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.


Pliable said…
John McLaughlin Williams has commented via Facebook: 'Pretty much what I thought when reading Johnny Greenwood's 'things must change' piece'.
Elaine Fine said…
Here IS a case where institutions can make a difference. Orchestral boards often believe that audiences (and revenue) come as a result of hiring flashy celebrity conductors and soloists and programming big meaty and brassy works. The problem is that those programming decisions tend to work, but the audiences who show up because they are lured by the promise of splendour and glitz often have expectations of how best to spend their evening out. Maybe tastefully-played. Mozart isn't part of that menu. Maybe thoughtful playing could get lost on an audience who comes to concerts for those "Bernstein moments."

Music criticism doesn't help the cause either, because sensitive and honest critics are few and far between, and there is less and less of a chance for novice concert-goers to educate themselves with the guidance of people who listen for the substance rather than the surface of a performance.

The act of listening to music can be personally enriching, or it can be merely entertaining. People who run concert series take all sorts of chances when they opt for the possibility of enriching their audience. It is a tough call to make when our way of musical life is in such a fragile place, and when so many of the glitterati of musical life present less in the way of thoughtful musical substance than the more homely and humble variety.
Philip Amos said…
The key words in your post for me, Bob, are at the end of the footnote: "...classical music needs more ecstasy and less sobriety in the performances".

O God, yes!!! I think many people may know the experience of looking at, say, a wondrous vista, yet realize they cannot 'see' it. With music, I think we have to turn upside-down another kindred observation: I should think we've all had the experience of talking to someone who hears but does not listen. Upend that, and I find my problem with the vaster number of performances today: I listen, but I do not hear, which is to say, I am acutely aware that I am listening to (and I choose this example for a reason) Mahler's First, but it is not Mahler's First I am hearing. I hear the notes Mahler wrote, but where is the 'meaning', the spirit, the intent, whatever one might, always inadequately, call it, though at bottom it is that ineffable thing that should momentarily stop you applauding or cheering at the end of a performance because, for that moment, you are too stunned.

The real problem may not be best expressed by saying that I can't hear it, but rather that the conductor can't. Or, of course, the soloist/recitalist, although the dearth of great conductors is by far the bigger of two huge problems. "What happened to the great conductor?" has been a question in the air for many years now. My suspicion is that they never learnt how to study and think (!) about a score properly -- a huge discipline far more important than technique. Without pun intended, I'm not sure many have the discipline to do it, and I'm sure that with one hint of a successful career, i.e., of a demand for their services, their management will make damn sure they don't have the time for it.

And many will happily be complicit in this or, as in the case of Barenboim et al., create that situation themselves, garnering so many contracts that there simply cannot be time for the contemplation and analysis of scores, the reading of relevant literature, all those 'chores' necessary to find an approximation of 'truth' in a work, to hear it afresh, not to interpret it but to recreate it.

I mentioned the Mahler First, for just yesterday I heard a performance via radio that left me absolutely cold, so much so that I needed an immediate corrective. In this case, that meant a performance of the work conducted by Mitropoulos, either the 1951 or 1960 with the NYPO in concert. I know of no other performance of any work that better illustrates 'ecstasy'. As with Sibelius' Fifth, I should rather hear a great performance of the work at home than a performance, even an equally great one, in a concert hall, for at the end there is no appropriate sound to make, no words, no applause, unless it be the sound of one hand clapping.

Lastly, I should say that this is not only true of works of the Romantic or neo-Romantic period. The same may apply to a performance of, e.g., Mozart's Symphony 41. That work, the two mentioned above and so many more are magisterial statements to which there is no answer.
Anonymous said…
I appreciate that contemporary music has been relegated to a very few minutes at the front of the program to leave room for the obligatory 19th- or early 20th-century monument, but IMO, very few works composed after 1950 or so rise to the artistic level even 2nd-tier composers achieved in earlier style periods. The reasons for this are many but lie outside the scope of a blog comment.

The attributes of checkmark conductors (and players) with follow-the-rules, paint-by-the-numbers approaches to artistry are by now pretty well established. Nice to see them collected in a paragraph. It’s problematic, though, to long for an earlier era replete with misbehavior on the podium when the spirit of the times now channels everyone toward calm, safe, evenly measured (i.e., professional) utterance. I can easily observe the resulting phenomenon of hollowed-out music, but I’m not nearly so confident about the solution.

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