Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Larger and Smaller

Two recent news pieces tell us how classical music performance is rapidly changing. The first story tells of the success of revamped 19th century monster concerts, reminding us again that some things never really change. The second is a bit different-a signal that real change is upon us. Or is it revamped 18th century concerts?

On July 9, Carolyn Webb wrote on the remarkable success of conductor Raymond Gubbay, who also heads a franchise called Classical Spectacular(s) that popularizes classical music. The concerts have become an international success. Two concerts at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena will be among the 30 Classical Spectacular concerts Gubbay will produce this year in Europe and Australia.

The formula is: take the world's most popular classical pieces - from Nessun Dorma to the Swan Lake Finale, Blue Danube Waltz and the Can Can theme. Engage a 90-piece symphony orchestra, 100-piece choir, military band and soloists to perform them. Package it with synchronised lasers, lights and fireworks. Put them on stage in an arena packed with 10,000 people, and, and….ZOUNDS! It’s Jullien and Gilbert resurrected! Maybe they didn’t really die. Shades of Yanni, Andre Rieu, and the Three Tenors!

Gubbay says the concerts introduce classical music to mainstream audiences, (Jullien’s almost exact words) who often go on to patronize the likes of the Royal Opera House. A capacity audience of 5000 turned up to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Band of the Welsh Guards, and the London Choral Society perform a concert of classical music’s greatest hits. Singing, humming and clapping along was encouraged. A second show was added, then two more. This year, Royal Albert Hall will host two, six-show Classical Spectacular seasons. Manchester and Birmingham have been added to the calendar, as have Dublin, Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. There are two concerts in Sydney and plans for other Australian capitals next year.

The show does not have a chronology or theme. The conductor makes light banter with the audience, but information on the pieces and composers is confined to the program. Asked why the formula has been so popular, Gubbay says: "I think it's just struck a popular chord with people." Classical music can be fun, and a pleasure to listen to. It's just a great, fun night out. It's not stuffy, it's not starchy . . . we're just saying, come and enjoy yourselves." – words we read often these days from classical music marketers. Will there come a time when the great classics are performed by only a handful of great orchestras; the remaining survivors will entertain the masses? Maybe. But other things can happen too. Read on.

In a July 10 piece by Lawrence A. Johnson, the classical music writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, he discusses the musical aftermath of the folding of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. After playing its final performance in 2003, many predicted that the organization's demise would prove a fatal blow to the musical scene in South Florida. But, only two years later, far from a death knell, a number of new chamber orchestras are flourishing. What has occurred is a downsizing of the local classical scene and the repertoire being heard – chamber orchestras playing lighter scored Classical and Baroque works, rather than large orchestral music and late Romantic symphonies.

Classical audiences in South Florida are mostly retirees who have the interest, time and disposable income to attend performances. Most of them would rather drive 10 minutes to hear a local chamber orchestra than drive an hour to hear Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. Access and convenience are a bigger draw than headline names and musical significance.

These chamber-sized groups can also be more adventurous in their programming. For example, while the 31-member Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia will perform works of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Mozart in its inaugural 2005-2006 season, there is also music of Aaron Jay Kernis, George Walker, Charles Ives, Antol Dorati, and a world premiere by Boca Raton composer Stuart Glazer.

I said long ago, that expensive ensembles will fold, but it is not the end of classical music (Applause and the Dinosaurs). Rather, a transition to dynamic smaller ensembles, fresh repertoire, composer stimulus, and new audiences will occur. Exciting times!


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