Sunday, February 03, 2013

Maybe we need to wise-up the classical music audience

I am 51. Thirty years ago I went to punk concerts, Twenty years ago I would go to dub reggae concerts or jazz bars; now I go to the Wigmore Hall , the Southbank, St.Lukes etc. I love the fact my life can progress as I age, I take friends all the time to these places and introduce them to the slower more mature and harder to appreciate pleasures of classical music. I prefer my fellow listeners to not dress too scruffily, and I like the acoustics of my concert halls.

What am I saying? That people should have things to grow into, to aspire to, that classical music is typically more complex than pop music, and that's what makes the whole journey worthwhile. We should not dumb down classical music, on the contrary we need to be wising-up the audiences. And not think there is something wrong if the average 25 year old fed on pop music doesn't go to classical concerts, any more than there is something wrong in the average 50 year old not going to pop concerts.
That comment was added by a reader to Do classical music’s big new ideas have real substance? Maybe appreciating classical music, like fine wine and whisky, depends on a maturing process. Maybe it is very difficult to accelerate that maturing process by anything other than music education. Maybe we are banging our head against a brick wall trying to accelerate it by empty gestures such as dressing-down, and maybe we need to do a better job of explaining that to funders. Maybe, as I wrote in the original post, we need to show more respect for classical music’s loyal core audience, and maybe we need to understand the opportunity cost of alienating that audience . Maybe I am wrong. But that simple but so powerful word ‘maybe’ was conspicuously absent from Max Hole’s recent personal vision for the future of classical music. Maybe there is a middle path. Or maybe Max Hole is sinfini wrong and all we need to do is wise-up the classical audience.

Header image is 1961 Columbia LP of Pablo Casals, Alexander Schneider and Mieczyslaw Horszpwski performing for President Kennedy in the White House; more on that path here. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links etc to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

4 comments:

Pliable said...

The sub-heading on that 1961 Casals LP is worth spelling-out -

'We must regard artistic achievement and action as an integral part of our society' - President John F. Kennedy

Mike said...

There must be a middle path at least in terms of exposing kids to classical music. In my entire schooling up to age 18 I had maybe one-two terms in which it was presented to the class. I lived in an Australian rural town where I was a day away from a concert hall, and there were no radio stations with classical music, no library with music to borrow. I was barely aware of what I might be missing out on.

Rewind to two years earlier to when I'd started having piano lessons with a rather aged yet violent nun in the convent up the road. I was being introduced to music by Mendelssohn, Purcell, Beethoven and others that I'd never heard in any form (and the way she banged out their melodies with one hand, I wasn't getting much more familiar with them). The lessons stopped after a short period when she retired and there were no alternate teachers.

I don't remember hearing any Chopin, any Mozart until I was at university and bought a few cheap cassettes out of curiosity for self-education. Once the door was opened, I was completely intoxicated. I was getting exposed to a lot more than classical music but little of it stuck in the same way. I'm a much more informed appreciator of popular music because of what I know about classical forms, and have never become mired in the music of my youth.

I know many adults regret not learning an instrument when they were younger. I'm sad that even though I knew I wanted them when I was a child that the resources were not there, or only barely. I've stuck to the piano despite that and can satisfy myself with moderately difficult works (I'm working on a Chopin etude, ballade and the Fantasie-Polonaise right now) but know I will never catch up the physical and auditory dexterity I may have gained early on.

The world has changed enormously since then. Any kid living in that town will have access via the internet at least to a vast trove of classical repertoire. But are they aware of it? If they don't have a parent or teacher to act as a guide, to at least switch the light open and leave the door ajar then there is an equally vast trove of kitten videos for them to distract them.

There was a brief period when I listened to classical music stations, but to be quite honest the presenters bored the living daylights out of me. Thirty years later I'm afraid that most of them still do. Is there a Karl Haas for the 21st century?

Pliable said...

Karl Haas - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zINDMdEfGjQ

mrG said...

Classical audiences are characterized by two demographic quantities: progressively advancing age and progressively dwindling numbers. that right there should tell you the score.

If this is music for the mature set, why were Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and Liszt so young? Were they unpopular with their peers? Was it only aged matrons throwing themselves at the superstars on tour? Those are rhetorical questions.

So what's the deal then. Why is the audience aging and dwindling? An astute statistician would guess that there was something peculiar about the audience population, something either they lack that the newer audiences have, or something they have that the newer audiences lack, and it is perhaps something that can be acquired since, as your commenter confesses, it can be gained with some effort by age 50.

My guess is the missing ingredient is musical training. The aged audience all had childhood experience in producing music and experience in the emersive experience of live music; the pop-demographic only has experience consuming music, and even there, primarily consuming the shadow of sound engraved on bits of plastic, rarely if ever performed 'live' and primarily in that case not delivered live to their bodies but mediated by various sorts of electronic sound systems.

So this begs for some experimentation :) We need to take some youngsters, the younger the better so as to match the typical church-goer parade-attending experience of the WWII generation, and expose them to real live music on a regular (weekly or more) basis, and create situations where they are also able to take their first safe baby steps in playing these acoustic instruments and playing the musical language of the classical tradition.

My hypothesis is these kids will grow to better appreciate what goes into a live symphony show, better notice when players give astounding performances and astounding interpretations, better value the superior acoustics of professional grade instruments played by professional grade players in professional grade architecture.