Tchaik It Up

We were staring at the closed door into the Davies Symphony Hall as the San Francisco Symphony sounded its first note. Very exciting beginning to Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto, and I was kind of sad that I had to miss it. But rules are rules. And students are students. The only time to arrive is either a minute before or after the announced start. My car of dormmates unfortunately made a wrong turn, and were just so slightly late enough to miss the doors.

The experience became more interesting as we waited. I knew that the 1st movement was just about 20 minutes, and at about 15 minutes in, the usher got the “5 minute warning” to let us into the concert hall at the break. We anxiously stood by the door, but 5 minutes passed, and there was no break. No accidental applause, no forced coughs. About 25 minutes into the concert, the usher received another call, telling her that the music didn’t stop, and not to let anyone in. For better or worse, though, she was as anxious to get us in as we were, and when the music got louder, she shuffled us in. Ironically, the movement ended about 2 minutes after we got in.

We shuffled into unoccupied seats in the back row and against the aisle, making little sound in the balcony we sat. That, however, didn’t stop some listeners from becoming notably irritated. One man loudly whispered his discontent, and even chided one of us for leaning forward slightly. At the end of the piece, several ladies asked about what had happened, and mentioned how rude it was of the usher to let us in mid-way through the performance.

The performance was alright. The piano concerto was an enjoyable experience, though not perfect. The soloist played passably, and the important parts sounded good enough. The other piece played, Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathetique”), was better than the first, though it obviously wasn’t consistently rehearsed.

As I was walking out of the concert hall, I noticed the same phenomenon as the last trip to listen to the SFS: the audience was mostly much older than my group. It’s not surprising that the audience for the symphony leans towards the elderly. Classical music just isn’t a part of mainstream culture. It takes work to create it, and it takes work to appreciate it. Much of popular music is that because it’s so accessible. People don’t want to listen to the same song 10 times before they appreciate it. It’s easy to get into the feel of pop.

Which is no dig to pop; it just tends to supplant classical music. To get into classical music and appreciate it, listeners have to be interactive. And I’m not talking about feeling the beat and grooving along. A listener has to know the piece and know about musical choices made in the performance by the performers and conductor, and the choices made by the composer. I believe that to get the most out of a performance like this, I have to listen to and know the pieces before I arrive at the concert hall. Only by having a frame can I see the differences and liberties taken in the live performance that make it special.

It’s just not an approachable genre. I also think that the current audience isn’t building a culture to fix that, either.

We shouldn’t have entered mid-way through the performance. It wasn’t the best entrance, and not something to make a habit of. It, however, isn’t something to get riled up over. It just makes the performance less enjoyable for everyone. For example, the man who complained during the performance about what we had done: perhaps we had distracted his focus on the music, but instead of letting it go, he insisted on making it a problem. Instead of getting back to the performance, he missed more of it by worrying about what we had done. And distracted several of his neighbors.

This sort of almost elitist, overly-formalized behavior is what generates an artificial barrier. In my conducting class last quarter, we had a big debate about the current state of classical music and what should be done. Should classical music change and adapt to current preferences to bring in greater interest? Or should it remain as it always has, and let people come to as they please?

Of course I care for the essence and purity of the music. I don’t want Jessica Simpson singing over Strauss’ compositions, and to let that be the new classical music. Classical music, however, does have to adapt, like everything else. Those who currently appreciate it have an obligation to bridge that gap and bring what they value to others. It’s selfish to make it an exclusive party. And it dooms it. Appreciate it, but appreciate change as well.

Here‘s the final installment of my mystery story. Hope you enjoy!

One reply on “Tchaik It Up”

I don’t listen much to classical music any more. I probably listened most when I was in high school, and then a bit when I was studying in undergrad. By the time I went to grad school, I pretty well listened to jazz, and jazz fusion (where rock meets jazz).

I do listen to rock and pop, but it’s the rare musician who can compose and/or play sufficiently well to make repeated listening worthwhile. I’m still of a generation that buys CDs — the quality of downloadable audio compromises sound, and I would like the unadulterated version that the artists intended. I’m pretty selective about buying CDs, though. Most of the time, I shop in used CD stores. I have decided that when I see a musician play live, if I like him or her, I’ll buy the CDs direct, because it’s a way of getting cash directly into the hands of working musicians.

Like classical music, jazz has structure. Like classical music, jazz is reinterpreted different ways in different performances, but with a lot wider range. If I wanted to hear exactly as I did on the CD, I would stay home.

Laymen sometimes portray an aura about “classicially trained” musicians. If they looked into the training of jazz musicians more deeply (e.g. Berklee, Miami, North Texas, Humber), they would find that skills and dedication to the genre of jazz is no lower than that in classical.

If Bach had access to a keyboard synthesizer, perhaps he might have written his music differently.

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