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Saving the Symphony

Attend a classical music concert or opera and you’re struck by the proportion of the audience that is older than 65. This has been deemed a crisis for the industry, and it is, in a sense: symphonies are expensive operations. Operas, perhaps even moreso.1

Therefore, classical players and aficionados have taken to proposing fixes. Pianist Stephen Hough suggests removing the intermission and shortening performances to “60 to 80 minutes,” tops. However, the current length (roughly two hours with an intermission) doesn’t seem to stop young people from watching professional soccer, or American football, or many rock concerts. The problem runs deeper.

To put it bluntly, classical music does not have pride-of-place in 21st century American culture. On the contrary, it has been reduced to an extreme niche: the province of rich people and ringtones (which people don’t even use anymore). There are a few realities about the way classical music is experienced by the broader population:

It’s unfamiliar. Kids get little to no exposure to classical music in public schools: kids who learn an instrument in “band” tend to play movie themes and instrumental renditions of popular songs rather than older standards. Cartoons, too, have moved away from classical music: if you’re not watching Bugs Bunny anymore, you don’t immediately associate Wagner with “Kill the Wabbit” and Rossini with Bugs himself. You might not even recognize those themes–even the more ubiquitous ones–when they appear in television commercials.

It’s inscrutable. Music lessons–a previous touchstone of middle class respectability–have declined in the face of increasing demands from other leisure activities. If you’re not learning piano or violin, you’re likely not getting any exposure at all to classical music. You would have no idea what to listen for or what was happening at any given time; it’s just a pleasant collection of sounds. It’s less immediately accessible than popular music, and without the classical music training, it is little more than noise.

It’s impersonal. We don’t know much about the composers that created the classical canon. We have no concept of the context in which they wrote, or the sources of inspiration that led them to their creativity. These are by and large fascinating individuals, but their personal histories are neglected.

It is no wonder that young people don’t go to symphonies: most would have no idea what they were listening to, and there is a proliferation of alternatives–popular music, television, movies, sports, video games, smartphones, etc.–that are both cheaper and more immediately satisfying. Reducing the length of a show alone isn’t going to solve this issue.

The problems identified above–that viewers don’t have much familiarity with the performance, that viewers don’t have any connection to the key players, and that the public viewing is difficult to understand–have been tackled and (somewhat) solved in another entertainment industry: professional sports. Imagine trying to watch an American football game with only a vague understanding of the rules and no color commentator. It would be sheer chaos, a cacophony of bodies slamming into one another and periodic starts and stops.

The reality is that symphonies are like this, for the uninitiated.

Sports broadcasts are hit-and-miss on this stuff, but the answers are there, in some capacity. The shows attempt to build compelling personal narratives by focusing on specific individuals, rivalries between players, and the broader significance of the game. Then, once the game starts, the commentators provide useful detail about what is actually happening: they identify matchups to watch, players who are making exceptional plays and/or mistakes, and the strategies behind various decisions.

Live music is different than live sports, though, because you can’t have a play-by-play broadcaster and color commentator speaking throughout. Therefore, classical concerts must fill the entirety of this role of contextualization, stage-setting, and introduction prior to playing their piece.

Right now, this is solved in two ways: conductors will usually give a piece a 1-2 minute intro, usually glossing over some detail about the theme of the piece or the composer’s life. You’ll also get a program they hand you as you descend into the theater. But no young person is reading it; they’re on their phones. The program is an afterthought. You have to force-feed the context; people in the target audience have no interest in supplying it themselves.

The proposal, then, is simple: every classical piece that is played should be preceded by an interactive, 10-15 minute presentation and introduction. Piece introductions should be a combination historical lecture and music appreciation class, complete with musicians from the orchestra participating by playing small snippets of the piece they’re about to play. I’ll give some examples of how this can work below.

Identify Themes Attendees Should Listen For.

Let’s take a classic theme and variations piece: Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”

In Elgar’s piece, the theme is played fifteen times: once as the main theme, and then in fourteen separate variations representing different people in Elgar’s life. But some of the variations bleed into one another, so it’s periodically hard to tell where one begins and one ends.

Prior to starting the piece, someone (either a violinist or a pianist) should slowly and meticulously demonstrate the basic theme. Then someone can play the same theme with a slight adjustment–say, with the rhythm, to show how a single theme can be modified for a theme and variations piece or movement. Then once more, with a significant adjustment. In short: teach your audience how to appreciate what they’re hearing. This approach generates a psychic payoff for the viewer. Every time they hear the theme, they get the satisfaction of having identified it and watched how it develops.

Without doing this first–without demonstrating where the theme starts and stops–the listener, if they even know that it’s a theme and variations piece, has to grapple with determining where one variation starts and the other stops. There is no reason for it to be so complicated.

Even in other styles of piece, it’s useful to describe what the listener should look for. The presenter should give auditory landmarks/signposts. “When you hear this, that means that .” But it’s silly to describe when you can demonstrate. Have a musician play the particular auditory snippet on the spot so that the listener is prepared.

Demonstrate Leitmotifs.

For any piece that uses leitmotif–or a musical theme that represents a particular character or idea–the listener should be aware of what those themes are prior to going into the performance. I’ll use a more modern piece for accessibility: John Williams’ Star Wars orchestration. It’s probably the most famous use of the leitmotif in modern classical.

Below is Luke’s theme from Star Wars. The true leitmotif begins around 2:30.

Likewise, here’s Leia’s theme. The leitmotif appears around 0:40 in:

And, most famously, Vader’s theme. Perhaps the most famous leitmotif in cinematic history begins around 0:23 in:

If you watch the… now seven movies,2 you’ll hear these themes constantly recur in different forms, as the characters appear and act within the cinematic universe. Listening for those themes is one way to appreciate the music more. People love the Star Wars music because they can immediately associate the melodies and themes with concepts and moments in the beloved story. Imagine being able to have the same associations with a much more distant piece, like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, which also makes great use of a leitmotif. If you’re not aware that they’re there, you’d miss out on the payoff.

Tell Stories about the Composers.

Robert Schumann wavered between two sides of a personality (that he identified himself): his “passionate” Florestan and his dreamy “Eusebius.” Georges Bizet challenged the norms of French Opéra-Comique with Carmen and died months later, perhaps in part due to the public reaction. Gustav Mahler was intensely superstitious and avoided writing his ninth symphony in an effort to cheat death. Franz Liszt inspired “Lisztomania,” where onlookers and fans at his performances would “fight over his handkerchiefs and gloves.”

These are genuinely interesting human stories that deserve to be told, and can put the music into a different light. Concert programs are often wonderful for getting into the background behind various pieces and the mindsets of the composers who wrote them. But the people you’re trying to attract aren’t going to read the program. That means that you have to spend more time focusing on the composers as people. Fortunately, many are fascinating.

Separate out the Constituent Parts of the Orchestra.

This one, I think, is the most important, and that’s to help the listener differentiate between the various sections of the orchestra. (Baroque music in particular is famous for its elaborate, constant bass parts, and they are utterly fascinating to listen for in a live performance. But breaking up the sound into the various parts is difficult, especially if you’ve never played in a band or orchestra. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 is one example of a piece that uses many different parts simultaneously.

There’s a simple way to demonstrate how this works: have the orchestra sections each play segments of their parts separately, prior to beginning to perform the piece in full. Listeners can then seize on portions of the sound to target in their listener, while periodically moving in and out of the main melody. The score below demonstrates that there are four separate parts playing simultaneously. Why not hear what they sound like separately, before hearing their glorious synthesis?

Ultimately, all of this is about demystifying what the attendee is seeing and hearing. Help the viewer listen better, and move beyond the undifferentiated wall-of-sound. Encourage them to spend a performance staring at the cellos, or the trumpets, to see what’s going on. And have fun with it! These can be opportunities for improvisation, displays of virtuosity, self-deprecating humor, etc.

