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Is This A Music Concert Or A Temple? A Proposal For A New Way To Hear Classical Music

On a recent chilly November morning, I was lucky enough to be invited to the dress rehearsal of the local symphony, along with a handful of other guests. What better way to start my Friday, I thought, than to sit in an off-hours auditorium and eavesdrop on some very talented musicians? First up: Haydn’s Cello Concerto — a dazzling display of cello pyrotechnics backed by a cheerful garden party in Haydn’s characteristically sunny style. I was initially overcome by a sense of pride in belonging to such a rarified artistic legacy and culture, being myself a musicologist. I have been lately distracted, spending little time within my own discipline, and this piece gathered me back into the fold.

But it wasn’t long before less pleasant, and equally familiar, feelings overcame me: the frustration with the rigidity of the listening experience (even during a rehearsal!); the sensation of confinement — not unlike the strictest of boarding schools — that comes with close chaperoning, as if we few music lovers could not be trusted; and the odd notion that I ought not pull out my phone to tweet my excitement about this piece and drum up some publicity for the upcoming concert because it might seem disrespectful. Again, this was only a rehearsal, but I was beginning to think I’d rather listen to these pieces on a CD in the comfort of my own home.

19th-century Attitudes Define Our Current Relationship with Classical Music

The kind of stuffy attitude I was confronted with is one of classical music’s biggest PR problems in modern culture. We can thank Mr. A.B. Marx and Hans von Bulow for this legacy, two great instigators of the cult of Beethoven in the nineteenth century. Why we let such dinosaurs dictate how we experience art nearly two centuries later is beyond me. Our culture has become much more permissive and open in the intervening years, and yet we still demand that our audiences worship at the altar of classical music. Music is not a religion. We should not be forced to experience it as one! Composers are not gods, as much as the Romantic genius might want us to believe that they are. Music, and art for that matter, is about humanity. It is about expression and connection, about making sense of this world that we experience. Most importantly, it is about doing these things together. Erecting a wall between the audience and performers no more achieves this goal than listening to a symphony through earbuds alone in your living room.

There is nothing like experiencing the power and physicality of sound that comes from a live symphonic performance. However, we need to revolutionize the way we ask audiences to encounter that experience. The current paradigm either demands the strictest adherence to codes of behavior that have outlived their efficacy, or drives listeners away from the live experience altogether. What we need is a new model; one that respects the work and achievement of musicians, but is responsive to the engagement levels of modern audiences. We need a model for classical concerts that grows with us, much like those of pop music. We have been through enough decades of post-modernism to have accepted pop music right alongside high art music in the academy, isn’t it time to bring the two together out there in the real world as well?

Re-imagine the Classical Concert: What Would Yours Look Like?

Some real creativity needs to be harnessed to birth a more receptive concert experience. In my mind, it would start with some kind of three-tiered seating arrangement. The front third would be allotted for the true devotees, who are so besotted by the music, that they hardly remember their physical selves. This space is standing room only, and right there by the stage for the greatest drama. The next third is a space filled with standard auditorium seating, for those who want to pay attention but haven’t the strength to stand for Mahler’s entire 72-minute symphony, or who would like to follow along with the program notes as the music progresses, or who want to share their experience live on their favorite social media platform and just can’t help gushing over that exquisite violin solo in silent type. That’s right, mobile devices permitted! The final third would be — in the style of an even older era — filled with low tables and the soft glow of candlelight. This area would have a bar and offer table service, and not frown on the low conversation that naturally occurs among friends on a night out. Perhaps a shallow partition could protect the low din of this section from impinging on the more forward sections.

And most critically, audience members would be allowed to move freely between these sections, even in the middle of a piece (I realize this creates a ticketing nightmare, but this is just a thought experiment, right?). Because the listeners with the most rapt attention are standing in the front, they will not be bothered by the occasional addition or subtraction of one of their number from the edges of their group. The ability to move freely between sections respects the notion that any given audience member may be completely enthralled by part of the program, but not all of it. In such a model, a person can spend time in the front when most interested in the piece, and retreat for some refreshment during lesser favorites.

Conversation During the Performance Might Ultimately Lead to Better Listeners

Such a model would allow for a different kind of listening as well. It was a rare friend that I could attend a concert with and communicate my pleasure at the performance of a small turn of phrase or the sheer feat of a daring passage through only an excited glance or quiet nudge. But for most people, these observations must be voiced. A looser seating model would allow for such conversations to take place in certain sections, thus deepening the experience for amateur enthusiasts while not disturbing the event for indoctrinated devotees. Plus, serving drinks during a symphony concert is bound to increase sales, not to mention enjoyment.

I love to go to the art museum, and some days I go alone to get lost in thought as I stare at paintings. Other days I take a friend to get locked in debate and wistful wondering. And I doubt that Monet or Kandinsky really care which kind of experience I have, so long as I am looking. We love our musical heritage, from Palestrina to Cage. We need to be reminded of the humanity contained in those tones, but there is no need to perpetuate the inhumane delivery system of one era’s pompous polemicists. Let’s bring classical music performances into the twenty-first century, in a way that is good for musicians and for audiences.

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