Tuesday, June 7, 2016

With Friends Like These...

Like all good blogs (and musical compositions), this one does have some recurring themes, I just hope I can keep them varied and fresh enough so you don't get bored. The theme today is actually one I stole from musicologist Richard Taruskin, one of the smartest folks around. It was in a review he wrote of several new books attempting to promote or otherwise make the case for classical music that he wrote the following:
As with rising gorge I consumed these books, the question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
He goes on to say that:
The only defense classical music needs, and the only one that has any hope of succeeding, is the defense of classical music (in the words of T.W. Adorno, a premier offender) against its devotees.
So the theme is, "with friends like these (defenders of classical music), who needs enemies?" The latest example is from Musical Toronto and, like so much else from that fair city, it fair reeks with condescending myopia.
the concert etiquette at classical music performances can be a stifling experience for newbies attending symphony concerts. Whether it’s the anxiety about when to clap or what to wear, the fact is, none of these things have anything to do with the enjoyment of music.
If classical music is ever going move beyond a reputation for stiff upper lips, it’s time to start to look carefully at the conventions that have formed around the concert ritual.
We really have heard this about a zillion times before, haven't we? So who is he talking to? Do readers of Musical Toronto need to be propagandized in this way? This is like a stale emanation from the 60s when the Beatles made the London Symphony Orchestra wear funny hats and false noses when recording the orchestral cacophony in "A Day in the Life" just to make sure everyone was being cool. So let's push back against this progressive idiocy.

To all those attending classical music concerts for the first time who have no idea what the experience is like, yes, please stifle your usual behavior. This is not a rugby match, nor a rave, nor a booze up at the pub. This is classical music and we would all be ever so grateful if you dressed properly and did not disturb your neighbor's attempt to hear the music by coughing, laughing, clapping whenever it moves you, blowing your nose, taking selfies and texting your friends. Just stifle it, ok? And listen to the music. That's why you came, right? The conventions that have evolved around the classical concert have a very useful function, on the whole: to enable music of some complexity to be heard and enjoyed with as little extraneous disturbance as possible. If you want to get rid of them, the consequences will be that the music will be more difficult to hear and enjoy. Simple. Now let's look at more of the article, which is, of course, in the form of a top ten list:
Clapping between movements
There has always been an innate urge for the audience to communicate to the musicians on stage. It’s not a one-way street, and sometimes people can’t help themselves. Sorry Mahler, but if you didn’t want people to clap at the end of the first movement of the 8th, you should have made people sit on their hands. If it were I, I’d be clapping at the recapitulation.
Sure, and people like to yell at sportscasters on television and sometimes throw things. Lots of innate urges need to be repressed.
Tuning on stage
Everything you do on stage sends a message. So what is the message you send by tuning on stage? There is no reason why an orchestra, soloist, or chamber ensemble can’t pre-tune before coming on stage.
The message is that actual musicians do check their tuning from time to time. That's how we know they are actual musicians and not holograms or lip-synching. The temperature gradient between backstage and onstage under the lights will usually alter the pitch of most musical instruments. And musicians do pre-tune, of course.
Conductors walking on and off stage
This is a silly tradition and seems mysteriously awkward, especially for anyone new to classical music. Toss it.
Mysteriously awkward? Who is this guy Michael Vincent and why does it sound like he almost never attends a classical concert? Oh, right, it's all a pose. Conductors walk on and off for various reasons, just like soloists do. If it were more logistically feasible, the whole band would walk on and off between pieces just like chamber ensembles do. But just to clue in Mr. Vincent, one reason conductors walk off at the end of a piece is to come back with the concerto soloist for the next piece. OK?
Conductors shaking hands with the Concertmaster
The concertmaster is a vital part of any orchestra, but the tradition of the conductor shaking their hand has become an expectation, rather than an earnest greeting or show of respect.
There are number of traditional customs involving concert etiquette. People who attend a lot of classical concerts get used to them pretty quickly. This particular one acknowledges the important role of the concertmaster in the direction of the orchestra. At the end of a piece, the conductor will probably shake his or her hand again as well as ask important soloists to stand. I have even seen, after an important premiere, the conductor shake the hand of every single person in the orchestra. It is a civilized courtesy.
Standing ovations
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 left out a few items either because they were trivial or I agreed with them. But this one, while I do agree with it, is not trivial. There is an unfortunate tendency to give standing ovations to performances that don't really deserve them. Yes, it should be more special than it is. I often suspect that most standing ovations today are the audience complimenting themselves on their excellent taste, plus getting ready for a quick escape.
Contemporary music
The tradition of ghettoising contemporary music at the beginning of a program, regardless of how it balances hurts the piece and the overall concert.
There is a semi-good point here. There is a tendency for programming to lapse into a dreary sameness. Virtually every string quartet concert I have seen in recent years has followed exactly the same format: something 18th century by Haydn or Mozart (or earlier Beethoven), something contemporary and, in the second half, a big Romantic work. Every single concert! Sorry to say that, unless that big Romantic work was either by Schubert or later Beethoven, I tend to leave at intermission.