We still want to keep the show at two hours in length. What this suggests is that if the show had 4 scheduled pieces, one of the short-to-mid-length pieces should be removed in favor of contextualization sections for each piece.

Classical music can be made more accessible, but not unless it grapples with the fundamental realities of twenty-first century entertainment. That means accepting that people don’t actually know what they’re hearing, and helping them understand.

This grew out of some back-and-forth conversation on Twitter with Michael Drew. I appreciate his insight and thoughtfulness.Notes:

  1. Last summer I attended a lovely performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. One of the “cost cuts,” I suspect, was stripping down the orchestra; the pit had only 12 instrumentalists. []
  2. Maybe the count should be eight? I vaguely recall the Imperial March used in Rogue One‘s score. — BL []

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Dan Scotto lives and works in Oregon. He has a master's degree in history, with a focus on the history of disease and the history of technology.

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123 thoughts on “Saving the Symphony

  1. Back in the day, when my father had season tickets to the theatre and the symphony, I occasionally got the tickets he couldn’t use and went.

    Other than the stuff I already knew about, i found it boring. Hmm, “an atonal medley”. Wow, that hurt my ears. Next. And I like classical music. I just don’t really enjoy going to the symphony. I think classical is much more approachable as chamber music or over sunday morning breakfast reading the paper. Sadly, the paper’s gone from 3 inches thick to less than an inch.

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  2. I will say, though, as a Tired Old Person Who Probably Has Work The Next Day: I’d be more likely to go to more concerts on campus if they were shorter and ended earlier.

    I grew up listening to classical music; both my parents preferred it. We grew up within range of WCLV (Cleveland classical station). I remember listening to Adventures in Good Music with Karl Haas. (Now that I think of it: we probably need some kind of a program like that now).

    I suspect unfamiliarity with it is a big reason people don’t listen, possibly coupled with the perception that it’s difficult/snobby-people’s music/Stuff Old White People Like

    I will confess I’m not a big fan of the “gimmick” concerts where they do something like have current pop tunes arranged for orchestra or similar, though if they get non-fans of classical music to become fans, I’m more tolerant of that – just, don’t expect me to go to “Meagan Trainor goes Classical!” or similar, or to object if most of the subscription tickets for the year are that sort of thing.

    I WILL say I am grateful for things like Pandora and streaming radio and Sirius XM: without them, I’d be dependent on CDs or records, and could not have music in my office. There are NO local classical channels, not even an NPR that plays some classical: it’s all “what sells,” i.e. country, pop, and religious broadcasting.

    I just hope classical doesn’t get so much more niche-y that Sirius decides to kill off the one remaining non-opera channel broadcast to car radios. (I am still irritated over the demise of Classical Pops)

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    • filly,
      There’s gimmick, and then there’s “gimmick” — try not telling the symphony beforehand that your lead singer is aquatic (the question was “do you have a helipad? Our singer is coming by air” — they played outside on the helipad).

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    • At least a lot of modern cars come with jacks for usb sticks for music. In particular since the CD player has disappeared in cars. Then you can just put your music on a stick and listen. Because of the demise of pops I did not go with Sirus/Xm on my new car when the trial period lapsed also.
      (or many cars now also have a jack for an mp3 player. )

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  3. This thread is thread is Saul bait. Rufus bait to. We had lots of threads about the decline of high art among the general public in the past, whether that was good, bad,or neutral, and whether anything could be done about it. My brother in writing about theater observed that theater is able to create the next generation of actors easily enough but not the next generation of theater audience or why people will show up for Final Fantasy night at the orchestra but not come back for a Mozart festival. Rufus wonders why comic book movies are taking over the cinemas.

    The general consensus conclusion is that it relates to the decline of middle-brow culture. Before the Baby Boom, there was an understanding that being a member of the middle to upper classes came with certain cultural requirements you had to display even if you didn’t quite understand what you were displaying. High brow people mocked this endlessly but there was a sense that you needed to listen to some classical and jazz and at least to read some of the classics of the Western cannon in order to really count as a member of the middle class. The Baby Boomers were educated in this milieu but largely rejected it. They decided that they could be affluent while rejecting middle-brow culture. Their Generation X and Millennial children and grand-children didn’t absorb middle class culture as a result. Thats why things like classical music are in decline.

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    • I would not disagree. My parents are “Silent Generation” and as young marrieds, were solidly in middlebrow culture. (And even though it was heavily mocked, I do think it had some good things about it: learning “international” cooking, “Everyman’s Library,” even stuff like reprints of the OId Masters).

      I dunno. I hope there’s still classical music available (I mean, other than as dusty computer files in whatever form has eclipsed the CD, or me playing my own piano) when I’m 80 but I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope.

      Part of the problem is that it’s not taught in school; I think kids that get into it either get it at home, or they take music lessons from a classically-trained teacher.

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      • Part of the problem is that it’s not taught in school; I think kids that get into it either get it at home, or they take music lessons from a classically-trained teacher.

        Simply teaching music in school isn’t going to educate enough folks to make a difference. Kids have to be brought up in a culture where folks go to the symphony and they will do it as adults. Culture matters more than gov’t funding, despite what some liberals seem to think.

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        • School was the primary method of exposure though even when people went to the symphony. Orchestras also used to have young people concerts where the conductor would explain things.

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            • In the 1950s and 1960 unless you lived near a big city, there was no classical music except for a program or two. (In Detroit it happened to be the Windsor CBC station no us based station was classically oriented, except possibly the college station in Ann Arbor).
              Earlier living near Fort Wayne, In you had to go to WLW out of Cincinnati to get any classical music.
              Although back then there were every so often live concerts on Tv such as Bernstiens concerts for example.

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        • Your also over looking how politics and government can shape culture. American politics across the political spectrum has not been friendly towards Western high culture. On the Left, it’s seen as not cool and to white and exclusive. The Right blasts Western high culture as being part of the PBS watching, tote-bag carrying anti-Christian coastal elites. Neither is really great for Western art music.

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            • :

              On the Left, it’s seen as not cool and to white and exclusive.

              :

              If the left cares that much about supporting their local musicians and actors they will have to change their tune.

              I’m confused.

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              • The left seems to be the side bemoaning and whining about the loss of art museums theatre and symphonies. Therefore they need to change their tune about actually going and supporting these things instead of just calling for more gov’t subsidies.

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                • I don’t think the exposure was solely school or radio. Back in the day, there were lots of public radio stations that played classical music, up to and including into the 2000s. I know this because one of my bosses had it on all day at work. MY initial exposure to classical music came in middle and high school band. We played popular music at basket ball and football games (and did marching) but also had a few “concerts” every year where we played popular classical music–you know “the nutcracker” in December, etc.

                  I can’t say much about the audience for the concerts, but I assume they were mainly filled with parents of the kids playing. Those kids/parents were primarily middle / upper middle class families where the kids were expected/expecting to go to college. Obviously, the demographic spread was wider for the football and basket ball games.

                  But notme does bring up a point, not necessarily afflicting only liberals….Yes, people think it’s good to have certain things, but they are unwilling to bear the costs themselves and feel “the gov’t” should pay for it. The allows them to get other people to help pay for stuff they like/want

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  4. The New York Philharmonic has or used to have concerts on weekend afternoons called “Young People’s Concerts” My parents took us as kids.

    These were concerts designed to get kids into symphonic music. The name sounds rather cheesy these days. They were also probably very expensive and I am not sure how outlier my parents were for getting us from the suburbs into NYC fairly often to attend these concerts and go to museums from the Met to Natural History to the Guggenheim.

    My assorted thoughts on the issue (which I have raised a billion times) generally on how people get exposed to “high culture” or don’t:

    1. I think Lee is on the right track that there used to be some expectations that if you were a member of the educated class and/or the middle to upper-middle class, you were expected to try and like some difficult art. There were aspects of this that were absolutely mocked and howled at like reprints of Old Masters sold in the Sears catalog but there were aspects that were not mocked. I suspect that in the 1960s that if you wanted to be really “with it”, you needed to listen to the Dead and the Stones but also be able to appreciate Goddard, Truffaut, Bergman, etc films. Know about Benjamin Britten’s work, etc. At some point, this was rejected and it never came back. I feel like the rejection is strong today with late Gen Xers and Millennials who are strong on redefining adulthood to be about financial independence only and aggressively strip any cultural obligations.

