I live in Los Angeles, and one of my favorite summertime activities is to go to the Hollywood Bowl, the home of the LA Phil. It was one of the very first venues I explored when I first moved here just over five years ago. I even remember the date: June 23rd, 2016. I knew practically no one in Los Angeles and so I decided to see what was playing that night. Well, $23 later (maybe 23 should be my lucky number?), I was on my way to the Hollywood Bowl to see none other than living legend Diana Ross. That night ignited my love affair, now in its sixth year (well, it would be the sixth but, well, #2020) with this remarkable live music venue. This year I’ve purchased tickets to three concerts: two classical and one of those fantastic movie nights where the LA Phil plays the orchestral soundtrack while a movie is broadcast to the audience. And it got me thinking, yet again, why it’s always really easy to get tickets to see a Rachmanimoff/Tchaikovsky performance, and The Princess Bride sells out in a couple of days. Oh, I’m going to the Princess Bride, don’t get me wrong (Cary Elwes….) but I have to wonder: why is classical music considered so boring?
To someone who grew up in a classical household with multiple classical musicians and classical music lovers, classical music is my North Star. Give me some Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto (yes, I do mean the 2nd, not the 3rd), and I’m the happiest girl around. Is it just because it’s familiar to me or is there another reason that classical music is so attractive to me? And, I must wonder, why does this genre seem to be so difficult to introduce to those who did not grow up with it or are only superficially familiar with it? When asked if they like classical music, an awful lot of people sheepishly scrunch up their faces and say, “well, no… not really.” (Or they admit they’ve never actually heard any but they’ve heard it’s not that engaging).
Is there something inherently complicated or unapproachable about classical music?
One answer could be that classical music pieces tend to last longer than a popular song. The average concerto or symphony is maybe 40 minutes long, give or take (give a lot with the Romantics, take a bit with the earlier Baroque and Classical composers… sometimes). Another hypothesis would be that there are no lyrics or poetry, at least in classical instrumental music, and so a story is harder to find within the music, especially if you don’t have notes to accompany the piece A third reason might be that the genre’s history – largely a history of white men, whether privileged or not – does not seem terribly inclusive. All these are valid reasons, of course, and are important to consider when trying to get newbies involved in the world of classical music.
When I look back on my own classical musical education (which was varied and diverse across many countries and U.S. states), I cannot help but notice a lack of creativity and improvisation.
Classical music is written down on paper and simply… is.
It is our jobs as musicians of this artform to honor and be true to it. Sure, we might take a longer pause on that fermata at the end of the phrase than another person or decide to up that mf to f for particular emphasis, but we play what is written on the page. It comes out of our instruments and into your ears. Improvisation is not encouraged because, well, it’s not considered appropriate for this genre. Then, however, we must have some sort of knowledge of the piece or the style to be able to notice and appreciate the tiny subtleties of how Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili perform the same piece. This leads me to the topic of education. In an article by the same name as this one by Irish violinist Diane Daly, the writer postulates that a lack of education about classical music is one of the reasons it is so hard to appreciate. That, of course, is a solid point about anything: how can we possibly appreciate the importance of history in assessing the present if we never studied history? My mother reminds me that in her high school, students learned the instruments of the orchestra. They didn’t have an orchestra, and likely very few of those students went on to become professional orchestral musicians (or any type of musicians, just consider the odds), but the simple ability to recognize an instrument by its name and the opportunity to hear some of the sounds of classical music’s remarkably rich history undoubtedly created a more open reception for these people in the later lives.
Daly goes on to remind us that concert-going used to be fun and engaging– not the staid, sit-still-with-your-hands-in-your-lap that we associate with classical music concerts today. “It wasn’t always like this,” she says.” In fact, until fairly recently, improvisation was a key part of most classical concerts. The total silence and stillness of the audience was only instigated by Mahler at the end of the 19th century (prompting Emperor Franz Josef to allegedly remark, “I thought concerts were supposed to be enjoyable”). Is this perhaps something that we can bring back to our classical music concerts?
This same response is why I always tell the audiences at our musical wine tastings that our events are not the type that require or even request that you sit still-with your hands in your lap. The other elements we infuse into our events – wine, cheese, sweet treats – are there to support and enhance the music we perform, whether classical or not (and rest assured, the majority of the music we play at our events is not classical but rather a mixture of genres stretching from about 500 years ago to the present day). Most importantly, they are there to engage our senses and tell stories, and isn’t that the point of all art, including music? To tell a story?
Whether you’re a lover of classical music already, are intrigued but don’t know much, or have actually listened to a lot and decided it’s simply not your cup of tea, let’s not remember how much our lives are bullied by distractions all day, every day.
I discussed this and the differences between hearing and listening in a recent post, and this is, I believe, is why our particular approach to music making is so successful. The inclusion of the senses in a meaningful manner is not done in classical music, well, really in any musical arena. However, our senses do not work in isolation but rather in concert (yup, I punned on purpose) with one another. It seems only too obvious that our ability to appreciate and to remember is heightened when all five senses are engaged in our experience. Perhaps there’s a way that we can begin to infuse that into classical music concerts so that, in the future, they’re everything but boring!