Thursday, April 12, 2012

Flip this Symphony: how to make the classics relevant again?

I often listen to the show 'Tempo' on Radio 2 in the mornings on my walk to the library. Today they played Beethoven's fifth symphony and I was struck by how long it has been since I listened to it in its entirety. Many, many.... many years ago when I first got into music I considered it one of the great classics and, likely, declared it the best music ever written; a title I bestowed upon many a work in my early years of 'discovery.' In retrospect, each 'great work' in my personal catalogue is characterized by its capacity for bombast and grand, sweeping musical gestures.

What happened between then and now? I once held that symphony in such high esteem and now it feels kind of tired and stale. Dozens of bad recordings on just as many compilation albums tainted my taste for single movements of larger works. Beethoven's fifth (or at least the first movement), like many other works, have lost their freshness. I think we've come to take these works for granted and performers go on autopilot. Don't get me wrong, these works are still very important to me; they kindled my interest in music and spurred me to pursue a career in music first as a performer, then composer, and later a musicologist who doesn't actually make music but only writes about it. But really, why do we still programme this stuff? 

I suppose the answer is both simple and complicated: Audiences want it. The mighty few who wield the cheque books and keep orchestras afloat demand the familiar and the comfortable. I certainly don't envy the music director that wants to expand an ensemble's repertoire to include anything written after 1911 (let's use The Rite of Spring as my benchmark for 'modern' music). He or she is torn between expanding minds and imposing some good 'ear stretching' on the audiences, but also placating the monied old guard and prospective new supporters.

So, if we're stuck with the classics, for better or for worse, what can we do to revitalize them? If I may use the real estate metaphor to which I alluded in this post title, how can we flip these works to make them more appealing to both first-time symphony goers, and the long-time supporters? Is it a matter of performance practice? Is it a matter of adding gimmicks and flash bang stuff? This is the eternal question for marketing teams and ensemble promotions people, but has there been a genuine dialogue between organizations or between organizations and audiences? I've seen a lot of internal debate at music orgs that impose an answer based on insider information (those already 'in the know') which is of little use or interest to the ones who buy tickets and put their bums in seats.

There needs to be a serious dialogue soon. If we're going to support the 'historical then' at the expense of the 'contemporary now' we need to do something soon!

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