Why We Still Pay to Hear Classical Music Live
The twentieth century’s democratization of high culture gave third-tier cities the gift of world-class civic orchestras. They still have the power to enrapture.
WHO IS LIVE CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR TODAY? From a scan of the upper balcony of Dallas’s Meyerson Symphony Center during a recent Sunday matinée, I can start a list: some guys in sweatpants and baseball hats; tech-savvy older patrons catching up on the world during the Chopin concerto; a passel of what appear to be high school students, seated in the middle of the first movement and all dressed up for a formal dance. One has brought opera glasses, which he shares with his companions. The venerable season subscribers and intense young music students who usually make up much of the crowd must be on the lower levels today. I am here, too, of course—an unaccompanied middle-aged suburban dad in a suit jacket that very nearly still fits.
As it is above, so it appears on stage. In the back of the orchestra, the timpanist is slumped through the long movements before he briefly, dramatically evokes a sudden thunderstorm. One wishes he were allowed to check his phone. The conductor, a Dutch eminence with a decorated resumé that spans decades and continents, has left his white shirt open under a jacket not obviously better-fitting than mine and gestures languidly from one section and tempo to another. After the timpanist discharges his brief duty, the orchestra brings home the feeling of relief after a summer squall, and the crowd renders its obligatory standing ovation; the maestro wanders off without a bow before the insistence of the crowd brings him back. The whole event has the feel of midseason baseball, down to a veteran player coming out for a sentimental curtain call. Upper decks are the same everywhere.
To put the question another way: What are all of us looking for here? When we choose to enter these spaces with their fraying etiquette and bicentenary warhorse repertoire, what need are we fulfilling?
The world of classical music performance has entered a perilous and disorienting era. Ensembles old and new are having to address themselves to the revealed preferences and ineffable desires of an audience in transition. According to one pre-pandemic study by an orchestra trade group, season subscriptions to orchestras included in one survey fell by 24 percent in the decade leading up to 2014, with the fickle and unreliable single-seat customers (like me) making up a larger share of total sales. “The idea of committing yourself to a regularly scheduled night at your local concert hall feels odd and constraining,” writes the New York Times, echoing industry calls for more flexible subscription models (as well as a more broadly representative repertoire and relaxed standards of decorum). Certainly the stodginess will need to go. “Whip out your phone, clap when the spirit moves you and don’t forget to pick up a mojito before you take your seat,” recommends the Observer. I don’t necessarily disagree, but as someone who has spent many more hours in baseball stadiums than concert halls in recent years, I would caution anyone against expecting a big attendance boost from looser rules on drinking and clapping.
I suspect that, not so long ago, the stodginess was actually a selling point. When I went to classical concerts as a child, it never occurred to me that the decorum was meant to be really exclusive, screening out the rabble. It was, instead, an opportunity for members of the rabble with aspirations for more to try on clothes and manners we would not normally adopt. The tuxedoed gentleman on the stage a short distance from the Midwestern hometown of Tom Wambsgans and Garrison Keillor, focused intently on his violin and the music of Mozart, was doing something so elevated and important that I felt I should really put off shuffling through the program until the cadenza wrapped up and the movement was over. The gradation—between movements, you may shift, cough, turn pages, or be seated but must not talk or clap; at the end of the piece you can clap and cheer and talk again—has a gamelike spirit that a young concertgoer may be eager to learn and internalize. And in any case, it was part of the meaning and function of the enterprise to embrace its rituals. We had come to be elevated; for entertainment, no doubt, but entertainment that was set apart from the general run of things by its content and form. For the space of the event, we were set apart, too: We were there to become cultured.
THE ORCHESTA, WITH THE UNIVERSITY and the church, was part of the civic architecture of the American metropolis, whether a major urban center, a midsized city, or even an established suburb. These institutions were supposed to ennoble us through learning, art, and piety, teaching us how to talk, how to act, and how to find our way through the innumerable landmarks of what might have been called civilization. In the second half of the twentieth century, bolstered by public subsidy, private patronage, and mass aspiration, they together created an astonishing abundance of preposterously good cultural production—but the church and even the university did not reach the heights of the civic orchestra. I like to imagine blowing a resurrected Franz Josef Haydn’s mind by playing my secondhand recording of his Te Deum made by Berlin’s third-best orchestra in 1960. During those decades, a vast repertoire was repeatedly performed, recorded, and broadcast at a level of musicianship that was essentially unknown at the time of its composition.
Through cultural vicissitudes ranging from the advent of vaudeville to movies, radio, and the record industry, the concert hall has survived. But in the twenty-first century, something seems to have changed. The civic architecture doesn’t enjoy the same consensus; in today’s middle class, those eager to get ahead have new, divergent aspirations. Like the university and the church, the orchestra has found itself caught between the gravity of tradition and the impulse for change, between business models and public missions, between the different and sometimes conflicting priorities of employees, donors, and consumers. A broader repertoire may help, relaxed mores are probably overdue, and twelve-dollar mojitos offer an upside to everyone.
