The Confused Outcomes of Good Intentions: How Pre-Concert Lectures Do More Harm Than Good

An audience listening to a choral concert in Neu Ulm, Germany. (Credit: Gesangbuch/Wikimedia Commons)

If demography is destiny, then the fate of classical music looks dire. Interest in classical music is dwindling as inexorably as the polar ice caps, while its audiences and donors are rapidly aging. While mankind can hang onto a sliver of hope with respect to global warming, admirers and performers of classical music have less ground for optimism.

The reasons for this phenomenon, contrary to the facile and misguided explanations expounded by many commentators, are complex and defy any one way of addressing them. A few individual organizations are doing quite well—for the moment. But to paraphase Aristotle, a few prosperous symphony orchestras do not a resurgence make. Whatever the causes, the resulting sea change in society’s estimation of classical music—its ejection from the pride of place it had held in Western culture from the 13th century until deep into the 20th—is irreversible and permanent. The mass audiences it once commanded will not be returning.

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Nevertheless, it is perfectly understandable for musical organizations to fight against the current, no matter how futile their efforts may be. While some of their quixotic schemes to engage audiences are ultimately benign (outreach to lower income schools, for example, or encouraging attendees to dress casual) some not only fail to alleviate the problem, they inadvertantly aggravate it. Consider the pre-concert lectures that have become virtually ubiquitous today.

On the face, these lectures appear to serve noble purposes: To help educate the prospective classical neophyte, as well as enrich the experience for the more seasoned listener. For those that advocate for this sort of audience engagement, Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus series, which famously opened up the intricacies of classical music for an entire generation of young people, is often hailed as an inspiration. He managed to be disarmingly casual, witty, charismatic, and informative—all while amply demonstrating his brilliance as a musician. But therein lies the rub. Because to talk or write about music in a manner that is edifying as well as entertaining is an art wholly independent of the performance of music itself. One can be a great musician or a great speaker about music, but very few can pull both off convincingly. Bernstein was the exception that proved the rule.

This came to my mind recently at a recital that I had attended, which comprised of a single large-scale work that makes considerable demands on the concentration of its audience. It was preceded by a lecture that lasted approximately half the time it takes to perform the work itself—not necessarily a drawback in and of itself. However, when the lecturers—in this case, the performer of the piece in question and the organizer of the concert—evince no affinity for public speaking, the result does neither performer nor music any favors.

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Talking or writing about music already can be difficult, as the well-known quote variously attributed to Elvis Costello and Frank Zappa, among others, about how it is akin to “dancing about architecture” implies. But that difficulty becomes especially acute when a lecturer attempts to explain away music that has no discernible extramusical connotations of the sort that can make, say, Tchaikovsky intelligible even upon first hearing to the novice. More so when it is constructed via highly sophisticated means and is solely meant to display the composer’s delight in his mastery of these forms (e. g. the finale to Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony). To talk to an amateur audience about works that are, essentially, music about music without lapsing into musical jargon is extraordinarily challenging. A speaker lacking that rare combination of charisma, presence, and innate ability to make complex ideas relatable risks alienating the very audience that they had intended to engage. A lecture then becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed, fatiguing the audience even before the first note has sounded. Worse, it inadvertantly perpetuates the deeply embedded and very mistaken notion that the proper enjoyment of classical music requires some kind of special study or intellectual acumen on the part of the listener. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as one need not be an astronomer to fully appreciate the beauty of a starry night, so one does not need to be a musician or musicologist to fully enjoy listening to The Art of the Fugue.

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A friend and ex-Amoeba colleague of mine and I would often talk about the hostility that new or experimental music would arouse from some quarters. The biggest problem, according to him, was that these irate listeners would rage not just at the music itself, but also over their inability to understand it. “Art often requires one to make peace with the fact that some things are beyond our understanding,” he would tell me. “That requires humility—which is a quality that society today totally rejects.” It is the mirror image of the problem of how lay audiences perceive classical music. Whereas one kind of music tends to elicit immediate scorn, the other is immediately perceived as being too forbidding for the common man. Both end with the same result: The denial of a deeply rewarding artistic experience available to anyone with an open mind.

None of this is meant to denigrate pre-concert lectures as a whole. In the right hands they can indeed be a tool that can help to enrich the appreciation of great music for cognoscenti and amateur alike. But when a compelling speaker cannot be found, then performers and audiences would do best to show a little humility and simply trust the composer. Because very often the best advocate of music is music itself.

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