    2. Art, Theatre, and Music are the first things cut from school budgets and once gone, they rarely come back. As far as I can tell, it is really only Asian and Asian-American parents who see music lessons as necessary and prestigious especially for expensive instruments like the Violin and Piano. The problem is that a lot of parents who want their kids to take music lessons seem to stress the violin and piano and look down on other instruments. My parents wanted us to learn a musical instrument but they were not picky about which one. I choose the Saxophone. KDFC (SF’s classical station) has a show every Sunday night with teenagers who play classical music. The kids seem to almost exclusively be Asian-American based on their family names and almost exclusively play violin or piano.

    For some reason, violin and piano get labeled as instruments which lead to seriousness and success and will help develop math and science skills. So it isn’t really for music because music is wonderful but music skills to teach discipline and math. This doesn’t seem like to strike a love for classical music.

    3. Orchestras are trying too hard with things like Video Game Night or Movie Music night which get people out once a year or so but not really getting them to Shostakovich night or Mahler night.
    Perhaps they need to do concerts where video game music is mixed with Shostakovich but I suspect people will just walk out.

    4. SF Ballet is experimenting with letting people bring drinks into the theatre.

    5. Dressing up. People still dress up to see the Ballet and Opera and Symphony. This is either part of the charm or an uncomfortable curse depending on your point of view. I suspect that sometimes 20 and 30 somethings buy ballet tickets for the opportunity to dress up and be fancy.

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    • #3: the problem with ‘video game music night’ is that some of the more serious classical music fans will roll their eyes (I do) and stay home, and the people they are trying to reach out to may not be interested.

      #5: When I was a kid, my parents had tickets to Blossom (“The summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra”). They were lawn tickets which were cheaper and were better for people with small children (the kids could run around a bit before the concert). We wore casual clothing and often brought a picnic supper. (Some of my happy early memories are of going to concerts at Blossom with my parents and another family they were friends with)

      I think maybe we need both: come-straight-from-work concerts where business casual is not out of place, and fancy-dress concerts for people who want that.

      (I could totally go for late-afternoon or early-evening concerts: like I said, I’m old and I need my sleep and getting home from a concert at 11 pm or so is not ideal)

      I also agree with your reason #2: they are seen as frills by cash-strapped districts and are cut. And usually it’s parents who are already kind of into classical music who push their kids to get music lessons.

      I think also maybe the general fragmentation of our culture plays a role – that there used to be High Culture and Folk Culture (depending on what kind of Folk you were, maybe a bit – polka in the Dakotas, blues in the Delta). Now there are hundreds of different types of commercialized “culture” and also people don’t “grow out of” pop music the way they apparently did at one time (at least based on what some older relatives have said).

      I think having a lot of different entertainment options is great – except when your favorite one starts disappearing because either “no one likes it’ or “eww, dead white European guys” or “this is what the liberal elitists like” or whatever.

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      • I think maybe we need both: come-straight-from-work concerts where business casual is not out of place, and fancy-dress concerts for people who want that.

        (I could totally go for late-afternoon or early-evening concerts: like I said, I’m old and I need my sleep and getting home from a concert at 11 pm or so is not ideal)

        In my experience, business casual is pretty normal at the symphony, except for the annual fund-raising gala when people play dress-up, pretending they are 1920s high society types.

        As for the late hour, my mother has a subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday afternoon series. It is specifically aimed at the “get home at eleven? are you nuts?” crowd.

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        • Where I live, the concerts (usually a campus group or someone brought in as an educational thing for the music school) are all evening, starting at 7 at the earliest.

          There is a symphony orchestra in the next city over, but it’s an hour’s round trip and I am pretty sure most if not all of their concerts are evening.

          It may be not so much that classical music is dying but that I live in an area now with relatively little cultural diversity compared to where I grew up (where we had EJ Thomas Hall, and Blossom, and the Cleveland Orchestra, and WCLV….)

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      • filly,
        you sound like you don’t think video game music is at all serious, or something. Like serious composers can’t do video games and do something fabulous.

        It isn’t all chiptunes anymore.

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        • You’re right.

          I’m old, so “video game music” first makes me think of the equivalent of 8-bit graphics and that’s not really correct.

          (For that matter: movies are also, or at least some movies, are a province where that style lives. There’s some gorgeous music in the Miyazake movies that you don’t really notice until you hear it played apart from the animation)

          What I object to more (because yeah, modern video games do have symphonic music) is the “let’s take over half of the concert dates with arrangements of country or current pop tunes in order to bring in the people who ‘hate’ classical music” I’ve seen variants of that.

          I don’t know. I just….I guess I worry that what I personally really like is going to get squeezed out by the pressure to do the “we need to bring in new fans.” This may be a holdover from a church controversy i was involved in, where they wanted to go to 100% “praise music” on the grounds that “unchurched people don’t want traditional hymns; they want music they can relate to” and I sat there thinking, “But what about those of us who have attended for years, who do the volunteer work, who support financially? Does what we prefer not matter at all.”

          So, like a friend of mine says: “My stuff.”

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    • The violin and piano are stressed because they allow for the most solo show off preening. No parent ever boasted that their kid played the picccolo in front of the Pope but they do brag about piano concerts in front of the President. That’s why the piano and violin are preferred instruments for kids. I suspect why Asian-American parents still stress things like music lessons is about economic anxiety. It’s about making sure their kids get into a good school. They also come from a culture where a bit of the old middle class aspiration still survives.

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      • I appreciate your cynicism, but the violin and piano are long established as the default instruments. The violin achieved this status in the mid-to-late 18th century. There was good reason for this. The instrument itself is essentially unchanged since, as are its larger kin. The various wind instruments all underwent technical improvements well into the 19th century. The violin was ready for prime time before the rest, and path dependency has kept it in place. The piano came later, but it proved perfect for home use: versatile, not needing any accompaniment as a solo instrument and suitable as accompaniment for other solo instruments.

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        • My retort is that even in the 18th and 19th century, those aspects of the violin and piano led to a lot of preening. Being able to play the piano decently was a requirement for girls and women of a particular class and it improved their marriage prospects. What you wrote is not inconsistent with preening.

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          • In addition being able to play the piano well often lead folks to church organists positions which pay a little bit at least. (Since you do have to show up every sunday).
            So in another sense if you got good at the piano one could possibly at least get some spending money from it.

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      • Ever been in a house with a budding drummer or trumpeter? There’s a practical reason that parents push their children to violins and pianos. And if there’s a piano in the house, there’s a chance that some guest might sit down and play. If you’ve got a double bass sitting in the corner, it’s just collecting dust and announcing to the world that some kid gave up on it.

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  5. The thing is, I would totally not be interested in a concert that implemented the concert-as-music-appreciation-class model. I might take my kids to one, but I wouldn’t go myself. The next thing is, these concerts already exist, typically marketed as “family” concerts. And that is a fine thing. We absolutely need to have these. The danger comes when they become the norm. The ecclesiastical equivalent is the “seeker sensitive” church, whose goal is to present a program that anyone of any background can wander into with absolutely no danger of being challenged. This can work to get people in the front door, but is lousy at keeping them from wandering out the back.

    My dirty little secret is that I rarely go to the symphony. I have been known to sit down at the beginning of the season and look over the upcoming programs and be lucky to find one that wouldn’t bore the crap out of me. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (hilariously known locally as the “BSO”) under Marin Alsop tries to stir things up a bit, but the result often is more interesting stuff anchored by a warhorse. This weekend the program is two shorter pieces by Pärt and Stravinsky, and a Rachmaninoff symphony. Do more of the Pärt and Stravinsky stuff and skip and Rach and I would be interested. I assume that the intention is the opposite: to get the people there for the Rachmaninoff to stretch themselves a bit. I am already stretched, and I have heard the standard Russian Romanticism repertoire a gazillion times already and don’t really need to hear it again.

