Sunday, June 5, 2016

Will these suggestions make classical concerts less "stifling"?

Classical music needs to attract new listeners. This isn't news. Pretty much anyone who cares about the future of classical music realizes this, and to believe otherwise is to be in denial. This isn't another  hand-wringing pronouncement that "Classical music is dying!"—it's an acknowledgment that classical music is subject to cultural forces and needs to build audiences with each generation in order to endure.

How to attract these new listeners remains the subject of debate. Some have proposed augmenting the concert experience, adding features that might help the highly sough-after "millennials" feel more at ease during a live performance—such as these listening guides by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which use notation that resembles video games such as Rock Band to explain form. Some argue that the concert experience itself need to change, due to classical music's image problem: it's too stuffy and old fashioned, and concert traditions are alienating.

Toronto critic Michael Vincent falls into this latter camp (though the positions I mentioned are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive). Earlier this week, he published a list of "Nine Things That Should Change About Classical Music." He explains, "[T]he concert etiquette at classical music performances can be a stifling experience for newbies attending symphony concerts."

Having taught music appreciation classes at UCSB, I agree with that assessment. Many of my students expressed confusion over certain traditions, including ones on Vincent's list. I like that Vincent focuses on the rituals surrounding music rather than the music itself; despite the headline, he is pointing out aspects of classical concerts he thinks should change.

While I agree that concert etiquette could stand to be looser (a point I'll discuss at the end of this post), I don't think that all of Vincent's suggestions support his stated goal. Instead, some items are personal annoyances.

Here are Vincent's suggestions, paraphrased:
1. Allow clapping between movements.
2. Jam cellphone signals.
3. Stop tuning on stage.
4. Conductors should stay on stage.
5. Conductors should be earnest when shaking hands with the Concertmaster.
6. Stop calling composers “emerging.”
7. Standing ovations should be earned.
8. Stop wearing coats with tails.
9. Stop ghettoizing contemporary music.
Like most lists of this nature, I agree with some items and disagree with others. I'm going to discuss them out of order because there are a few different threads connecting various items.

I'll start with the ones that I don't think can be changed. As a (former) performer, I reacted strongly to #3, which reveals a misunderstanding of the logistics of performing. Instruments must be tuned onstage. Temperature and humidity can vary between offstage and on, especially under bright lights. The instruments physically expand or contract when they change environments, so they must be tuned in the performance space immediately beforehand. Vincent will just have to put up with it if he wants to hear music that's in tune.

I don’t believe that #2 is feasible, and Vincent concedes as much. Cell phones can disrupt any type of performance, not just classical concerts. Beyond the customary reminders to turn off mobile devices and the fear of humiliation if they do go off, I don’t know what else can be done. I also don't understand how this particular item contributes to the goal of making the concert experience less stifling, so including it on this list comes across as futile and crotchety.

Two of the items pertain to the presentation of contemporary music. In #9, Vincent recommends that recent compositions be placed on the program in whatever way gives the best balance, not always put right at the beginning just because they’re new and unfamiliar. Thinking about concerts I’ve attended, I have heard new pieces featured in different slots of the program. Maybe he's describing a trend in Toronto that I’m not aware of, but in any case, I agree with the position that new music should be allowed to be anywhere on the program, even if that doesn't directly pertain to attracting new listeners.

Related to #9 is #6, where Vincent resents calling composers “emerging.” I get the impression that Vincent believes the word is a euphemism, signaling to the audience: “Here’s some new music you might not like! Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” I'm not convinced that a new listener would crack the code, but I understand his frustration. To that end, I agree with him, though he presents it more as his pet peeve than another way in which orchestras relegate living composers to secondary status.

The remaining five items concern the theater of the classical concert. Suggestion #1 criticizes a tradition that emerged in the nineteenth century. Audiences used to clap between movements. In fact, sometimes movements of a symphony were spread out throughout the program, not played together as a single set. Audiences also used to talk during concerts. But in the 19th century, several factors led people to treat music differently, perceiving listening as a quasi-religious activity requiring attention and reverent behavior. I'm glossing over some of the details, but my point is that etiquette has changed and can change again.

I agree with Vincent on #1, that allowing people to clap when they feel like it would make the experience less restrictive. I don't understand how #4 would help, though I do know that my own students found the conductor's repeated exits and re-entrances confusing. I've known some conductors to use that moment to discretely wipe off their sweat, though I've also seen a few who take care of that at the podium.

Suggestion #5 confuses me. Vincent seems to take issue with a lack of sincerity: "[T]he tradition of the conductor shaking [the Concertmaster's] hand has become an expectation, rather than an earnest greeting or show of respect." Maybe repetition has dulled the gesture so it no longer seems genuine, but is Vincent advocating that they stop shaking hands? Or is he just saying to put some feeling into it? I think the concert experience would benefit from more moments of human connection like this, not fewer.

Vincent expresses similar concerns in #7: "Standing ovations should be a rare and special gesture reserved only for most astonishing performances. Otherwise, the gesture becomes meaningless and cheapens the act." I have a few problems with this item. First of all, this suggestion modifies audience behavior, and I don't see how an organization could go about discouraging a standing ovation. Secondly, who decides what qualifies as a "most astonishing performance"? To a person attending a classical concert for the first time, the performance might be astonishing! This phrase betrays snobbery from the critic. If the goal is to make music less stifling, then don't complain when people express different opinions.

That leaves #8: Stop wearing coats and tails. Again, I'm not familiar with the Toronto scene, but I've seen a lot of variety in concert attire, on stage and off (especially in Southern California!). "Coats and tails" seems more like a stereotype of classical music than current reality, so complaining about it as though it's the norm does more to perpetuate the stuffy image than fight it.

Since I started this blog last month, I've made it a goal not to use it merely to complain, but to promote positive change. To that end, I'd like to add my own suggestion to the list: Take opportunities to speak directly to the audience. Don't ramble on too long, since people primarily want to hear the music, but put a little time into acknowledging the audience's presence and showing the performers as people. 

During one of my classes' required concerts, the first violinist of the string quartet introduced the next piece and mentioned how the ensemble approached it. My students all remembered that moment; it shattered the imaginary fourth wall at the edge of the stage and invited them into the performance. As I said in my comments on #5, we would benefit from more moments of human connection.

"Nine Things That Should Change About Classical Music" by Michael Vincent for Musical Toronto

1 comment:

  1. I think the list proves that the classical concert experience really isn't that restrictive--if the conductor shaking hands with the concertmaster qualifies as a problem, the problem can't be that bad. I'd say the only real sticking point is clapping between movements, and on this I stand with the fuddy-duddies: best to have an expectation that it doesn't happen. What is the alternative? Four full-scale ovations for each symphony seems improbable; more likely is a dribble of applause between movements that impedes the music while doing no honor to the performers. I saw just that at a recent, excellent civic symphony concert that seemed to draw many people new to the experience. The half-hearted applause between movements broke the spell of the music (especially in the closing Bruckner symphony) and clearly distracted the musicians and the conductor--who finally turned and gestured to the audience not to applaud. That was unfortunate--better that the expectation is clear. Those new to the experience--like those new to any experience--would be wise to wait for cues from those around them (when in Rome, as they say...).