Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Applause and the Dinosaurs

For whatever reasons, there is increased interest in audience behavior lately. There are those who want silence during music with applause only at the end of a multi-movement work; others think it’s OK to clap between movements; still others don’t seem to mind talking during performance-as long as it’s them. I’d guess that some want to clap and talk whenever they feel like it. Promoting such informality has to do mainly with “saving” classical concerts from further decline by making them more casual and palatable for more people. But, I suspect it’s only a sign of more to come.

We are changing, manners and morals are changing, musics are changing, orchestras and management are changing -all signs of a dynamic culture. Change causes stress in old-timers who find their values being upset. It causes stress to youngsters too, who are confronted with (to them) pointless tradition. In the same way as we came to the formal applause/silence customs from notorious informality (check your history), to silent temple worship, we are at the door again to Crystal Palace informality. We may as well get used to it. But, will Concert Companion, artists talking to an audience, talking by an audience, or claqueuers after bravura passages, make much difference in the size of, or appreciation by, audiences? Let’s take a leap to concert halls.

The cavernous halls built to accommodate thousands of music listeners are historically recent. It was a good idea while it lasted but, as far as classical concerts are concerned, its horizon doesn’t appear very bright now. Maybe we should start accommodating the fewer numbers with smaller halls and diverse ensembles, which may ultimately lead to a new “New Music” of composition, literature, performance, and audience.

Thirty-five years ago Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, that consumer taste in the future (that’s now!) will become more and more fragmented; that we would be faced by overwhelming and confusing multiple choices, and new niches for these tastes will be formed, viz. foods, specialized industries, computer dating -you name it. It has clearly happened in popular music, just as Toffler said it would, with its plethora of styles and audiences large enough to warrant a radio station to broadcast, or organize a concert for, an exclusive, narrowly-defined style. And look what’s happened to the record industry.

Taste has changed in classical audiences too but there have been few changes to accommodate them. Some classical music listeners hail only Wuorinen or Babbitt, while others groove with Reich and Glass. Many sway with Menotti or Rorem; some dream with Debussy and Hovhaness, or dance with Stravinsky, Dukas, etc. Others powder their wigs with Bach and/or Pachelbel. Still others wallow in hard core Romantic literature. I won’t toy with the point further.

So what do we do with all these fragmented tastes? In some larger cities it is evident by the many ensembles each devoted to a different music causing the large halls to have fewer sales. But, elsewhere, the practice is to put more, or some of each style, in a concert, so audiences will enjoy something even if they hate the rest. Instead, many would rather play a choice CD at home in their pajamas and save $150. It may be that there are as many, or more, classical music lovers as ever. But, the typical concert hall audience decline seems to be occurring in all but a few places in America. A restaurant featuring a take it or leave it one meal only of a Cobb salad, a duck Lorene sandwich, turnip greens and grits, creamed Jello, and just a sip of Chateau Margaux 1787 or Corteux 1989, wouldn’t last long. The musical palette is changing quickly and heading into new territory. We can admire the dinosaurs, but they are dead.


Blogger Joe Nichols said...

Dear Paul;
I disagree. The dinosaur is not yet dead. I live in upstate New York, about 90 min. south of Montreal. I "subscribe" to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Their new musical director-to-be, Kent Nagano has a sold out concert on April 1. After having been dumped by former music director Charles Dutoit, (or after dumping him), they have not suffered as badly as I thought they might. People, at least in Montreal, love going to concerts.

My view is not so much that the interests are exceedingly diverse, but quite the opposite. Musical education in the school has been for the most part, abandoned, except by the relative few numbers who participate in band. I am 47, and when I went to school, music education was mandated. In NY it no longer is mandated.

This leaves the "musical taste" at mega-seller pop-artist-of-the-year and the rest of the pack. This year's Nora Jones is next year's "...who was the chick who sang that tune with Ray Charles and won a couple of Grammy's". We go from one fad to the next due to the wierd marketing and the exec.'s passion for the next big thing. We are too, too homogenous in our tastes, I think, Paul.

We should mandate music education in our schools.

It beats calculus class.


Joe Nichols

1:00 PM  
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