    I find myself in my increasingly advanced youth turning to chamber music. In my callow years I dismissed string quartets on the grounds that they lacked the range of color to do interesting stuff. How little I knew! In my defense, your generic Haydn string quartet frequently is presented as pretentious background noise. This is completely wrong, but you have to actually pay attention, with a better quartet performing than you typically find playing wedding receptions. Two performances brought me to my senses. I once had the radio on the classical station and gradually noticed that the quartet being played was really good. I had no idea who wrote it. It turned out to be Brahms. Yeah, I’ve heard good things about him. Then another time I heard one on the radio that gave me a “what the fuck?” response. I figured it was 20th century. It turned out to be Beethoven, in his late “no more fucks to give” string quartet period. Love it!

    Which brings me back to the question of the dying orchestras. These are the classical equivalent of stadium rock concerts. Yes, they bring a certain something to the program through sheer mass, but the economics dictate the content in ways I don’t find particularly interesting. Once one gets past the idea that classical music = symphony orchestras, things open up vastly. I go to far more chamber music performances, often held in churches and often with excellent performance standards.

    I don’t think it sustainable to maintain the old standard of every major city has, by definition, a major symphony. The economics don’t support this model. I suspect that we will see consolidation, perhaps with fewer major orchestras having multiple “home” venues. I also don’t think this is all that terrible a prospect.

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    • I suspect that you are on the avant-garde of classical music fans as well.

      The same thing happens in the theatre community. There is a “non-profit” theatre in NYC called the Manhattan Theatre Club. They have a huge budget, huge donor list, wonderful facilities, etc. They can always get some great actor but minor A list celebs in their shows like Mary-Louise Parker, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, etc.

      But most of the plays they don’t do are not challenging in terms of the subject matter. Most of them are either old chestnuts (The Little Foxes is going to feature Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon) or more about the socio-emotional problems of the upper-middle class (Dinner with Friends and other Donald Margulies plays). I’ve seen good productions at MTC though.

      All my theatre friends (most of whom are youngish with varying degrees of non-money) dislike MTC as being moribund, outdated, old-fashioned, not challenging people enough, etc.

      But MTC has a lot more money than most of the riskier theatre groups except maybe The Public downtown and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Ensemble Studio Theatre spent decades in their tiny walk-up space. New York Theatre Workshop has their own space but nowhere near the budget or donations of NYC.

      So I suspect that a lot of classical music goers also just want their comfort.

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      • I suspect that you are on the avant-garde of classical music fans as well.

        It’s more that I work the ends more than the middle. “Classical music” usually actually means Romantic music, typically either German or Russian. This is what bores me–not because it is bad, but because it is overdone. And even then, I am in for the string quartets. This might be because I didn’t listen much to them until ten or fifteen years ago, so I haven’t heard them done to death.

        I am totally in for early music. There are tons of Baroque composers who are not widely known. Of course this is because most of their stuff is mediocre, but there are some hidden gems. A good music director can put together a terrific program of stuff we don’t hear all the time. Heck, if there needs to be the obligatory Bach piece, there is still lots available that hasn’t been done to death.

        On the other end, I am not a fan of the 20th century let’s-see-how-cacaphonous-we-can-get-away-with school of overly academic music not intended for general audiences (and indeed would be ashamed were a general audience to like it). The good news is that there is, upon examination, quite a lot that was challenging at the time and turns out to hold up well. Stravinksy is an obvious example. He is pretty mainstream now, and that is a good thing: it shows the mainstream caught up. The better news is that composers have rediscovered the idea of having an audience. Yes, this can mean lowest-common-denominator pap, but it need not. John Adams and Steve Reich are the obvious examples. Or if you want a generation later, Jennifer Higdon. Or more current yet, Dobrinka Tabakova is a composer I really like that you probably have never heard of.

        Are my tastes avant garde? The Harry Partch generation wouldn’t think so. They would dismiss the new music I like as hopeless kitsch, just like they did Sibelius. Fuck ’em. Experimentation in music is great. I’m all for it. But most experiments fail. Observing that a failed experiment sounds like crap does not make someone a middlebrow poseur.

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        • Maybe avant-garde was the wrong word choice. I meant that you are well-versed enough in the scope and history of classical music to have particular tastes. Same with my theatre friends who also have opinions on what they want theatre to do and be and where they want it to go to be relevant.

          But perhaps many of the donors and core audience do sincerely like the big name pieces. KDFC tends to stick to playing the same pieces with the same vigor as a Top 40 station. They have some specialty shows like Mozart in the Morning and Baroque by the Bay.

          As I said above, my friends really dislike MTC for being traditionalists and their general lack of daring but MTC also has a budget that would make most NYC non-profits envious. The only other ones that come close are the Roundabout (which usually does musicals), The Public (which can be more daring than MTC), and then maybe Lincoln Center and BAM but those are really separate types of organizations that don’t produce too much of their own work and just import interesting shows from elsewhere.

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          • KDFC tends to stick to playing the same pieces with the same vigor as a Top 40 station

            I know the type: runs the gamut from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky. This is one of the two defining characteristic of a Bad Classical station. The other is a routine practice of playing single movements of pieces. There are occasions where this is the least bad option, but it should never be routine. (Pandora, incidentally, will never rise above Bad Classical until it recognizes that a symphony is not an album with four otherwise unrelated songs on it.) (In related news, pull up any Baroque piece on YouTube and let the succeeding videos play through and you will inevitably end up with either a series of different performances of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or an endless loop of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.)

            There are Good Classical stations out there. I am fortunate to have a Good Classical station, WBJC, local to me. But nowadays with the internet there are ample options of for Good Classical stations. I sometimes listen to WXXI out of Rochester, NY. Not only is it a Good Classical station, but I enjoy listening to the weather reports.

            But yes, what we seem to be agreeing on is that the casual consumer and the educated devotee have different needs. We live in an age of wonders. The internet can provide much. But for live performances of forms that are expensive to produce and therefore require a large audience to make economic sense, we effete cognoscenti tend to lose out.

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            • It isn’t that bad they have a wide variety but you are right that they mainly stick to the highlights.

              I suppose this has to do with their funding model. They used to be a commercial station but that went away and they made the decision to become listener-supported a few years ago.

              I’ve heard that Jazz is the least listened to form of music in the United States but classical is not far behind.

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              • Saul,
                Less than the gamelan?
                Less than Throat Singing?

                your sources are eurocentric at best. Can you pick out what type of contemporary music uses one of the two arts I have listed above?

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        • Of course the official definition of classical is the period of Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Essentially the period between the Deaths of Handel and Bach, and the rise of Mendelssohn, Schubert et.al

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    • Partially off topic, but…

      Theater: I go to a fair amount of small black box theater. I’ve also gone to quite a bit of mainstream big production stuff: M butterfly, Miss Saigon, etc. back when that stuff was playing at the Kennedy Theater or the Shakespeare Theater in DC. One of the things I dislike is the constant “reinvention” of classic plays, say Othello. Hey, I get that doing the play the way it’s written in the period it’s written is BORING and actors like to have new things, but frankly, taking Othello and making Desdimona the Moor, or setting the scene in post US WW2 era with the “Moor” a US army general, and rewriting the dialogue to be more “approachable”? Yeah, that really really makes me not want to go and pay you 100 dollars for a few tickets.

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      • Agreed. I don’t attend theatre, but I’ve seen the equivalent tendency in re-imagining operas. And you can’t really call it “imagination”. It’s almost the opposite. Lemme guess, you’re going to set it in Nazi Germany and have a gender-swapped cast simulating sex, right? I mean, has anyone ever re-imagined a classic to have less prostitution?

