Today would have been my father’s 79th birthday. He passed away over five years ago, though for me, especially today, it feels like it happened yesterday. He gave me many different gifts, and since his passing, I’ve seen them come together in ways I hadn’t expected, but that I think he’d be pleased to see. We shared a love for many things, including baseball and the Pink Panther movies, but I’ll focus here on the two most important – music and social justice.
First of all, the music world is very different from the one he knew, but there are many things happening now that he would have liked.
My dad believed that art was for everyone, and often lamented that more people didn’t know and love the music that was so central to his life. Anyone who’s read this blog before knows I have offered many reasons why great music has such a small fan base, and I’ve tried to offer some solutions to the problem – thankfully, many others in the classical music world are working on this, too – a development I know he would appreciated.
I started Bach and Boombox because of the connections between all kinds of music that my dad showed me. Along with countless new classical music concerts, he also took me to many jazz performances (he’d been a jazz pianist in his early days), and introduced me to the Beatles, too. He was a firm believer in the saying – “There are two kinds of music – good, and the other kind.”
Nowadays, I spend much of my time sharing the joy of playing music with kids who might not get to otherwise, through 4-Way’s String Project at Woodford Paideia. My dad helped open my eyes to the inequities in society early on, and we often talked about how they could be addressed – I think he’d be especially pleased that we’ve found a way to be of service through music.
This past weekend, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra gave our final concert of the season, and the program began with a brief performance by violin students from the orchestra’s Play Us Forward program, most of whom come from economically challenging circumstances. On stage with them were players from the orchestra (including yours truly) and our guest artists for the evening, violinist Vadim Gluzman (who has been a big supporter of the program) and violist Paul Neubauer, who a few minutes later would give a thrilling performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. In the picture below (courtesy of another ProMusica cellist – thank you, Cora!), you can see all of us, playing together – this is the kind of musical and social connection I’m sure Dad would have liked to see.
In his own music, my dad shared a great deal of himself, and you can hear his varied musical influences, from Schoenberg to Stan Getz. So to close, let’s hear a short dance for piano, performed by his friend Richard Becker, that gives you a good sense of him and where he was coming from. Like all his music, it’s both intense and subtle, and at about the 2:00 mark, it starts to sound (to me, at least) like an Earth, Wind and Fire record – a little bit of funk to finish.
Of all the kinds of music I know, classical is the only genre that comes with instructions. Imagine for a moment the pre-concert lecture at this performance:
No other kind of music really needs to be explained when it’s performed. And often, when it is, you wish it hadn’t been.
But in the classical music world, performances often come with extra reading. Program notes can give insight into a piece’s history and structure, or a summary of the story the piece may (or may not) tell.
There’s nothing wrong with this – well-written notes (like the excellent ones written by my ProMusica colleague Marc Moskovitz) can offer great insight into a performance.
But what about the newbies? What about someone who’s never been to a concert before and doesn’t really care about sonata-rondo form or what aleatoric means? I bet some of these folks feel that they have some homework to catch up on, and that’s not something we want.
Holly is about to perform a relatively new work, Jennifer Higdon’s 2010 Violin Concerto, and got a group of middle schoolers to write down (and draw) their impressions after hearing some of it. You can read (and see) them here.
This is my favorite:
Wow – that’s the kind of fully engaged listener any musician wants, right?
The best point Mulcahy makes is one I’ve experienced many times performing Bach and Boombox – kids are more open to new cultural experiences than adults. And she adds something I hadn’t thought of, writing:
“Somewhere between our childhood and our adulthood we gain a sense of adventure with the foods we try…But the tradeoff for adults seems to be our cultural intake. Many of us lose the desire to experience new art, to explore and appreciate new music or paintings that challenge us the same way we expect new culinary dishes to excite us…This is where kids have us beat. While their palate may not be geared for a roasted Brussel sprout dish enhanced with a pomegranate glaze, their ability to open their minds and imagination freely with art is something adults need to emulate.”
Just a quick aside to take this food/music comparison one step further – I think a lot of people feel this way about classical music:
All kidding aside, I do think that the idea that classical music comes with required reading and studying does make many people think of concert-going as a chore instead of fun.
There are many concertgoers who eagerly read or listen to someone else’s view of a piece. That’s great, of course, but shouldn’t we be encouraging listeners to share their own ideas too? I bet many adult concertgoers have just as vivid reactions to music as kids do, but they are much less likely to share them – we need to fix that.
