Change the celebrity musicians, not the audience
Elsewhere the dead horse of changing concert hall conventions is being given another futile flogging. Has it not occurred to anyone else that concertgoers applaud between movements to add some spontaneity to the perfectly manicured and totally lifeless performances that are the stock-in-trade of the new generation of youthful maestros? Has it not occurred to anyone else that audiences bring drinks into concert halls because today's unadventurous and uninspired concerts are best experienced through an alcoholic haze?
The sociologist Emile Durkheim posited that to redefine a convention you must first break that convention. Classical music revisionists preach that to attract new audiences, concert hall conventions must be broken. This doctrine may, or may not, contain some truth. But what is certain is that breaking existing concert hall conventions is simply part of Emile Durkheim’s process of redefinition, from which a new set of conventions - which coincidentally often serve the commercial interests of the revisionists - emerge.
In the past leading musicians – the magnets that attract audiences old and new – were by convention resolutely individualistic. Herbert von Karajan was an autocrat egomaniac who left an enduring recorded legacy. Bruno Walter’s breadth of vision meant he could coax sublime Mozart and Mahler from the same orchestra. Sir Thomas Beecham combined undisguised misogynism with a compelling passion for the neglected music of Frederic Delius. Leonard Bernstein contributed to the Mahler revival while writing one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. Sergiu Celibidache delivered definitive interpretations while shunning the recording studio. Arturo Toscanini’s temper tantrums were as legendary as his Beethoven, Leopold Stokowski was a serial womaniser who revealed Bach to millions, while Wilhelm Furtwängler's breathtaking political naivety contrasted with the diverse new music that he explored in 1930s Berlin.
This convention of resolute if flawed individualism has been broken and redefined by today’s revisionist culture. To become an ‘A list’ conductor the new conventions stipulate that the following boxes must be ticked. Specialise in Mahler, Shostakovich and whichever late-Romantics are celebrating an anniversary. Steer well clear of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. Record for a Universal Music label, maintain a high profile on Sinfini Music, keep Norman Lebrecht on side, and agree to demeaning photo shoots such as the one above. Sign with one of the power broker management agencies, and have a birth date after 1974. Be conciliatory on matters Middle Eastern, and liberal - but not too liberal - on other matters of the moment. Profess a passion for new music, but confine it to pieces de garage - works of less than ten minutes duration played at the start of a concert while subscribers are parking their cars. And, above all, assert your celebrity by continuing to demand fees guaranteed to hasten the demise of our many financially challenged orchestras and opera houses.
These new conventions extend beyond conductors to soloists. Is it surprising that mind-numbingly boring concerts by box-ticked celebrity musicians playing the same box-ticked repertoire* are turning audiences - both young and old - off? Trading one set of silly conventions for another set of silly conventions will not attract new audiences. Boozing during Brahms and tweeting during Tippett is not the answer. If classical music really wants to revitalise itself, it should stop banging on about changing the audience, and start changing today’s colourless celebrity musicians. As Leonard Bernstein told a colleague when discussing whether he should conduct Mahler’s reconstituted Tenth Symphony: “I have one question, will it give me an orgasm?”
* This post was triggered by listening to a new CD that defies all the box-ticking conventions. La Camera delle Lacrime is a French ensemble committed to revitalising early music. One of their founders is the Cambodian visionary and film producer Khai-dong Luong who specialises in challenging normative behaviour. In 2013 La Camera delle Lacrime worked with the Dordogne Youth Choir, a respected group that combines artistic excellence with innovation, in a concert performance of the medieval Le Livre Vermeil de Montserrat, and the newly released CD on the Paraty label transcribes the Radio France recording of the concert. Le Livre Vermeil de Montserrat is a fusion of sacred and secular celebration, and the performance by La Camera delle Lacrime and the Dordogne Youth Choir endows it with a convention-busting Sufic ecstasy, particularly in the Qawali-like declamatory style of tenor Bruno Bonhoure. Also provoking my thoughts was Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afganistan by Kenneth P. Lizzio, and, particularly, the book’s description of the tension between the sober (baga) Sufism of Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910) and the ecstatic Sufism (fana) of the martyred saint Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922). Forget about disco lighting; to attract new audiences classical music needs more ecstasy and less sobriety in the performances. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.