        It is related to what Richard and Saul were talking about above. It’s tricking the audience into a combination platter of classic and modern (if by modern we mean 40 years stale). I’m happy for Richard that there are concerts of 20th century music. I’m sure he’d be happy for me if I got to go to a workhorse. Neither of us should be expected to grimace through half a program just to hear the thing we want.

        What I’d actually like is the B list from the “workhorse” years. Haydn’s other eighty-five symphonies. Some guy who lived near Schumann. Even the Renaissance or modern piece that suits my style. (They exist.) I’ll tell you a guy you never hear: Hugo Alfven. You might recognize some passages, but it’s a rarity to see his work performed. I don’t need to hear that one Debussy again, or that other Debussy again, thank you. And did you know that some of the Italian opera masters wrote non-operatic music?

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        • I didn’t mention what might be the driving force behind the combo platter mentality: money. If you can get Richard and me into a concert hall on the same night, you double the revenue. And I think we’d both be willing to sit through a little bit of not-our-favorite-genre music. But it can’t always be Beethoven’s Fifth and Piotr Zak’s Mobile for Tape and Percussion. That’s asking too much from both of us, and that’s where we begin to stay home.

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          • Yup. And it’d take like zero effort to get Richard and I to sit through an old but less-known piece and a modern but accessible piece. We’d even pay up front. But you need to convince the rookies like me. Richard will be able to tell an older piece that he’s not as familiar with. I won’t be able to tell a newer piece that’s going to be sufficiently pleasant. I can (and have) gone to youtube to see if a piece is going to be too dissonant for me, but not everyone will.

            I guess I’m making one assumption here: that a high percentage of the people who attend a performance of the Overture to Verdi’s Overplayed Opera would attend a performance of the Overture to Something I’ve Never Heard Of by Verdi. I don’t know if it’s true. Every orchestra bets against it.

            And this might be bad manners, but I’m going to reply to Richard’s upthread comment down here. I enjoy chamber music too. There’s a whole lot that I’ve never heard, much of it composed by people I have heard of. If it’s a smaller hall and lower overhead for a small group of performers, the ticket price is going to be lower, and I’ll take a risk on some names I don’t know, or even on some (gulp) living American composers.

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    • I take your point re: Rachmaninoff, but you need the pops to put asses in the seats. And this is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it one that merits snobbery: Beethoven’s Fifth is, in fact, a wonderful and emotionally compelling composition. Particularly the final movement. You’re complaining about too much violin and piano — an oboist gets the principal workout for Rhapsody in Blue. Bolero is a tremendous tapestry for a conductor to introduce her own take on the work. Yes, the kids love the cannons at the end of 1812 but I like 1812 for the alternation between the scary, tense moments and the stately grandeur of the brass.

      I like the pops and I cannot lie.

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      • Same here, though I will confess I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing Bolero again. (La Valse, on the other hand….that’s one of my favorite pieces because to me it feels like both a celebration and a parody of the grand waltz)

        The 1812 Overture is even more interesting if you know a little about the Napoleonic Wars. (I wonder if maybe some of the unmooredness-from-history might be coming in to play too, with the demise of classical music).

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      • It was Lee complaining about fiddles and pianofortes. Talk to him about it.

        I don’t classify Rachmaninoff as pops, in the *shudder* Leroy Anderson sense. He is merely overdone. As for Beethoven’s Fifth, I don’t even consider that overdone, as it really is good enough to merit its heavy rotation. Indeed, four, or even five of his symphonies are all that.

        My complaint is that the classical tradition in its broad sense spans from the 12th to the 21st centuries. Why do “classical” concerts so often mean just the 19th century? Largely because that was when the definition of what constitutes a full orchestra became set in stone. Cities scrambled to each have their own orchestra, at huge cost.

        Once you have it, you want to use it. Play a Haydn symphony and you either have a third to half the musicians leave the stage first, or you play an absurd over-orchestrated arrangement. At the other end, for a professional orchestra to perform a new composition incurs economic risk simply because it is so bloody expensive. Virtually no composers from the second half of the 20th century, and not all that many from the first, have broken into the standard repertoire, or even the passing minor popularity repertoire, for full orchestras.

        The result is that many people mistake “classical” with “symphony orchestra,” while economic path dependency factors in turn mean that said “classical” music largely means Romantic music. My point is not that Romantic music is unworthy of our attention and money, but that so too is the music from those other nine centuries. And when we hear of the crisis in classical music financing, this largely is actually a crisis in Romantic symphony orchestra financing.

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  6. I must emphatically disagree that classical music is fleeing our civilization. Symphonies are, but that’s a little different.

    It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia has “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” in it, and if you can’t hear that and recognize it…Well, most people can.

    Symphonies have the trouble that most new classical music is written for video games or orchestral background music for a movie (I posted a musical palindrome a while back here — but who the hell is going to play Love Solfege as an orchestra? I’m not sure that’s even freaking possible. The music won a bounty for breaking a Russian violin (Russian music school competition is fierce, dude)). I think this is because we have different modalities for paying attention, and that people genuinely like a more rich palette of expression.

    Opera has the issue that most aren’t written in English. The opera folks I’ve talked to have consistently liked things translated into English, that way people can understand (I like subtitles and wouldn’t mind them, but a lot would).

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    • I actually agree with this generally. Symphonies absolutely dominate musical backgrounds for games and most especially movies and they’re far from unrepresented in television either.

      But yeah it seems tough for people to approach them as free standing entertainment in of themselves- which is a pity.

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      • North,
        It takes a consummate level of skill to weave music and acting together.
        Moonlight Kingdom does a wonderful job of it (and if you really listen, you’ll figure out where they adapted the music from, which is interesting in of itself).
        [erm. this is not rampant thievery, as in Gotham]

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    • I would add that videogames seem to be a place where a lot of non-classical music listeners have the most exposure to the form. I plan to attend an event in SF later this year where a symphony is going to play a number of Zelda tunes. I guarantee many of the people in attendance will see no other classical concert that year.

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        • Awards don’t matter if you’re looking to attract people. The popularity of a game does. Same with movies. Star Wars doesn’t have the best sound track, but a performance of it is always going to draw the biggest crowd.

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          • Pinky,
            Star Control 2 gets an audience for its band. (Yes, they tour).

            But if you’re already doing “Video Game Music” — can’t you throw in at least one or two that are good?

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    • The Colorado Symphony is currently in a fight with their union, the American Federation of Musicians. The Symphony — both the musicians and management, which is amazing given some of their past battles — wants to branch out into soundtracks, backgrounds, more regional venues, broadcasts, etc. The AFM wants to limit their ability to do that, apparently because the Symphony would capture a sizeable pile of money that has historically flowed out of the Front Range area to out-of-region musicians and organizations.

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  7. It’s unbelievable that religious practice hasn’t come up in the conversation yet.

    Many people’s introduction to classical music was through hymns and choir. There were High Masses. Nowadays, so many young people are unchurched, or participating in contemporary Masses or megachurch services with pop-concert aesthetics. Kids don’t even learn the old Christmas hymns any more.

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    • That’s an interesting point. Many of the great composers wrote hymns for Catholic and Protestant churches. This organ and choir music has been abandoned by most churches and many don’t go to churches. Churches are also where many people learned to sing.

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    • One of the things that will make me profoundly sad will be when the little congregation I belong to folds. (It’s gonna happen unless we get a big influx of younger folks, which seems unlikely.) It won’t happen this year or the next, but it will happen in my life.

      We are pretty traditionalist – we sing the old hymns, have a classically-trained pianist, a choir that likes the more traditional things.

      I know it makes me sound like a snob (and maybe I am) but I can’t get into worship where all the music is praise choruses that are the same six words repeated eighty times.

