Friday, 29 April 2011

Live Music - What's Happening?

I recently enjoyed a concert at the Colston Hall in Bristol which had just two works on the programme, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 and Mahler's  Fourth Symphony, world famous Mahlerian, Lorin Maazel, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. The two works sat easily side by side, despite the cavernous difference in style and intent that lies between them. The elegant concerto was played effortlessly and charmingly by Akiko Suwanai on one of the most famous Stradivarius violins, called "The Dolphin", while the symphony expressed transcendent power and depth.

I mused from my seat that the audience was notably almost entirely elderly and white, despite the location of the Colston Hall in the centre of a city which is home to a wide variety of skin colours. This by no means suggests that there is a lack of interest from younger, ethnically broader generations. It means that they don't attend formal classical concerts. The seating was about two-thirds its capacity. It should have been full to overflowing for such an occasion. Why? No one knows. It has been established though that there is a clear phenomenon which I've read described as "culturally aware non-attenders". Those whose job it is to promote classical concerts are all too aware of this potential market and how immovable it seems to be.

Can it be because recorded music is so easily available, any time any place? Is it because hi fi reproduction systems can approach concert hall acoustic reproduction? Is it because tickets are expensive? What on earth is it that keeps music lovers away from great cultural experiences such as this Mahler concert? Those questions suggest rhetorical answers which are simply not correct. For example, where popular and rock music concerts are concerned, the opposite is the case. The instant availability of recorded music promotes the desire for the live experience so concerts can be oversubscribed. Poverty stricken youngsters will fork out more than the average well-heeled classical concert goer to see and hear their favourite bands. This is interesting in our context where pianist and commentator, Charles Rosen, has remarked that, "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition."

Here are some more of the thoughts that passed through my mind during the interval. In days gone by audiences made their feelings known by calling out while the music played and far from being phased by this, musical leaders would milk the crowd for more. I was silent in my seat, as was everyone around me. Coughing and wriggling are allowed, but only at certain times. There was no connection with the conductor or orchestra leader who often had their backs to the audience. Fair enough, everyone was there for the music, but more than this, we were surely there for the "live" experience. I want perfection from my CDs, but I want human interaction, frailty, expression and involvement at a concert. I noticed a couple of youngsters bringing beers into the hall during the interval. I noticed a couple of old geezers frowning at them.

At a concert the audience generally already knows the music it has come to hear. Hearing, though, is only a part of what goes on; the rest is involvement in other things that the music is all about, an escape from reality, an escape into reality, a short trip into an otherworldly, fantasmagorical arena of music and its theatrical spectacle. The experience can then be life affirming, exciting, emotional, passionate, happy, sad, superb, admirable, inspiring, religious even. That's the attraction of live music. If it weren't for the incredible music I heard at that concert, all of those things would have been nullified by the formality of the occasion which demanded that the orchestra and the audience dress and behave in a fossilised way. It's that "classical" behaviour not the classical music that has to change. Perhaps?  I simply pose the question.

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