18 January 2010


We went to a concert by our local orchestra. It's a pretty good ensemble -- and, with the overabundance of well-trained musicians, even hick burgs like ours have a lot of very skilled graduates of the best conservatories, happy, I'd guess, to have a job doing what they enjoy. The program was ingenious -- a modern piece sandwiched by burn 'em down selections from Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, all centered on the theme of love.

The middle section was a new song cycle by Peter Lieberson using texts from Pablo Neruda. It's gotten a lot of attention. At least, as much attention as any new music does. The soprano, the lovely Kelley O'Connor, sings beautifully, a rising star. Her singing moved me deeply -- not something that happens with a lot of concert vocalists. The song cycle is almost unbearably poignant.

(And as a side note -- when did female opera singers get so sexy? There are an astounding number of very attractive women, real women, singing today. Elegant, bejeweled, they drift on the stage with ripe bare shoulders, and then knock you out when they sing.)

Anyway, this is a great, accessible program. Tickets, starting around $7.50, are dirt cheap for decent seats.

And hardly anyone was there. The audience that attended mostly seemed quite old and frail. Not simply old, but aged, relying on canes, on oxygen tanks, on Lord knows what combination of pharmaceuticals and iron will to navigate the lobby and seats. Inspirational, but also, slightly depressing. You can't help wondering what the golden years hold in store for little you as you recoil from some wet, catarral cough.

During intermission, I was thinking about Neruda's striking line, "our little island of infinity." Just at that moment, a squad of paramedics with a stretcher came into the lobby. Perhaps someone just left the island.

I'm usually happy to be places where baby boomers aren't. In general, they're rude and poorly dressed. Now that they're aging ungracefully, they don't really have much to reccommend themselves. But I can't see how an orchestra can last without some connection to an audience younger than 75.

(And all my innocent pleasures seem to be disappearing quickly. Bars with ashtrays and without TVs. Record stores. Second-run movie theatres. Cafes where people talk to each other. Bookstores -- who knows how long they'll last? I don't want to see professional concerts go, too).

I understand, or can guess, at some of the reasons for the declining -- vanished, actually --- audience. Concert music isn't taught in school, so unless you have parents that care or the increasingly rare music program in school, your not aren't going to be drawn to classical concerts. They have a burden of stuffiness, of classism -- stuff the Marx brothers made fun of 80 years ago.

Attending any live event requires effort. On the downside, you have to sit and listen. The risk of boredom is large.

On the upside, you have to sit and listen. You finally have the luxury of doing only one thing, letting the music roll over you or listening with full attention, following the A theme, the B theme, the bridge and so on. But you have the chance of being moved, of experiencing something worthwhile.

You can see the orchestra is taking steps. The musicians no longer wear tuxes and evening dresses. The conductor does talks to open the music up, to explain to people what's going on. If I were in charge, I'd:

- Pay black kids a shitload of money to play the big emotional composers. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. For a few hours a week, some steezy cat in an Escalade blasts the stuff out of his windows. At high volume. Make the music dangerous -- as it is. Make it big and part of the landscape. Create mental associations with black people, who will make anything cool in the eyes of white suburban kids.

- Make the concerts more formal. Put the players back in snappy tuxes and tails. A lot of snobs dig the ritualistic nature of this now exotic practice. Witness the popularity of "English Teas". Don't mess with this audience -- those suckers have cash to burn, and, it would be foolish to throw away the prestige value of the place for the parvenues.

- Add informal concerts. Most people now have experience music in bars and clubs. No reason why smaller ensembles, break-out SWAT teams, can't deploy throughout the city away from the mothership concert hall.

- Mix up the music. I look at the Kronos Quartet as the model here. Play some weird stuff, some old stuff, music driven by rhythm instead of by melody -- that could open people's ears up to the incredibly vast amount of music out there. Check out which film director is ripping off what classical music piece for her film and throw that in the mix.

- Teach the musicians how to look cool. I know this is incredibly superficial, but we trying to find an audience here. Our culture is driven by design and appearance -- design, is, in fact, one of the few areas boomers have improved things. So it makes sense to consider the visual look of the players. Anyone who has spent all of their youth devoting themselves to a difficult and archaic art are, by definition, nerds. They are focused on lofty things. They are men and women who have chosen the high road, instead of slamming out the jams and scoring chicks. They do not know how to look cool. Give them some rock and roll hair cuts. When they're out playing clubs, show them how jazz musicians dress, at least, and make them wear those clothes. Or, I dunno, the cabaret punk look might work.

- Take some of the budget and get the musicians in school early. Do Sunday afternoon lectures. SWPL parents love culture as a marker of status -- they're dragging their wee brats to art museums -- figure out ways to tap into this. It's risky. But as many kids that are turned off by this, at least some might catch the virus.

I know it's all doomed. Only the Asians and a few Euros really care.

But you shouldn't go down without a fight.

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