Illustrator: Koren Shadmi
A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: December 30, 2007
REPORTS about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences.
Consider this: On Dec. 15 the Metropolitan Opera’s first high-definition broadcast of the season, a Saturday matinee of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” played on more than 600 movie screens around the world to 97,000 people, a new record for attendance in this bold Met venture. O.K., the total doesn’t match the millions who watch rock videos. For all her popularity, Anna Netrebko, who sang Juliette, is not Mariah Carey. But classical music always was and always will be of interest to relatively modest numbers of people.
In recent years a spate of articles and books have lamented classical music’s tenuous hold on the popular imagination and defended its richness, complexity and communicative power. I’m thinking especially of the book “Why Classical Music Still Matters” (University of California Press, 2007) by Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English and music at Fordham University.
Just this month classical music emerged as pivotal to international relations. With the blessing of the State Department, the New York Philharmonic announced that it would present a concert in North Korea during its Asian tour in February. Some consider this plan an outrage that will allow a totalitarian regime to use the Philharmonic musicians as puppets for propaganda. Others see it as at least a chance to pry open a door and share Western culture with a closed society, which is pretty much my view.
Either way, implicit in this plan is the idea that classical music matters. It’s not a sports team or pop group that has been enlisted to begin a thaw with the government in Pyongyang. It’s the musicians of a premier American orchestra.
What effect might this concert have on an audience in a repressive society? To Professor Kramer, as he recently told The New York Times, classical music by definition “is addressed to someone who has a certain independence of mind.” It “almost posits for its audience a certain degree of Western identity, which includes that sense of individual capacity to think, to sense, to imagine.”
Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time. Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer.
Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concertgoing become self-evident.
Structure in classical music is the easiest element to describe yet the hardest to perceive. Too often writers of program notes take the easy way and simply lay out the road map of a piece: first this happens, then that happens, then the first thing returns in a modified form and so on. But perceiving these structures as a listener is another matter.
When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep.
Years later, when I was an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, I inherited from my predecessor a music appreciation course called “Listening to Music.” Teaching that class was like missionary work. I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.
Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany, like one awestruck woman who had attended her first live symphonic concert: the New England Conservatory Orchestra at the acoustically splendid Jordan Hall playing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” She had no idea that such viscerally powerful sounds existed.
More often than not, though, these epiphanies did not turn the students into devotees of classical music. Why not? My guess is that the pieces played were simply too long. Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.
In an essay in The New York Times in June, Professor Kramer called for classical music presenters to follow the lead of enterprising art museums, which have had much success in presenting new and old art in interactive, stimulating and demystifying ways. The museum experience encourages visitors to relax, to take in things at their own pace. You feel emboldened to follow your instincts, to move on from a painting that bores you, or linger at some intriguing, baffling work.
As Professor Kramer acknowledged, the analogy is limited. You cannot set your own pace while listening to a Schubert string quartet. A concert can offer pre-
performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked expected really to be quiet and pay attention.
Even so, the act of communal listening need not be reverential. And classical music has its “wow” factors too. What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it.
Concert protocol demands that you stay put for the duration. Yet entering into that receptive state of mind can actually foster excitement over the music. Most young people in today’s interactive, amplified, high-tech world may not instinctively be enticed by the idea of sitting quietly and contemplating a long musical work in a natural acoustical setting. Yet I’ve taken young friends and other classical music neophytes to concerts over the years and been routinely struck by how absorbed they become during, say, a blazing account of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” even while all around us older, restless concertgoers are fiddling in their seats and rustling the pages of their programs.
Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps.
Much less drastic innovations have proved effective. Lincoln Center’s series A Little Night Music, at the intimate Kaplan Penthouse, for example, presents 60-minute programs beginning at 10:30 p.m. Only about 160 people can be accommodated. Patrons share small round cocktail tables and have free glasses of wine. In one program last summer the bookish British pianist Paul Lewis played a probing performance of Beethoven’s stormy, mystical Opus 111 Piano Sonata, followed by the exciting young cellist Alisa Weilerstein delivering an intense account of Kodaly’s brooding and volatile Sonata for Solo Cello. Here were two elusive and demanding works. And the audience was transfixed. I don’t recall a single throat-clearing.
But to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music.
Beethoven was a master musical architect. When his “Eroica” Symphony appeared in 1804, it was the longest work yet written in which virtually every phrase and rhythmic figure was derived from a small group of musical motifs. Beethoven made this colossal symphony, in four quite varied movements, seem organic and whole. Most listeners may discern this only subliminally. But they do.
One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-
concept albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.
For the most part, though, rock and pop songs are relatively short lyrical statements. The classical genre that has most in common with the pop concert is the song recital. It makes no difference that the revered classical song repertory, from Schubert to Mahler, is rich with musically complex, often dark works. Because songs tend to be short, we perceive them as more approachable. This explains why, in a program at Weill Recital Hall three years ago, an appealing young baritone, Nathaniel Webster, segued so easily to an American group including songs by Purcell, Schumann and Wolf to American songs by Gershwin and Rufus Wainwright.
No one was better than Leonard Bernstein at drawing new listeners to classical music. When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets.
But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability and patience to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.