But I suspect that, at this point, Mr. Vincent was simply running out of ideas. Here let me add a few:

  • Make every classical concert into a real event that regular folks can appreciate: big video screens, dancers, sur titles, fireworks, Smellovision!
  • Sell t-shirts!
  • More diversity!
  • Sexier concert garb!
You get the idea. Like Richard Taruskin says, the most important defense classical music needs is against some of its own devotees. Classical music is always endangered, always an extreme minority taste, always struggling. The surest way to kill it off entirely is to turn it into some sub-species of popular music. Now I am not actually suggesting that we hunt down and kill André Rieu, not at all. But perhaps a restraining order? Just kidding! Everyone should enjoy exactly what they enjoy and more power to them. Even people who actually like classical music for what it is and not for what it is not.

Our envoi, Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic in Tokyo in 1979. Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5:


Anonymous said...

It's funny you should quote Taruskin because he would vehemently disagree with you. He lamented the "ritualism of our smug, dull concert life." He wrote approvingly of concert-going traditions in 17th c. Italy, which he compared to attending baseball games. The audience brought food, chatted, walked in and out of the hall, played cards, etc.

I personally think Taruskin goes too far (as he does about everything, especially in his anti-Germanism), but perhaps he has a point. Rock concerts and Jazz festival / club events have retained the socio-cultural practices that music used to have. Perhaps there is a correlation with the declining interest in classical music.

By the way, turning concert going into secular church going is a 20th c idea. Up to 1900, Alex Ross said it was common to applaud after any good passage (as one would in a jazz club). He blames Wagnerian influence and American audiences. Arthur Rubinstein said it was barbaric to tell people it is uncivilized to applaud whenever they feel like it. He blamed the inferiority complex of the American music scene for the change. I actually think that's mostly unfair (though not entirely inaccurate). I believe the change coincided with the rise of German nationalism at the end of the 19th c., where classical music became the "official religion" of the new country.

Bryan Townsend said...

The number of people who would disagree with me is legion! Everyone can cite the audience practices of past times as being desirable in our time. Presumably that might even include the nobility having assignations with their mistresses in their boxes at the opera. But I am pretty sure that if all these people practiced what they preached, the results would be both surprising and undesired. Just look at the kerfuffle over cellphones going off willy-nilly. Talk all you want about the unbuttoned enthusiasm of our ancestors. But, unless you are at a rave, or in a jazz club, this kind of noisy audience behavior is simply too disturbing to the rest of us. I am frequently amused at how every other pundit is constantly recommending it. Makes me want to sit next to them in a string quartet concert and make a lot of noise...

Jeph said...

That was a great article by Taruskin, thank you, a LOT to chew on there. As to the character of our concert experience, I agree that it's mostly practical in origin. I recall a gig at a fundraiser dinner for one of our community orchestras. In this casual atmosphere, with a room full of guests, eating and chatting more and more, the wine gets flowing, and the quartet was constantly having to play louder to even hear ourselves. Then a board member asked us to quiet it down please! It was hilarious. There was another time in this big winery built of stone, in a room so echoing we had to mute ourselves or drown out the dinner party. Wedding gigs on the coast in 50 degree weather, fingers numb. Wedding gigs inland in 100 degree weather, melting into puddle. We really are troopers.

So yeah, musicians don't much like extraneous concert activities that compete with the music for focus, and impede their ability to perform. I imagine that the 17th cent Italians were mostly respectful and engaged in quiet pursuits. I think the audience should be free to leave the hall quietly anytime, clap between movements as long as it doesn't break an expressive moment. Talking and cell phone activity is a non-starter, but I certainly wouldn't mind the smell of food (as long as I could have some afterwards...).

The dinner party gig is a place where one can expect to just be sawing away in the background, in less than ideal circumstances. And they're usually a bore to play. But at a concert, we can have an atmosphere that's conducive to concentration, so we can give our best performance, and the audience can hear it. To my mind, the audience should care about that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jeph, as always you put things into perspective. I was trying to make roughly the same point, that a lot of the conventions of the classical music concert are practical courtesies that audience members pick up on pretty quickly.