.e. this example Sandow uses above with a New Orleans jazz band inspiring dancing through the street. Putting aside his misleading example of the Bernstein performance, which obviously is a special case of history and moment, why should an everyday Beethoven 9th performance and an everyday New Orleans jazz band performance be experienced the same way? Why must we force those people dancing in the street to do it to Beethoven or vice versa? Can't we just let them have the real thing?

I think we have all this anecdotal evidence of younger audiences being disproportionately attracted to groups like Bang on a Can because THAT IS WHAT THEY LIKE. It doesn't make them particularly interested in hearing Schubert art songs. So let people listen to Bang on a Can at their desired volume. And if that means in 20 years, there are fewer Schubert recitals given, then that’s how its going to be. I feel pretty confident that there is enough of a critical mass of people who will still love to perform and listen to Schubert that we're not facing some kind of Schubert extinction. But when it is performed, let people listen to it the way people who love it want to listen to it. Let them enjoy the quietness and delicacy of Schubert's melodies in some kind of recital space, unamplified, and don't force them or the performers to interrupt their concentration for people getting up to go to the bathroom or a round of applause every 3 minutes.

Let's have more trust in the judgment of people who seek out the performance of music because they love to know how they want to experience it. I suspect anything else is an exercise in futility.

P.S. This agony over the clapping thing has got to stop. It’s a useful convention because the audience doesn’t know how a conductor/ensemble/etc. wants to handle a transition between movements and it’s just the nature of the beast that we let it be their prerogative to shape a performance. We give them the freedom to let a quiet movement settle or drive right into the next. Also, it ends up adding a lot of time to a concert with a bunch of movements. The only people who are “concerned” about it are those who act like this one piece of practical performance etiquette is a grave personal affront. We live in a society predicated upon venue specific etiquette, why can’t people accept that this is the etiquette for this particular interaction? I don’t get it.

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A final point: I hope the part about Bang on a Can and loudness doesn't come off dismissive. Disproportionate interest among contemporary audiences for contemporary music is obviously the world we want to live in and they are creating really exciting and interesting music. Yeah, it probably means some restructuring in the Schubert industry, but Schubert will be OK. My point was just that we shouldn't force the appropriate performance practice of one onto the performance practice of the other.

Later: Dur...small correction: that commenter on Sandow's blog was referencing a comment Nico Muhly made about the NY Phil's new music series. I mixed that up with the MusicNOW series the CSO does that I saw Nico in the other year (I think I imagined it with a similarly aggressive exclamation point). Anyhow. The Harris Theater is still kind of a sucky venue for chamber music.

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