Cheating Ourselves Out of the Concert Hall

One doesn’t want to find fault with something so wonderful…but here goes.

Trouble with music is, the wrong stuff sticks to it. Think of your favorite kind of music. Now think of your least favorite. Chances are, you have a vision in your mind of the kind of person who listens to the stuff you can’t stand — including how they dress and behave, what they say, where they hang out. It’s probably a big bundle of unsavory.

Tradition and marketing have riveted this unwanted armor onto musical genres for centuries. Someone’s always thinking, “Rappers do X,” and “smooth jazz people think Y,” and “those people all look like ZZ Top.” What a shame. We’re all shortchanging our own musical enjoyment. I’m not saying you have to run and embrace something that doesn’t appeal to your ear. But widening the net a bit won’t hurt.

The biggest sufferer among musical genres has been classical. That’s probably because it’s so broad. Everything from orchestral to piano music qualifies, plus string quartets, some brass band music, and arguably opera. Plus much more. And think of the time span: easily 16th century to today, with an enormous array of styles mixed in. Mozart isn’t Mahler; Beethoven isn’t Bach, and none of them are Philip Glass.

Well, yeah, he's wearing a tux. But he doesn't look boring. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Well, yeah, he’s wearing a tux. But he doesn’t look boring. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

But despite classical music’s huge range, some people continue to associate it with formality, even dullness. Graying men and zaftig women absently gazing through lorgnettes are the archetypes. True, there may be such people. But they are far from the norm, or even the majority. A wide variety of people attend classical music performances, and they are the lucky ones who have seen past the stereotypes.

If you think youth and energy have no place in classical music, look at some of the performers. Joshua Bell (45), Anne-Sophie Mutter (49) and Chinese pianist Lang-Lang (30) are hardly on life support. Older stars such as Daniel Barenboim (70) and Murray Perahia (66) continue to delight.

But at the center of classical music is the concert hall experience. Sure, headphone technology is remarkable these days. But nothing can compare with sitting in an acoustically well-designed auditorium, listening to the music as it’s made, in the near dark with other people. Energy and emotion waft, flow, charge, blow like winds. With eyes open to watch the musicians or closed to allow your mind’s images to take over, it’s an enriching few hours.

Some of the best evenings of my life were spent in Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under André Previn and other notable conductors. Alas, symphony orchestras have been having a hard time making ends meet; some in smaller cities have had to pack it in. What a loss.

Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, where I let classical music transport me on many occasions.

Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, where I let classical music transport me on many occasions.

Whatever music you prefer, give classical a chance and you’ll see what I mean. Genres aside, this is a musical tradition with something for everyone. It hasn’t been around for hundreds of years by accident.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Click here to see and hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Click here to listen to Murray Perahia’s performance of the Gigue from Bach’s English Suite No. 4.

Click here to listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter play the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

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