But what about the motive for going in the first place? With a hundred recordings of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony at our fingertips, we concertgoers still come out early or late, in our gowns or cowboy hats, for something. For all the speculation and commentary on how live classical music needs to evolve, I haven’t seen anyone address that.
So to speak for myself: I came out looking for Beethoven. I can’t claim any distinction in my enthusiasm, which is shared by a great and varied multitude. The fictional conductor and “U-Haul lesbian” Lydia Tár praises his “magnitude” and “inevitability.” The very real Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin described feeling “naïve, childish pride” at the “wonders human beings are capable of accomplishing” when he listened to Beethoven. The composer’s music attended the end of the political era Lenin worked to inaugurate: The Berlin Philharmonic played one of Beethoven’s symphonies in an impromptu concert for East Berliners right after the Wall fell. And a college classmate, with the lucid urgency that sometimes attends severe inebriation, persuaded me that I needed to find a recording of his String Quartet #15 in A minor if I wanted to ever understand T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ever since then, that quartet in particular has been more than a favorite piece of music. It does not belong in any list above or below “Take the A Train” or “Street Fighting Man.” It is like a landscape in a recurring dream, or a mental state in which, uniquely, a piece of truth can be grasped. In a decade I had heard live symphonic music perhaps three times, and two of those were sing-along Messiahs. Then in November I heard a radio spot for a complete performance of Beethoven’s string quartets, set to take place over a week at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, and I knew I was going.
In this I was also, apparently, merely part of a larger trend. The pandemic-era swoon in classical performance attendance started to reverse itself last fall, according to the New York Times. At the time, I did not suspect that my intensely personal quest for a piece I’d never heard live was overdetermined, so I arrived early enough for the pre-performance lecture.
I knew from experience that hearing any music live is different from hearing even the most masterful recording on the best possible equipment. But then I sat down in that small room, two-thirds full of the aging gentry and Zoomer aesthetes who will go out for chamber music on a Thursday in Fort Worth, and I discovered just how different it can be. The center of the A-minor quartet is the “Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian Mode,” a medieval church tune stretched thin and then inflated to impossible transcendence. A character in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point claims it is the only proof that God, the soul, and goodness exist, underscoring his point by staging his own murder at its climax. But that night, we participated in a bloodless musical sacrifice. The concentration projected from the poised bodies of the four musicians; it emanated through the theater to reach the reflecting pool outside. Here was the difference between speculative proof and real presence.
THERE WAS A CASUAL, languorous intermission during which I chatted with the radio host who previewed the program—I thanked him for introducing me to Mahalia Jackson’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” on his show many years before—and refrained from yelling at a concertgoer who complained about the length of the Holy Song. “The third time it started, I thought, this is just too much,” she said to a companion. I wanted to tell her that God was talking to her then and if she couldn’t hear it she was a dumb clod. That would have been bad, God or no. Then the quartet reassembled for #17, which concluded with a “Grosse Fugue” considered unplayable and unlistenable in Beethoven’s lifetime and which did create a sensation of disorientation and euphoria as it went on and on. The program ended and we all went home.
I don’t know when or if I’ll find an experience quite like that again. But hunger goes looking, so when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra put on the Beethoven Violin Concerto, I was there with my violin-playing child, who got us in for free. We had the chance to bob along with Pinchas Zukerman and Beethoven’s triplets. At one point he stamped his feet in the tempo he wanted the orchestra to rejoin him in. Is that, you know, normal? We asked each other. But it doesn’t matter. The clothes, the crowd by turns docile and squirrelly, the conductor/soloist dressed for an Auburn alumni tailgate: None of it matters because the perfection doesn’t inhere in any of it. It doesn’t even come from the score or the performance but from the shared offering. The woman next to us started crying at some point in that rapturous first movement, and so did I, and while I didn’t ask, I doubt either of us could have explained the cause. If I really understood the music, which I don’t, I could not explain it. Even Lenin, a ruthless architect of suffering, felt his nerves unsettled by too much music because it made him politically unreliable: He reported feeling inspired to stroke heads rather than strike them. One wishes he had yielded to that temptation to become childish and politically useless in the thrall of that experience, which (he would certainly agree) is not a private possession. It connects us, and not only across the aisles of the concert hall, but across years, languages, and political orientations. We might have shared that experience of chest-swelling delight at the work of the human mind with the music’s own progenitor, in some long-vanished concert hall where even a struggling early-nineteenth-century rendition would have left us helpless in the face of something our highest intentions don’t explain and our words are powerless even to describe. The respectable uniform of the concertgoer just conceals the fanny-packed, gape-mouthed tourist of the soul.
Is that enough to preserve this peculiar form of social and cultural life? “Come to the symphony to feel like a helpless, sentimental dork” is not an intuitive marketing pitch, however many mixed drinks and selfie stations you match it with. What do you give a culture that already has, and knows, everything? Maybe a reprieve. Maybe the chance to hear something again for the first time. Maybe the desire to be handed something too big to hold.
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