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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Who are these people?

The answer seemed obvious,

Here's the situation. Matinee concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall: hall (seats 2262) at least 75% full; stalls (£26 a pop) almost 100% taken; programme* close to classical (ie, posh) MoR; average age (cf. the greyness of the heads) about 65.

Question. How many present are music lovers? The knee-jerk answer is surely all of them.

Why anything other? Unlike a play, music concerts operate in a language not understood or appreciated by everyone and there are few visual diversions. You can't pick and choose as in a gallery. There's no story as with a play. Other than at the interval there are no chat opportunities as at a restaurant.

Just the cognoscenti? I had my doubts. The figures don't compute. The listening figures for BBC Radio 3 are tiny and that's a nationwide service. Sales of posh CDs are way down and many famous names are out of contract. Note how much space serious newspapers allocate to posh music.

But what do I know? I'm a rank amateur. I asked M who knows posh music back to front, has solo-ed the Mozart clarinet concerto. She thought then nodded. "By no means everyone."

But why do they come? I asked. It's expensive, you're required to remain immobile and silent for sometimes an hour at a time, it's a fuss.

M said: an afternoon out, a family habit, better than staying at home and watching the wallpaper if you’re retired, a sense of elite community, can lead to advantageous name dropping.

No wonder poppers think the posh lot are weird. No wonder my kids indulge me.

* Magic Flute overture, Mozart pno. cto 24, Elgar first symphony.

6 comments:

mike M said...

The sense of elite community is not the least attraction, I'm sure. I'm reading poems by Sharon Olds, being stuck to the marrow by one after another. Dismayed at the inferiority of my own attempts, I take solace in being a member of the miniscule portion of humanity exposed to and appreciative of such genius. I wonder what it could possibly be like to be in the same room with the woman from whom these poems emanate. Music-wise, the live sound of all that vibrating wood seems far superior to recordings of it, and listening (I keep my eyes closed 90% of the time) with a group of like-minders only adds to the vibe. Those attendees who are not like-minders bring aroma and visual intrigue as well. Small venues around here, usually with side balcony seating, practically atop the stage and with a view back toward the audience.

Joe Hyam said...

Good. Tone Deaf returns to its original topic. Similar thoughts crossed my mind this morning. What is it that draws so many to classical (I still prefer this word)? I don't find that question too hard in fact because it has so much to offer. You could ask the same of pop. It too, I suppose. But for me, not as much. Another question is: how do people listen? What are they looking for? I remember the discussion in the E M Foster novel Howards End when the two sisters compare the abstract nature of music and the images it can evoke. One prefers the abstract, the other the pictorial. I don't see much choice myself. For truly posh music, pictures are not enough or not even valid. But how would you answer the question?

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: But don't you find it odd that out of those present (say 1500) at the Birmingham concert a significant percentage may not have qualified as music-lovers. That the music was only incidental to their presence. I listed some of the non-musical reasons for this (supported by associated statistics and trends) and I can add a further one; I attend these concerts with a group in a hired bus. After the concert you might expect the bus to be abuzz with talk about what these people had just heard but it isn't. Just the same dull old stuff about families and gardens; the excruciating noise the English middle-classes make all the time; never the hint of an abstract subject. A warning if you like; as you get older it's a good idea to come up with your intellectual stimuli, not to expect others to provide it.

Joe: Abstract reactions vs. pictures? I'm inclined to continue in the same sour way that characterised my response to MikeM, above. Certainly I distrust those that talk of pictures; I feel sure that pictures add up to nothing more than the re-evocation of events and encounters in the rememberer's life. Proof that such people are daydreaming, letting their minds wander, hardly conscious of the music.

Music is full of sixty-four-thousand-dollar questions and this is merely one of them. I can only speak for myself. There's an assumption that most of the posh music we hear consists of masterpieces; that may be true but only insofar as what's on the score. Music also requires a masterpiece of a performance and doesn't always get it. The main culprit is tempo: too fast or too slow (vs. whatever we've become accustomed to) and we're either bedevilled with melodious Morse code or participating in an interminable funeral service. The more we listen to music the more sensitive we become to unsatisfactory execution - usually not bad enough to be labelled bad (that can sometimes be funny) just mediocre.

Some months ago I tried to tot up how many truly great live performance I've heard in sixty years of concert-going. Probably twenty or thirty if I include recitals and chamber music. But if I limit myself to orchestral works only three or four. Opera? Perhaps one and even then I was cheating; it was a workshop staging of Cosi cut down to the bare bone which meant there were fewer chances for things to go wrong.

