Classical Sass

this is what happens when i’m allowed to go to concerts as an audience member

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I thought I had a rant in me, but now that I’ve made time to write, the only things that I can think of are puppies and cleaning my closet and how I wish I’d bought prosciutto so I could finally see if it was possible to make prosciutto chips (edit: it’s two weeks later; I tried it and it totally is possible, just saying).

Hubs and I went to see Peter Gabriel on Sunday.  It was awesome sauce, and Tony Levin rocked, and further, rekindled my desire for a long trench coat.  And maybe a walrus mustache.  Anyway, I spent a lot of that concert observing all the ways in which it was not a classical music concert.  From production efforts, costs, and emphasis, to format and ticket sales/prices; there really weren’t more ways for the two experiences to be different.  The band does the same show over and over again to make production costs worth it (and for other reasons, probably; whatever, I can’t think of them).  The concerts are held in arenas that seat thousands, so that ticket sales actually contribute to the overall profit of the show.  I’ve been told that there aren’t sponsors for rock music shows, and that most of the profits come from merch and ticket sales, but I’m not sure if that’s right – particularly because there were sponsor signs all over the arena (they could have just been there for the arena/college itself, and not the concert, though).  The show relied heavily on ‘effects’ (Sunday’s show was mostly lights and screens with different ways of projecting the band to the crowd), and the song list was primarily made up of pieces that most of the audience knew very well.  They had a cover band (that was fantastic – those two ladies should consider teaching a class of awesome.  and also maybe give voice lessons to lots of people), there was no intermission, it ran for three hours, there were concession stands and alcoholic drinks which the audience was allowed to have in the arena while the show was happening, and there was perpetual cheering, clapping, waving, and numerous standing ovations.  Also the occasional drunk dude yelling out ideas for Peter Gabriel’s stage antics.

Many people got up to get more snacks or go to the bathroom, but the majority of the audience seemed to feel that if you go to a show that features a performer you supposably love, then fucking sit your ass down and enjoy the damn show.  Ie, there seemed to be some mild disapproval of the peeps that casually came and went throughout the duration.  The performers, possibly because it was the end of the tour, possibly because they are just that awesome all the time, were spot on, unhesitating, and relentlessly energetic, regardless of expected audience response or how they felt the show was going.  They reacted to each other openly on stage, and presented an overall feeling of mutual respect and ease that made their performance look easy.

I have watched orchestras that react to each other similarly to the way Gabriel’s band did.  In general, though, orchestras seem to be fairly stoic when considering the emotional depth of the music they are creating.  I’ve always wished for orchestras to feel, or at least appear, freer and more open when on stage; I think audiences respond to feelings, and when your entire concert involves feelings, shouldn’t you do everything possible to encourage an emotional response?  The musicians’ reactions to the music help the audience follow the concert’s flow, and when you’re playing music that not everyone in the audience knows backwards and forwards, it’s crucial to take every opportunity to help them participate and understand what the music is communicating.  I say this having been to a three hour concert where I knew a grand total of two of the songs.  And by two, I mean one plus a song title.  I still had fun, although it would have been loads more fun if I’d been super attached to those songs prior to attending the concert.

Which brings me to my next, uhm, point: most of the audience was like cuh-razy into the band.  And, as someone who enjoyed the music a lot (more than country, more than rap, not more than oldies or classical music), I can tell you that the concert rocked for them because they were already fanatical about the songs, not because the songs were, in and of themselves, transcending of mundane experiences.  Fun; yes.  Meaningful?  At times.  Catchy?  Sure.  Well written and well performed?  Absolutely.  The sum total of the concert was that it was easy, relatable, fun.  The intense excitement, I think, came from the connections everyone already had to the songs in the program, and probably most of those connections were social (i.e., they heard/saw those songs while with other people, creating a sort of communal memory for them).  People had clearly spent years listening to his albums, and each of his songs triggered dozens of memories and emotional connections.  The ‘fan’ high from the audience was so prevalent that it became an obvious and needed part of the concert, but did not necessarily correlate to a transcending and unique individual experience.

It’s not that I think classical music transcends anything more so than other genres (I mean, it does, a lot of the time, but that’s not the comparison I’m trying to make here); it’s that the way it most frequently addresses life and all its beautifully trivial and mundane details is through your perception, and yours alone.  Classical music is unique in that it very often refutes a mass emotional response; it is more akin to prayer (erm, meditation) in that it honors the individual’s take on things and encourages a sort of reflection that hopefully inspires the listener to dig a little deeper, and ask a little more enthusiastically.  It’s much easier to have a unique experience with a classical music concert; the performance has so many different nuances and layers, that it easily leads you to your own personal mental and emotional space, even if you’ve heard it before or are with many people who all know the piece very well.  Classical music makes you work for your emotional release, and rock music doesn’t.