      My Pandora channel (“Classical music is supposed to make you smarter” which is a little joke) has slowly morphed to include a lot of religious music (I hear a version of the Ubi Caritas at least once a day – which is probably good for me). I don’t tell it no; I let the old mass music and the British choral (Protestant) hymns come. (And if someone on my “secular” state campus objects to me playing that in my office, they can suck it).

      And yeah, I had that exposure as a kid, too – my grandma used to sing the old hymns when she worked around the house, so did my mom, the church we belonged to was pretty traditional where music was concerned.

      I suppose someone would argue that in some way all of this – all my childhood experience with music (and also books, I could talk at length about the bookishness of my family) is a form of “unexamined privilege” but really, it’s something I’m quite grateful for and it’s done a lot to shape who I am today.

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      • The decline of the small country church is an effect of the rise of the automobile. Formerly there were small churches every few miles so that people could reach them. Their lingering afterlife is due to institutional inertia: not because they have any real reason to exist today.

        One effect of this is the rise of the megachurch. There is nothing like a crowd to attract a crowd. This includes the mainlines, not merely the Evangelicals. I live in the county seat. the Lutheran and Methodist churches in town are doing quite well. Even the Episcopalians are doing OK. But there is a nimbus of tiny country churches surrounding us. In a sensible world they would be shut down.

        Another, and beneficial, effect of automobiles is that they allow for niche congregations. I drive 45 minutes to my church because my niche is a church that can nail a Bach cantata and makes a heck of a sauerbraten.

        The point is that once your church gives up the ghost, that doesn’t mean the niche has gone away. It just means that you will have to do some research and be willing to drive.

        Or better yet, do that research now and, if the distances aren’t too great, consider a merger now, when there are more resources available, rather than squeezing the last nickel out followed by going belly up.

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        • I dunno. An hour’s round trip (or more) every Sunday morning sounds kind of frustrating (and especially if I wind up stuck on a board or a committee, who typically meet in the evenings).

          We have an Episcopal church here that seems to be doing OK. I’m not QUITE ready to “cross the Tiber” (as they say) and join forces with the Catholic parish, but my brother and sister in law have gone Episcopal in their community and they seem to be happy.

          I dunno. It’s kinda hard being someone who dislikes driving far distances in a world where people will go an hour to get a slightly-better-than-average hamburger.

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          • You are missing the big picture: an hour’s drive gives you the perfect excuse for avoiding committee work.

            But seriously, your typical Episcopal and your typical Roman parish are pretty dissimilar. The similarities are more on paper than in practice.

            The Catholics with Vatican II largely abandoned the liturgies they did well, and never managed to replace them with anything as good. So you get a music leader gesticulating at the congregation in a failed attempt at getting them to sing. That’s if you are lucky. Things can be far worse. The traditional masses with glorious music are mostly not done in parish churches. They are a niche that you have to go looking for.

            Your baseline Episcopal liturgy is usually better done. It isn’t always, or even usually, great, but I rarely find myself in an Episcopal church doing its traditional service, with my teeth grinding in response. I can’t speak to their contemporary services, as I have attained great skill in avoiding any church service with the word “contemporary” attached to it.

            Oh, and the other advantage of going Episcopalian is they typically use pretty good wine for communion. We Lutherans aim more for indestructibility. It comes in a gallon jug, and it makes no difference whether we just opened it or it has been sitting in a closet the past month.

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            • Heh. I’m Disciples of Christ and we currently default to grape juice for two reasons:

              a. avoiding the controversy with the folks (there are a few in the denomination) who would go on about the evils of alcohol

              b. fear that it might “trigger” someone who is an alcoholic. (I have no idea how likely a small taste of wine would be to start a relapse).

              (Also, of late, to save money, they’ve bought wal-mart brand instead of Welch’s and yes, I can tell)

              Some congregations do gluten free communion bread. Mine does not though I think if one of our members had to be gluten-free that change would be made.

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              • There are reasonable accommodations that can be made for alcoholics. If you use shot glasses, some can be filled with grape juice. I also knew a guy who would take the common cup and hold it under his nose and inhale. I never asked, but I assume he was alcoholic. Of course this means he was in fact introducing ethanol molecules into his metabolism, but the distinction is more psychological than metabolic. It worked for him.

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    • I know that I’m having a rough morning for non-internet related reasons, but I’m frankly stunned by the thickness of the bubble that would permit thousands of words of an article and replies on the subject of exposure to formal music without a single reference to worship.

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    • I think that’s a good point indeed. The churches that are attracting big crowds with music seem to offer some flavor of Christian rock and roll. Which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing, and indeed there are a lot of talented-enough-to-go-pro musicians working the megachurches. But what you don’t see a lot of in churches anymore are strings and woodwinds; even in the very traditional RCC services my family back in Wisconsin likes can’t seem to scare up more than a single violin and a singer to do Amazing Grace for funerals; Pachelbel’s Canon (there I go with the pops again) gets played by a DJ, not a string quartet.

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      • A theological digression: the old hymns also taught the faith. If you grew up singing “Alleluia Sing To Jesus” you’ve got a depth of theology and musicality to draw on. Kids today singing “Oceans” won’t have that. “Here on earth both Priest and Victim/In the Eucharistic feast” versus “So I will call upon your name/And keep my eyes above the waves”. And if you recognize those lines, you know there’s just as much of a contrast musically.

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        • Yes. One of the reasons I love the old hymns is the beautiful words/imagery/more complex grammar and syntax.

          Also, I suspect something going on with the older hymns that hasn’t happened yet with most praise songs: the dross got sorted out and dropped over time, and mostly the stuff that remains is the better stuff.

          Also, if you read music….well, I’m showing my privilege there, but I get annoyed when it’s just words projected and no music and everyone sings in unison as much as they can manage, rather than there being parts.

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          • “everyone sings in unison as much as they can manage, rather than there being parts”

            I’m reading this darkly, thinking of situations where congregations have so failed to sing in unison that parts spontaneously develop. Usually in different keys or tempos.

            But I know what you mean without the worst-case interpretation. We’ve had a choir director for about half a year now, and he’s got 20 members doing Palestrina. A couple of them don’t have the pipes for it yet, but their progress has been amazing. They’re still performing the tricky parts for us rather than leading us thought them, but that’ll come with time.

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          • The joy of being Jewish is that He who never breaks His word has sworn you a promise. The traditional worship is a bonus. That middle-eastern call and response lies at the heart of all traditional Christian worship, and thus at the heart of all classical music. Every violin section replying to a horn, every fugue replying to itself, they’re all singing back to a bearded cantor whether they realize it or not.

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  8. As for this article’s suggestions, the long introduction has become the standard at classical concerts. Often, there will also be a lecture or Q&A starting an hour before the program. A more novel variant is web interactivity during the concert, with everything Dan suggested happening in real time.

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  9. As to possible additional causes of decline (entirely speculative):

    A. The two-income family. It makes going out on weekdays much more difficult.

    B. The low cost of good alternatives. Even really good TVs are cheap.

    C. Changes in the allocation of wealth within society driving changes in outreach efforts. Running a symphony is really expensive, and so the managers target the same group of really high net worth individuals who also finance all the other arts in a community. There is a lack of outreach to upper middle class families with some disposable income.

    Note: I have no evidence for any of these hypotheses.

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    • i think c is wrong to a certain degree, at least in some places. maybe other places are short-sighted.

      my wife took the kid to a symphony last fall (harry potter!) and gave all sorts of info to the program holders as part of their various information collection processes/schemes. so we get mailers every 2-3 months based on this information (kids symphony camps, kids concerts, etc), as well as publicly-available information. I’m guessing on the second part due to the way their giving asks are structured – variable field printing with certain tiers highlighted.

      it’s simple to slice by HHI as well as other publicly available demographic details (distance from symphony, home value, home ownership, etc etc and so forth) and structure your campaign streams accordingly.

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      • really good TVs don’t exist.

        Allow me to respectfully disagree. By experience, I’m a videophile — that is, had to learn to look at the artifacts, not the picture. The current generation of 4K LCD televisions are spectacularly good display devices. The OLED versions are even better, but are not cheap.

