How to reach a big new post-COVID classical audience
Bruno Walter's 1938 Vienna Philharmonic interpretation of Mahler's Ninth Symphony still has the power to move and enlighten, despite the technical limitations of the recording. Similarly Wilhelm Furtwängler's Berlin Philharmonic concert recording from 1949 of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony still reminds us that beauty is more powerful than hatred, again despite considerable technical limitations. Today, blowing 866 million euro on a not quite acoustically perfect concert hall is the go-to solution for saving classical music, which means a celebrity conductor can throw his batons out of the pram when he is not rewarded with a blinged-out new hall. So why, given these contemporary priorities, can great recordings from the past touch us so deeply when heard through the technology equivalent of a tin shed concert hall?
The answer lies in the little-understood but vitally important process of listening. There is no such thing as perfect sound, or historic sound, or bad sound. There is only one sound, and that is the sound you are hearing at this very moment. Sound cannot be 'captured'. Because the act of recording creates a new sound, and when that recording is replayed yet another sound is created by the replay system and the listening room acoustic. And there is no such thing as remembered sound: because the observer effect creates a new sound in the mind of the listener. The only sound that matters is the sound that is here and now, because that is the only sound. To paraphrase Ram Dass, listen here now: because you will never hear the same sound again.
This thread is much more than a lockdown mind game. The transitory nature of sound and the brain's inability to hold an accurate reference sound explains why we can savour 1938 Mahler, which is the gastronomic equivalent of savouring a five star Michelin meal that has been left in the kitchen for eight decades before serving. This inherently ephemeral nature of sound explains why great recorded music still sounds great when heard through a less than stellar audio system, and why superlative music making does not need a multi-million euro concert hall to profoundly move us. We can make sense of relatively poor quality sound because the brain is able to compensate for short-term sensory deprivation. This miraculous faculty fills-in missing sound content and compensates for distortion; ironically it is also the mechanism which can trigger tinnitus, an affliction common among professional musicians.
Once the truth that sound is impermanent, transitory, unrepeatable, and unique to each listener is accepted, classical music listening takes on a different perspective. And that new perspective sheds valuable light on the major challenge of building a post-COVID classical audience. Accepting that sound is impermanent and beyond accurate capture by technology or the human brain throws into question the whole elitist edifice of definitive interpretations, celebrity exponents, perfect acoustics, and peer approval that classical music's current business model is built on.
Hopefully we will soon be out of the depths of lockdown. But respected scientists are telling us that COVID will be with us for many years to come. We are entering a new normal in which international travel will be more difficult and arts funding will be curtailed. Great music will always survive, just as Bruno Walter's Mahler has survived for 83 years. But new audiences must engage with great music at a local not global level, and we must stop spinning the myth to new listeners that to experience the real thing they must leave their home region and travel to a designer concert hall in a metropolitan centre, and pay outrageous money to hear a jet set conductor.
My own classical journey started by hearing an amateur orchestra playing in the local hall, which was the town swimming pool closed for the winter with a temporary floor over the pool space. See photo of the venue below, and yes, that is a woman conducting: read more via this link. Sir Simon would not have approved of the acoustics of Epsom Baths Hall. But to my nine-year-old beginner's ears Holst's Planets Suite sounded fantastic and started me on a classical journey that still continues six decades later. There is a big new post-COVID audience out there waiting to be similarly enthused, if only the classical fraternity could shift its thinking from global to local.