Why don’t we ask adult concertgoers to write program notes as well as reading them? What about having an audience member give a pre-concert talk about the first time they heard one of the works on the program? There have even been concerts with “tweet seats” – you can read about one here.
Many groups, like ProMusica, have post-concert conversations – what about one devoted to getting the audience to write program notes for the pieces they just heard? Maybe there could be an incentive given to people who shared their views, like a chance to win free or discounted tickets to an upcoming concert.
Classical musicians and our fans LOVE what we do and think of this great music as life-changing, but we know that many audience members (and potential audience members don’t feel that way yet. In fact, I think our passion for what we do and insistence on its profundity scares some people away!
There’s a great opportunity here to make more people feel welcome and invested in what we do by simply asking their opinion of it – I think we should seek out every opportunity to do that.
Classical music’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is the fortress of formality we’ve walled ourselves off in – these two are taking a wrecking ball to it.
There’s so much to rave about with these two, but for me, their absolute disregard for traditional concert decorum is what’s best about the show. They began by stealing the orchestra’s applause after we played an overture. Then they started arguing about whether to play Mozart or James Bond – naturally, they put them together.
More mashups followed, including one of Rachmaninoff and Barry Manilow, and my favorite, a finale which combined Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” with Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, “Autumn Leaves,” and “The Final Countdown,” by 80’s one-hit wonder Europe, (which inspired my new hairdo).
Classical musicians are always worried about being excessively showy – ask someone in the business about current piano star Lang Lang, for example, and you will likely be greeted with a pained look and lots of eye-rolling. “It’s about the music,” many will say, “not the performer.” There’s some truth to this, for sure, but our overly serious demeanor also can make for some pretty dull concerts.
On Friday, I was struck by how far out of our comfort zone the members of the orchestra were – we had to dance, sing, cry, make faces and headbang – and how easy it was to get us to do it. I felt like I’d been paroled (and been given a makeover).
There’s a long tradition of inside jokes in the classical music world, ranging from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony to Victor Borge and P.D.Q. Bach. These are very clever, and fun if you’re a classical aficionado, but probably don’t do much to bring in new audiences.
What makes Igudesman and Joo different, and in my mind, potentially much more valuable, is that you don’t need to be interested in classical music to like their act. Their comedy is current and mainstream, making fun of kung-fu movies and shows like American Idol.
Their act is also physical and full of slapstick – many times on Friday, Joo looked like he was channeling Harpo Marx.
This brings up another key strength of Igudesman and Joo – they’re also a throwback to the days when The Three Stooges could make fun of opera and everyone would laugh, not just music nerds. If we want to return classical music to that kind of cultural relevance, we’ll need to connect with people the way these guys do.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we need to make every performance a variety show – much of the concert experience is good for the music and the audience. However, Igudesman and Joo help us see how silly some of it is, much the way Jon Stewart skewers the news media, another group of people whose work is important, but would be both improved and more widely appreciated if they didn’t take themselves so seriously.
Back to that fortess of formality – we built it ourselves and we’ve gotten so used to it that many of us are afraid to go outside. Igudesman and Joo have knocked a big hole in the wall – grab a hammer and start swinging!
Recently, the very traditional world of classical music has been revitalized by people trying new things (and not a moment too soon). One of my favorites: Time for Three, who call themselves the world’s first “classically trained garage band.”
They are, first and foremost, GREAT players, trained at one music’s elite academies, the Curtis Institute. But they also put on a great show, playing original compositions, tunes by Mumford and Sons, and mashups of Grieg’s Holberg Suite with Led Zeppelin and Justin Timberlake. Next week’s playlist will be about “cover” songs, and I’ll include some of their tunes.
As we walked offstage, my stand partner, Joel, (who is an innovator too – check out his group Revel) said “Kind of points out the obvious, doesn’t it – we’re in the entertainment business.” A simple statement, to which many people would say “Duh” but many others (mostly ones in the business) would say “Oh, no – what we do is too important and meaningful to be called entertainment.”
This is one of classical music’s biggest challenges – those of us who perform it see it as a a transcendent, even spiritual experience worth making an effort for, and many potential audience members think of it as just one of many choices for their leisure time. Both views are right, I think, but classical music organizations have had a hard time getting more people to come to concerts because of this difference.
Time for Three has one approach that tries to bridge that gap, and they are making a good case for shaking things up. It’s not the only solution, but it’s a good one, I think. Please post your comments, and add groups or performers you think are changing the concert world for the better.
Till Monday (and the new playlist),
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