Cocktails with Chopin?

"Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” - Anthony Tommasini

In the December 30, 2007 issue of the NY Times Anthony Tommasini has some interesting comments on whether a patience to listen to classical music is alive and well.

He writes in part: 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. 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, 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. 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. 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 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. 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 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.

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. 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.

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.

Cocktail bars for classical music?

Posted December 31, 2007


Pianoman said...

Great idea! There are jazz clubs all over NY City - why not classical clubs? These would give great opportunities to young pianists to practice their reportoires and while the actual performances and the stage capabilities might not be the best, does that really matter if people who otherwise would not attend a classical concert got an opportunity to see just how great classical music can be.

In my opinion Mozart was the greatest 'jazz' pianist ever to have lived.

Vinny Hall said...

I looked at the reference to Eleanor Rigby which is one of those rare songs in the Dorian mode. I hadn't realized the influence of Vivaldi in the song but now I see it. I agree with the comment that Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby" just longer. In fact the Eleanor Rigby link quotes Howard Goodall who said that the Beatles' works are "a stunning roll-call of sublime melodies that perhaps only Mozart can match in European musical history"

Good idea on the classical clubs!


MIchael N. Hull said...

Many years ago I met Itzhak Perlman at a concert in New York and asked him what other musical interests he had. He immediately said that he liked the Beatles. I later learned that he also like Billy Joel.

Perlman teamed up with Previn to record a CD of Scott Joplin. It's not my favorite Joplin recording - this goes to Joshua Rifkin.


Peter said...

I wonder if Western culture, especially that in the U.S.A. is in danger of entering a new period of ‘the dark ages’. Schools are dropping our cultural heritage from their curricula. I grew up learning Latin in addition to French and German. Some of my friends opted for Greek instead of Latin but in learning these languages we learned a little about some modern day and some ancient cultures. We also had after school programs, usually on a Friday evening, that were devoted to things like introducing us to classical music. We of course went to the musical evenings to walk the girls home afterwards but some of the music stuck with us even if the girls did not. Learning Greek, and Greek mythology coupled with an appreciation of classical music lead directly into an understanding for me of opera. But I fear all of that is gone in favor of sports, and sports, and sports. We now worship the Gods of football rather than the Gods of the Arts.

Take care,

Vinny Hall said...

Peter ... I totally agree with you. Our school system is becoming very one sided on the educational side and overly weighted by sports on the extracurricular side.

I think Mike Huckabee is the only presidential candidate that I have heard suggest that he would like to see a greater emphasis on the 'arts' side of the educational process. Why do we not have classes on say the history of classical music, or the history of opera, which are just as important and maybe more interesting as say the history of the Napoleonic Wars?

Maybe we do need some 'change' in our next presidential candidates. IMHO Huckabee is the best shot on the Republican side and Obama on the Democratic. I would be happy with either one of these guys running!


Joan Ferguson said...

Peter & Vinny

Diana Butler has a great article entitled Iowa and the Poles of Protestantism in which she writes ...

Now that the people of Iowa have chosen Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama as their nominees for president, pundits will spend much of the next few days (until New Hampshire at least) analyzing the results. Many will note religion as an important factor—especially as evangelicals turned out largely for Huckabee.

But evangelicals are not the only religion story from Iowa. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama represent something much more profound in American politics and religion. With Huckabee as a Southern Baptist and Obama as a member of the United Church of Christ, the two men symbolize the poles of Protestantism, the divided soul of America's majority religion.

In the late 19th century, American Protestantism divided into fundamentalist and modernist camps. In the political realm, fundamentalists believed that personal conversion was the foundation of politics. If Jesus changed individuals, individuals might change society if God so called them. But they more typically shied away from politics as sinful, defining it as an essentially hopeless enterprise. They eschewed social change in favor of a kind of feisty Jesus-centered ethics of personal responsibility, private prayer, and morality. They bemoaned the possibility of political change without being born again.

Modernist Protestants argued that politics existed as part of larger social structures—economic, social, and class systems. These structures were corrupted by sin and injustice. Yet, they could be transformed through human goodness and God's justice. Instead of emphasizing individual morality, modernist Protestants extolled a political theology of the common good regardless of personal faith. As a result, they stressed hope, change, and the future in their politics—and its communal emphasis tended to resonate with African-American Protestants.

During the last century, these two visions have gone through several historical permutations. However, they continue to shape American Protestantism. As a Southern Baptist, Huckabee emphasizes Christian conversion, personal morality, and individual character. Obama, as part of a liberal denomination, articulates the communal vision of progressive Protestantism, appealing to human goodness, optimism, and social justice. Whereas Huckabee speaks of the "zeal" of individuals to "do the right thing" and act heroically, Obama preaches on "building a coalition" to transform the nation through innovation and creating a new global community. They are replaying, in dynamic new voices, an old disagreement in American religion.

The Iowa winners represent the two major traditions of Protestant political theology. If Huckabee and Obama wind up as presidential nominees, it would be the first time since the Great Protestant Divide that candidates so clearly articulated these two versions of religion and politics—and so clearly have the opportunity to reshape an old argument. Although it is far too early to make such predictions, the next election could be a referendum on the Protestant political soul.