        What doesn’t exist is very much well-prepared digital video content. Cable, satellite, and over-the-air companies do all sorts of bad things — they multiplex too many streams onto a carrier, they transcode on the fly to make those streams fit, they do serial encodings, they choose the compression parameters… poorly. Even DVD and Blue-Ray disks are often badly done. I cringe at most dimly lit scenes — they’re horrible. And then there’s interpolation… a typical home setup will resize or deinterlace the image twice before it gets put up on the display, with each interpolation adding its own set of artifacts.

        Find some place that has demo-quality 4K content using the bit rates supported by the latest version of HDMI, all at the display’s native resolution so there’s no interpolation. Knocks your socks off.

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        • Try x265. It beat out intel’s version.
          (This is only if you’re the type of geek that actually enjoys seeing data compress well).
          Coming to netflix soon…

          https://www.cnet.com/news/three-tv-improvements-more-worthwhile-than-ultra-hd-4k/

          It’s color quality/accuracy and contrast ratio where TVs tend to be poor. When you can’t render the picture as it’s supposed to be seen, well… (of course, yes, this does make cruddy old stuff look cruddier).

          Watching Bourdain on a good monitor is actively painful (they’re jiggering the colors entirely too much, and they pop so bad your eyes hurt).

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          • 4K TVs all incorporate HDR, which vastly improves the color and contrast. The flip side is that it only provides a benefit if the production is HDR-aware all the way through from initial recording to final encoding. OLEDs largely fix the color and contrast problems even without HDR. The big issue is still on the creation end — essentially all the video out there was produced and encoded, for various reasons, with a drastically limited color space and lots of color artifacts. No amount of post-processing at the display device is going to fix that.

            Today you can buy a spectacularly good video display device — but will have a hell of a time finding content that shows its actual capability.

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        • Is it just me, or does all Blu-ray look disgusting? Every time I see a display in the store, it feels like I’m being hit in the face with a color palette. Maybe Best Buy always picks bold-colored animation to demonstrate its detail, but if so, it backfires.

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          • The current high-end features that they want to sell you are resolution, HDR, OLED, and nanocrystal LCDs. All of them (but resolution) are intended to support much higher contrast ratio and color saturation. Doesn’t show up if you run an old movie that was shot with low contrast and low color saturation (the things that make film recordings look like “film”). Also in a terrible viewing environment — lots of bright overhead lights — that almost automatically makes the people setting things up crank up the contrast and saturation.

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        • I wasn’t really intending to raise an argument about the quality of TVs, so much as I was guessing that TV has good enough content and good enough visuals to keep people at home who might otherwise have gone out.

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          • Many years ago I was involved in research work on streaming real-time multimedia over the internet (geez, just looked in one of my old lab notebooks and I started the first demo project 25 years ago). I was an advocate for IP multicast because it let someone with content deliver it to many people without the need for the server farm and huge pipes that individual streams require. (Lost that battle when the FCC settled on an accounting model for the commercial internet that couldn’t deal with multicast.) I figured colleges with fine arts depts and performance requirements for one of the sources. I would have cheerfully paid for a subscription that delivered me up a stream with solos and small groups doing classical, or dance, or something live on stage. Didn’t want fancy, just wanted a good shot from the audience and good audio quality. No, it wouldn’t be as good as being there, but it would have been nice on an afternoon or evening when I didn’t have time or energy to drive 17 miles to and from the campus, find parking, etc, etc.

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  10. the bigger issue here is twofold

    a) there’s no longer any real cultural power in “being cultured” in the sense that included symphony, opera, and other related art forms aka “being down with a certain set of artistic, aesthetic, and political beliefs that allow you and – more importantly – your children access to greater economic and social power”. since that’s no longer the case, the incentive to go through a whole buncha rigamarole is significantly reduced.

    b) just the idea that someone needs to be “educated”/acculturated to appreciate a style of music is an impossible hill to climb. just impossible. music is not seen as something that needs an instruction manual to enjoy – it’s simply too omnipresent and accessible upon demand. (to the point where i feel “on demand” is a catastrophic understatement)

    i listen to a great deal of annoying – or god help us, “difficult” – music, but the last way i’d get someone to try something would be subjecting them to a pre-show lecture. either you feel it or you don’t. i don’t see it working out most of the time, nor making me many friends. i explain it to my kid, but he’s a kid and they don’t teach the history of nyc no wave or 70s minimalism or 90s british idm or the rise of 2nd wave american black metal in schools anymore.

    it’s a shame.

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    • I think this is right and it matches what I wrote above. Being cultured used to carry a lot of social capital. It’s why there was an expectation that people of a certain socio-economic level pretend to like classical music and literary fiction. Now the social capital comes from prestige tv if it comes anywhere at all. What the second observation does it make unlikely that people would approach classical on their own volition.

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    • I partially but not completely agree.

      A. I think this is somewhat true but also geographic. Being culturally with it now is a national but also highly niche conversation based on socio-economic-educational status whatever. But there are still some local scenes but you really need to know what is part of the International/Internet talk of the town.

      B. Possibly but people still try.

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      • a) yeah, but none of those are going to make a better life for your family. unless someone already has an interest in the older forms of theatre and music, there’s not much of an incentive to start.

        b) given the state of the industry, they’re not trying hard enough. or…perhaps its time has passed. it’s already often partially state and (heavily) donor supported in many places.

        #pigdestroyerkennedycenterspecial
        \\m//

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  11. I’m going to address the part of the OP about how to appreciate the technique of classical music (themes, etc,)

    My grandfather was a painter (he made his living by painting and selling his art, some of which is in small regional museums, as well as two beautiful altarpieces in a Spanish cathedral. I was exposed to paintings since before I could walk.

    But I didn’t know what to look for on a painting. What makes good art good, instead of bad. I didn’t learn that at home.

    Then in my freshman year in HS (not in the USA) we had an art appreciation class. We learned about composition, balance, texture, rhythm, chromatic scales, color coordination, western and eastern perspective, etc.

    It opened my mind tenfold to appreciating good art (and finding out why my grandad was only a so-so artist, even though he was able to have a bourgeois life out of it). I know what to look for in a piece of art, beyond “it’s pretty”, and it’s a completely different experience. If any HS class changed my life, Art Appreciation was the one (and physics, that made me want to be an engineer)

    I don’t have that for music, regretfully. Therefore I can’t go past “it’s pretty”. And pretty won’t sustain my interest.

    Tl:dr. We need to get people understand what makes something art. Once you have it, it blows your mind. But, like many things, it requires understanding the underlying, hidden, rules.

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    • You can recognize fists even if you can’t appreciate past “it’s pretty”.
      and what’s wild is finding truly good outsider art. The Vast Unwashed Untaught.

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  12. The demystification point is very good. “There’s a lot going on here, but I know what to look for. Here. Look for this…” and, at first, you can see the twinkle when someone recognizes what they were looking for. Hey! They did that thing!

    The analogy that most immediately came to me was to ask:
    If I wanted you guys to start watching wrestling and dig it to the point where you’d subscribe to the WWE Network, how would I do it?

    And the answers all involved demystification.

    That said, the classical movement really shot itself in the foot over the past few decades by having “atonality” as a sign of maturity and tonal music was seen as childish.

    Will the upper brow agree that bringing back the middlebrow is important enough for them to shell out for entry level, easily demystified stuff for the unwashed masses?

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    • If appreciating atonal music is what it takes to be a sophisticated classical fan, I openly out myself as unsophisticated. I really prefer Baroque and Classical eras to all others, though I also have a fondness for what used to sometimes be called “British Light Music” (and it’s not JUST British, but that’s the term I’m familiar with).

