Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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The orchestra world is a slowly evolving beast. At its heart, a classical concert is the same animal that your grandparents may recognize. However, the past two decades have seen developments that have brought the audience closer to the music. Here’s a look at what’s changed — and what’s not.

Identifying what’s new

First, much more new music is being performed, which is due primarily to one factor: new music is gorgeous again. Rather than exploring ever more alien and atonal styles, composers are reverting to tried-and-true ideas like melody, harmony, and beauty. The sound of a symphony written yesterday is all the more beautiful for exceeding expectations; the sight of a living composer onstage does wonders to remind the audience that music is a living thing.

Second, in recent years the prospect of a female or minority conductor or soloist (or President of the United States) has gone from strangely curious to practically normal — and the audition screen (a physical barrier between auditioning musicians and the jury, so that nobody knows what the auditioner looks like) has further leveled the playing field for female and minority musicians in major orchestras. Orchestras are finally beginning to look more and more like the rest of the world.

Third, many orchestras have begun programming thematically — grouping the works on a program, or the programs in a series, according to a common theme (and naming the concert or series after that theme). Once the purview of smaller, more nimble orchestras, this practice has spread to many more, creating instant associations for the audience among the pieces on the program. It’s not unusual to see a whole program devoted to music about the ocean, for example — or a whole season devoted to the music of proudly nationalist composers. Of course, thematic programming is a marketer’s dream because it can easily spur the imagination — and it really helps pack the hall. But this kind of programming isn’t yet universally accepted, especially in the larger orchestras.

Fourth, small chamber groups and even whole orchestras have taken to performing in unorthodox venues, such as bars and coffeehouses. Audiences get a kick out of seeing their favorite guest artists up close, feeling like part of a special fan club — and maybe sharing a beer with them later.

Finally, conductors, soloists, and chamber groups have begun talking to the audience from the stage. Even the most engaged listeners don’t always read the program book. Some conductors welcome the audience and comment on the history and structure of a complex work, sometimes having the orchestra demonstrate with examples. Even for the most musically knowledgeable audiences, a few words from the podium don’t hurt a bit.

These are all wonderful trends, providing a point of departure for new and old listeners alike. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few groundbreaking orchestras, just about everything else about the classical concert experience in the United States has remained the same over the past decade. For that matter, it’s remained the same over the past century.

The concert as picture in a gilded frame, painted on a canvas of silence, can be a stunningly beautiful thing. But even 90 years ago, the presentation of classical music, with its excessive reverence for the frame rather than the picture, appeared hopelessly antiquated to many. As far back as the 1920s, composers dreamed of shattering the barriers that had grown up around classical music organizations, whose conventional concerts they derided as “orgies of inbreeding.”

Classical music, in fact, is the only art form that is still presented in essentially the same way as it was 100 years ago. Musical organizations often say that they don’t want the symphonic world to end up as a museum. Actually, they should be so lucky; with their stunning new exhibits and interactive displays, many of today’s museums are far more innovative than most orchestras. Opera and theater companies mount imaginative new productions of old masterworks; ballet companies commission tons of new choreography and new music. No doubt about it — compared to the producers of opera, dance, theater, and visual art, the typical classical music group still lags far behind.

Looking to the future

A great performance is vital and moving. But how should the presentation of art evolve over the next century? In most parts of the Western world, classical performances still attract an overwhelmingly Caucasian, Eurocentric, upper-middle-class, elderly audience. Surely that wouldn’t have satisfied the great composers, who poured out their hearts for all humanity.

Musicians could go a long way toward refuting the cry of elitism by changing their uniforms. Seriously, what’s with the black and white? Tuxedos or black suits are fine for certain occasions, such as funerals — but must they be the norm in concert? They smack of exclusivity. They create a distance that the composer never intended. Surely someone can come up with a uniform that’s classy, elegant, modern, welcoming, and chic. If the Beatles could do it more than half a century ago, it can be done now.

Classical music will attract some people more than others — and it’s a harder sell to teenage audiences. But look at the enormous success of Video Games Live — a sampling of video game images set to lush and dramatic (and overly amplified) orchestral music — which has filled classical concert halls to the brim throughout the world, with hardly a gray hair in sight. The same goes for the Lord of the Rings Symphony, complete with full orchestra and 200-voice chorus, which sold out multiple performances in prominent classical venues.

Have you listened to this music? Seldom have the soundtracks of movies or video games so closely resembled the German Late Romantics. And young people love it. The visuals get them in the door, but it’s the music that makes their pulses race. Could it be that those who have fallen for The Return of the King or World of Warcraft could come to crave Brünnhilde’s immolation scene from Götterdämmerung — with appropriate visuals?

In the last century, venerable conductors such as Leopold Stokowski and Herbert von Karajan experimented with every medium, using technology to enhance the art form. Today’s classical musicians should follow their example. Society is increasingly visual; there’s no question that the next few decades will bring more video into the concert hall.

Finding the truest solution

Of course, visuals can go only so far; this is a medium of sound. Orchestras evolve at different rates, and there will always be room for the concert of the past. How do musical organizations give audiences a thorough understanding of why sounds matter? One way or another, the key is education.

Young children eagerly embrace classical music. Their minds are fully open; they immediately grasp the playful spirit of the great composers. It’s rare to meet a child who doesn’t love classical music.

Early exposure to classical music can ignite a lifelong passion. This is the truest solution, the kind that will ensure that future generations can share in the riches of classical music. The fact that you’re discovering these riches is a wonderful start. The best thing you can do now is share them with someone even younger.

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About David Pogue David Pogue is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and has performed magic at parties, special events, on TV, and even over the radio for 25 years. He created and taught the beginning magic programs at the New School for Social Research and the Learning Annex. He has been known to mesmerize audiences with his magic tricks while on tour promoting his many bestselling books, including Macs?? For Dummies??, 5th Edition, Opera For Dummies??, and Classical Music For Dummies??. Contributor Mark Levy, magic consultant, has levitated and read spectators' minds for nearly 30 years. His writings have appeared in some of magic's most revered literary sources, including Richard Kaufman's CardMagic, Apocalypse magazine, and Magic.

Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Evelyn Cisneros danced for the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years and is the Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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