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Why classical music performances have to evolve
It's a form of social interaction repeated many times over at classical music events. The audience get into their seats before the performance starts. If it's an orchestral performance, such as a symphonic work, the orchestra tunes up before the actual work. And as the conductor, or - in the case of a solo piano performance, the pianist - walks from the wings to the centre of the stage, footsteps echoing as feet strike the wooden platform, the applause reaches a crescendo. In the time between the dying down of applause and the onset of the first note, members of the audience hastily clear their throats, crack their knuckles, or do whatever else they feel they must, or face the disapproval of their fellow concert goers if they make any noise in between the movements of a piece. The applause demarcating the changeover between different works is the period of relief, for throats that were silently held to be cleared and body weights shifted. The conductor, pianist and other musicians receive the applause and continue with the next piece of music. A reverential silence falls over the proceedings as the conductor raises his or her baton, or as the pianist gazes at the piano, lifts the hands in a deliberate arc before placing them on the keys - a silence like the hush at stadiums before the starting gun fires at the start of a 100-metre race. Then as the concert progresses, movements blend into works, works bracket intervals, and grand rounds of applause bracket the performance. The musicians clear the stage and the audience goes home.
Some may find it slightly paradoxical that in such musical events the only social exchange between the conductor, musicians and audience is through the music and not much else. The irony is that in a performance involving communication, there is very little interaction between those on stage and those off it. The performers communicate using the music, but there is a sense of "we play the music, you listen to the music", a take-it-or-leave-it form of third-party interaction, like writing a note for someone in the same room instead of speaking to them directly. It is up to one party to produce something, and up to the other to derive some meaning from what has been sounded and make some sense from the one-sided exchange.
How then, is listening to classical music at a concert different from listening to a CD? Most of the reasons we can think of are from the listener's point of view. But what can musicians provide at a concert that differentiates them from pre-recorded sound?
Perhaps classical musicians can help differentiate between the two by relating to the audience before the performances of individual works, and share an anecdote about the music. Most works have a story behind them. Perhaps it is about a personal event that led a composer or songwriter to put notes to paper to convey emotions felt at that time. Or perhaps the music reflects the signature style of the time and is iconic in that sense. Or perhaps there is an interesting anecdote about the composer, or the dedicatee of a work. Or even a brief mention about the background to the work, by one of the performers - conductor or musician - can help break the periods of silence and the traditional barriers between performers and audiences.
In performances of classical music, the background to works has always been conveyed to the audience via programme notes, reading material for knowledge if you arrive early at the performance. Depending on how lavish the concert, the programme may range from a sheet of A4 paper to a thick souvenir booklet chock full of essays about the works and performers, and advertisements to support the cost of publishing. The programme fulfills the role of filling in the knowledge gap. But it doesn't address the fact that information is still delivered in an impersonal way. There is still no direct interaction between audience and performers.
Perhaps the boundaries are inherited from traditional times, when concerts were put up for nobility and heaven forbid that lowly musicians would deign to speak directly to the king. But the world of classical music has to evolve for its own longevity.
Audiences go to concerts for the experience. And if there is no discernible extrinsic experience between listening to lovely music at a classical music concert and lovely music on the radio or on a Spotify stream, then cost will eventually prevail in favour of the latter. In other words, if someone goes to a concert and there was nothing beyond what he could gained from listening to a CD at home, because there was no engagement from the performers, perhaps he might think to the performers: "Don't take my custom for granted; I'll listen to the music at home, lounging on the settee, instead of being forced to sit upright and quietly without coughing for periods on end".
Rock and pop musicians have mastered the art of audience interactions. At such concerts, in between song numbers, the musicians take time to chat with the audiences - it's about the experience, not just about the music. Some even call up members of the audience to take part in impromptu acts, such as singing the verses of a song, or to play the drums or guitar. The world of classical music could trial this out - classical concerts, where perhaps pianists could accompany members of the audience who want to sing, or who play an instrument. But if it continues down the purely music route, it might be playing to an ever-dwindling audience.
Looking for piano lessons in the N4 area? I teach in Finsbury Park, Manor House, the Harringay Ladder and Stroud Green.
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