      I suspect that just as the middle class is rapidly disappearing, the middle-brow isn’t going to come back: there will be “difficult” High Culture (some of which seems to me to have aspects of The Emperor’s New Clothes to it, though that may just me being a Philistine) and there will be “disposable pop culture” but there won’t be anything much in between because it will have neither the cachet of being Difficult High Culture nor the profitability of selling a crapton of downloads like pop culture.

      Then again: I’ve been trained to assume that Everything I Like Will Go Away Eventually, Probably Faster Than Stuff I Don’t Like.

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      • The word “atonal” has taken on something of a mystical quality. For some it means “sophisticated.” For others it means “sounds like crap.” It actually is a pretty technical term, and just to liven things up, there isn’t a single consensus definition. But for this discussion it roughly means the system of music being in one of the major or minor keys. The thing is, this only became standard in Western music around 1600. Do you like any music from before that? A Palestrina mass, perhaps? Then you like atonal music. Or rather, some atonal music.

        What happens in the 20th century is that composers had been working the tonal field for three centuries. Any composer worth a damn doesn’t want to merely rehash what has come before. He wants to explore new ideas. After three centuries, the thinking went, tonal music had played out. If you wanted to explore, you had to go atonal. They were wrong about this, but that is a different topic.

        The other half of this is that composition became separated from earning a livelihood. You rarely saw composers who depended on their music writing for a living. (The notable exceptions were composers who discovered Hollywood. They largely considered this slumming, but very lucrative.) At that point whether or not anyone wanted to listen to the stuff didn’t much matter. From there it was a short step to concluding that if anyone did want to listen to it, the composer was a pandering hack. Hence the prominence of “kitsch” as a term of derogation. We know how that went.

        As I wrote upthread, we have moved past that. There are composers who want audiences, and audiences who want to be wanted. These composers tend not to write strictly tonal music. Atonality is one of the tools in the box. It turns out that “atonal” need not mean “sounds like crap” after all.

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        • I think what happened to art music is similar to what happened with painting. Photography frees painting from having to strive for realism and allowed for experimentation because photographs could be realistic in ways that even the best painters could not match even during the black and white era. The growing field of pop music freed composers of art music similarly.

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        • I’m thinking of people like Schonberg and similar 20th-c users of atonal, or non-Western-standard tonal (e.g., 12-tone) systems. I just can’t get into it. I like some of the early stuff that I guess is atonal, but there’s something, I don’t know, different about it from the 20th c. stuff I’ve heard that I didn’t care for.

          I also find some of Philip Glass’ work a little trying.

          I also don’t like some of the harder Romantics, or whatever you classify Wagner as. It’s too much for me, for me, it’s like listening to someone’s emotional meltdown.

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          • If you want to listen to an excellent, simple piece of music, you should try Castle in the Mist (from ICO). That got written in less than a day, by a guy the music director was complaining about “you always make everything too complicated!”

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          • I’m thinking of people like Schonberg and similar 20th-c users of atonal, or non-Western-standard tonal (e.g., 12-tone) systems.

            I knew that. And I totally understand not liking it. I pull it up occasionally, but only for short periods of time and mostly to remind myself why I don’t listen to more of it. Schoenberg, et al., is what everyone things when they hear the word “atonal.” They aren’t entirely wrong, but neither are they entirely right.

            FWIW, I’m not a huge Glass fan. I like some of his stuff, but most of his output seems to me pretty unremarkable. Others disagree, of course. I see Glass as an important transitional figure away from the “it has to sound like crap or it isn’t good” period. He was one of the first to not regard “accessible” as a criticism, but this doesn’t mean his stuff is necessarily all that good.

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        • I was remembering an interview on NPR somewhere around this time last year where they were interviewing a composer (I can’t remember who it was!) who was talking about the crap he got when he abandoned atonality back in the mid-oughts.

          He seemed to be using the term not to overlap with “sounds like crap” but “sophisticated”. Like he was “selling out” by going back to tonality.

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        • Rich,
          My friend who composes “symphonic” music doesn’t read music. Or particularly like scales… Rather than deliberately atonal, he has a tendency to write music that would be absolutely impossible to play (it breaks violins, it does — when played by talented performers).

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      • there will be “difficult” High Culture (some of which seems to me to have aspects of The Emperor’s New Clothes to it, though that may just me being a Philistine) and there will be “disposable pop culture”

        It pays to remember that Mozart, Gluck, and many others were popular in their day because they were breaking with the conventions of then “classical” music, to the dismay of purists.

        So in the future, people will say (*) “Beethoven, or The Beatles. Anyway, something classic” (**)

        (*) From Ringworld.

        (**) I love the Baroque arrangements of the Beatles (available in YouTube as Beatles Go Baroque https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpKIvyy6jg8 ) though I’m told that technically the Beatles’ music is nowhere near the technical qualities of Baroque music. Alas, I don’t know better.

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    • the atonal stuff was never particularly popular, tho. you’re picking a very small slice of musical history and casting it as this huge thing when it was both a) experiment, b) fashion and c) never very powerful. maybe socially, but what does that have to do with the same operas and symphonies that have been performed in major cities for more than a century?

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      • what does that have to do with the same operas and symphonies that have been performed in major cities for more than a century?

        Well, it has two things to do with them.
        1. the fact that the audience for these same operas and symphonies that have been performed in major cities for more than a century is getting older. A lot older.
        2. the whole “maybe socially” part of your comment

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        • i’m struggling to follow where you’re going from a to z here.

          1) it didn’t particularly alter or slow down mainstream symphonic music and opera. even phillip glass ain’t got nothing on brahms, yo. and as mainstream musical understanding caught up to the experiments of the 50s-80s, edgelords like stockhausen seems almost quaint now…to pick an obvious example.

          shorter version: skrillex, yo

          2) “socially” in the sense of for some composers and maybe some granting institutions of lesser means, tho. not, like, joe schmoe who was going to see carmen, back when schmoes went to carmen.

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  13. Given the amount of music available on Cds or online, a good question arises how much is the experience worth? Getting to a concert is a hassle, unless one is at a university. Given this hassle and the demands of work, it it not easier to just stay at home. If you want music you can subscribe to amazons unlimited music and get your free choice, so you are the concert programmer. (But then I am an introvert and hate being in crowds) In fact since most of the classical music is free from copyright, you can find a large number of versions of them on youtube to listen to. (lots of solo piano works etc, as well as from European orchestras)

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  14. The correct term isn’t “orchestra”, it’s “cover band”. If they’d start playing their own songs then maybe they’d do better.

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  15. So I must be the only one here who has actually watched Mozart in the Jungle? Amazon isn’t as popular as Netflix, I know. But it’s a nice demonstration of symphonic music coming alive for contemporary people.

    And it has Saffron Burrows.

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  16. Just a personal anecdote: Way back in the 70s, had an opportunity to see Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra doing Beethoven’s 7th (loves me some 7th) and other pieces. Got the last tickets and were sitting (literally) in the last row of the upper balcony of a large auditorium. Good acoustics, got a good (if distant) overview of my first major classical concert. At the intermission a frazzled looking guy came around the upper hallway: “Hey! Anybody want to trade seats? We’re in the first row and it’s driving us crazy.”

    Heck yeah! Literally front row, just to the left of center. Really lousy place to listen to the music. All we could plainly hear was the strings. However! We were maybe 15 feet from Mr. Previn, and maybe 10 from the First violin. We could watch, as if with a documentary film’s zoom lens, the relationship between the sweating, hard-working conductor and his orchestra. Absolutely fascinating!

    I’m not the best example of attending the symphony through the years, but as with all music, ALL MUSIC, there is no comparison between listening on even the best of devices, and being in the room with the players. Sublime!

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    • Your trade partner had discovered one of the dirty little secrets about concert halls: those seats right in the front have terrible acoustics, while the back row of the balcony can (depending on the hall) have excellent acoustics. Ten or fifteen rows back in the main section is probably the best compromise. That’s why I can never afford those tickets.

      In related news, my favorite seats for ballgames at Camden Yards are the front of the upper deck directly behind home plate.

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