So let's ignore the heights and talk only about "acceptable to good". How do I react? The answer's viscerally by which I mean in terms of emotions. If you're following me you should immediately object at this point: how many distinct emotions are there to make that a valid claim? Sadness, joy, excitement, anticipation, eroticism, relief, sympathy - will they do? But one of the desirable byproducts of listening to a wide range of music is that occasionally you'll identify a new response. What impresses me about, say, the late quartets and the Bach keyboard suites is their seriousness.

One may also experience mixed emotions: for me the St Matthew Passion is poignantly sad and serious. Other pick and mixes are possible.

The great problem about communicating musical expoerience is that words just aren't up to it. Not surprising since we are repeatedly told that music itself is a language. The next sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is usually self-addressed: is music a language I speak? The answer is usually self-contained.

Emotions aren't abstract because you feel them. A beautiful building may move you but architecture - the intellectual process whereby buildings are achieved - may not.

Image vs. Abstract seems a strangely limited, slightly cockeyed couple of options. I'm probably not doing myself any favours referring to emotions - it's only a short step from emotion to emotional and that's an adjective that's best kept under one's hat. The best I can do.

mike M said...

Live posh (posh sounds derogatory to me) is a fairly rare experience for me, and I don't listen to recordings regularly either. More of a jazz fan. Agreed that once one develops a sympathy to a certain tempo any deviation is quite jarring. Conductors, of course, fancy themselves artists as well, and consider the art of others their medium. But written music IS abstract and open to interpretation. I'm not aware that classical composers jotted in their notion of ideal downbeats per minute per given passage (you have a term for this I can't recall), but some may have...enlighten me? Certainly terms like Largo and Molto are a little indistinct. When I hear classical it is likely something I am NOT very familiar with, so I'm not disturbed by the interpretation differing from my favorite. I go in biased in favor because I have some knowledge of the intellectual/technical skills involved in the creation and presentation. I do not arrive with a critical ear, I arrive as helpless as an astronaut strapped atop a solid rocket booster, ready to ride. Daydreaming is part of the experience for me, but I feel that the dreaming is utterly driven by the music. Of course memories come into play...I think it would be very hard to separate the realm of emotion from the realm of memory. If some Ruskie posh makes one feel sad, what the devil is one sad about if not something (even knowledge of Russian history) that one remembers? I took a pass yesterday on Shosta's 5th symphony, free, 10 miles away. A quality university orchestra, as far as I'm concerned they always knock it out of the park. My back was sore and I was in a bit of a blue state. I've listened to enough Shosta to fear I'd be heaving sobs at some point. Also did not want to endure an hour of prelims, Strauss' Berleske and Liadov's Kikimora. Back is better, head is better, life goes on. I agree that small talk after listening seems odd...tough to get out of dreamy-world for a while, and I like it that way.

Roderick Robinson said...

I have deliberately adopted posh - pejorative or not - as a substute for classical which to me sounds sniffily superior. Music is music and there are only two categories - good or bad. I assumed others would realise I was using posh knowingly but, like Rick in Casablanca, I was misinformed. Never be a pioneer.

I fear that Largo and Molto belong in different worlds (molto means much). You're right that they're vague but they become slightly less vague if you learn the rest of the list. Allegro always seems open to the widest of misinterpretation. Erik Satie increased the list even more, coming up memorably with, "Play as if a gorilla were looking over your shoulder."

In fact tempo can be expressed in units and a metronome measures these units. That sounds terribly scientific until we discover that many (all?) of LvB's piano sonatas are marked for impossibly high speeds and the conclusion is that LvB's device was faulty. One pianist, Friedrich Gulda, who later added jazz to his repertoire, is the only guy (it would have to be a guy) who played LvB at the marked tempi. Intellectual laziness has prevented me from checking this out but I will do so the minute I've finished this.

You do not arrive with a critical ear. The implication being that those who do are nitpickingly pedantic. What you do in concert halls is up to you but establishing standards is an uncrushable human tendency.

I'd welcome more about the sore back and the blue state.

mike M said...

As one who IS nitpickingly pedantic about things I've a greater knowledge of, I assure you I was not deriding anyone who is experienced enough to be capable of critiquing an orchestral performance. I once traveled many miles and spent much money to see the Philly Orchestra perform "Pictures at an Exhibition"., which I WAS familiar with. The trumpeter mangled the (simple) opening bars and ruined the whole occasion. I occasionally envy people who seem stupid and happy.....I can usually put myself in just that situation by attending live posh.