Having said that, though, I have had the ‘I KNOW this!!!’ high from classical music, and it is sublime in exactly the way I imagine all the Peter Gabriel highs were.  One of my experiences happened during my first rehearsal of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.  Being an avid horror movie fan, I’d long since incorporated the entire script of The Shining to permanent memory.  I probably knew the entire soundtrack by heart as well, but hadn’t looked up any of the titles to the pieces in it, and was thusly ill prepared for the first violin passage in the Adagio (we were stopping and starting, so the viola/second violin thang that immediately precedes it hadn’t been touched yet).  (I also can’t remember which of the four violin sections played what; only that the first violin passage in question here was most definitely played directly across the stage from me.)  The passage started, I gasped, exclaimed, ‘You’re kidding me!!,’ and proceeded to spend the rest of the movement in a slap-happy trance state.  Obviously, not my finest professional moment, but definitely one of my clearest memories.  The split second between the start of the first note and me recognizing the passage is one of the longest, largest, chasms of time I’ve ever known; remembering it is realizing, again and again, that everything amazing, everything incredible, everything that touches me somehow, is connected and part of something singular and whole.

I think both types of music are entirely valid.  I think both types of connections to music (abstract and individual versus ‘fan appreciation’) are phenomenal for entirely different but equally valuable reasons.  My biggest yearn in life is for more people to learn to love classical music, to be able to have both experiences with it, the way I do.  A little bit, you know?  Enough to go to a concert and want to come back in a real and going-to-do-it sort of way.  Enough to walk away with more than what they had when they entered.  And I don’t see this happening with the way concerts and seasons are currently done (in the ‘States, anyway).  We’re rocking out to songs no one knows, in a way that people don’t get, and for reasons no one recognizes.  (and by no one, I mean not enough.)  I think there is a way to ‘do’ classical music the way bands do it.  I just…don’t know how to make it happen.

I’ve always thought that the ticket behind every piece of music or non-worded artwork was the story it told (or didn’t tell).  I’ve rambled to friends and students for years about how we should be taking the amazing opera music of yore and setting it to modern lyrics/words, telling different stories that apply to our current social atmosphere and issues.  What if we did something similar with classical concerts, too?  What if we took one symphony every season, invented a story for it, hired a local artist to paint or draw pictures that told the story, and then played the symphony to accompany the pictures?  What if we offered the concert over dinner, where the audience could eat and drink and converse quietly, while hearing characters and events through music that has endless room for variation?  What if we, the musicians, performed the piece, and all its phrases and endless interpretations, tailored for that particular story?What if the concert was offered once a week (or so), until the end of the season, where the symphony would be performed traditional style (without the story and artwork) in a concert hall, with a pre-talk that went over the different technical aspects of the piece?  A mini prep that helps explain why it takes so much training to make it beautiful, to make it art, and enables the audience to light up they way spectators do at a sporting event or at a movie?  What would this audience be like if they had a story, a concept, to go with an abstract and foreign idea, an already pleasant memory of what the piece would bring them?  I don’t know.  I think we could do it.

I think we could make classical music so unbelievably crucial to our culture, it would be just silliness to imagine it any other way.  I mean, the story idea is kinda cool in that it has a lot of options/variations: every piece could be done to fit a zillion different stories, so it’s not like once it’s performed, that’s the end of it, forever, amen.  Doing it for different stories would actually emphasize a large part of the awesome that is classical music, too.  You could turn the pictures into a book with CD.  You could do one geared for kids, or one that satires a current event.  You could have musicians from the orchestra be a part of the pre-concert lecture so that they could give examples and help explain how certain technical aspects work.  After all, when a kid first learns a sport, he has to learn it, right?  It isn’t the same to be fanatical about a team if you have no understanding of the game or the teams, and are just faking it.  When someone goes to a movie they’ve never seen before, there is a story, or a character, or an idea, that attracts him/her.  Advertising for a story type concert makes the target audience more obvious, opens up more specific ad content options, and enables potential patrons to become interested more easily.

So, whatever.  I get really excited about all the cool things classical music can do.  I want so badly for it to be appreciated and loved; it has enabled me to be so much more, to think more efficiently, to discern more perceptively, to feel more articulately, and I am perpetually heartbroken with the difficulty of sharing its unique gifts.

In other news, I am getting ready for the holiday trifecta (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/New Years – yeah I’m a bad Jew blah blah up yours) and have already begun present shopping.  WHO WINS NOW, BITCHES???


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