Classically Curmudgeonly

Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions
Yes, it's come to this.

I remember the exact moment I turned into a classical curmudgeon.

The year was 1997, so I was 36. Young, you might think, for a curmudgeon, but bear with me. I had taken my second wife on a date to a concert of the Oregon Symphony. We sat down in our mid-priced seats on the main floor, beneath the balcony. I scanned the program notes, learning about the background of the soloist who would perform during the concerto, picked up a thing or two I hadn't known (despite spending most of my junior year at Willamette studying Beethoven) about the symphony that would conclude the concert, I allowed myself to relax into the familiar polychords of an orchestra warming up, applauded when the concert master walked onto the stage, felt my anticipation grow as the orchestra tuned, applauded as the conductor walked onto the stage, bowed, stepped onto the podium--all the rituals that put me in the right frame of mind to be at the receiving end of a performance of great music.

And then the conductor ruined it for me.

Instead of turning his back to us, raising his baton, and launching into the overture that was supposed to open the concert, he picked up a microphone and talked to us about what we were about to hear.

What the hell? We've got program notes. We can read. This is patronizing. It's shattering the fourth wall. Symphony concerts are supposed to be wordless. And now he's telling us about his personal experience of this piece. I'll have my own experience, thank you very much. What does he think this is, a freshman music appreciation class?

The orchestra/audience fourth wall was broken twice more during that concert. Driving home, I was in a dark mood. I shared my irritation with my wife, and she immediately took me to task. Sure, I had a music school education, but that almost certainly put me in a very small minority of those at the Schnitzer concert hall that night. And yes, there were notes in the program, but those notes were printed in small fonts, and the lighting was far from ideal for reading them, besides which they were written from the perspective of a music scholar rather than an amateur enthusiast. So what was the problem with a conductor informally introducing the music to the lay audience who filled the hall? Wasn't he doing exactly what I did every Sunday when I preached in the vernacular, without notes, to a congregation that wouldn't have understood any of the ivory tower theological words I was choosing not to use, anyway?

I was suitably chastened by this lecture. She was right on every count. I knew that symphony concerts had been hemorrhaging attendees for decades. I'd experienced it myself in college: my freshman year at Willamette, there were two orchestras with full seasons of concerts performed in Smith Auditorium. Two years later, the Salem Symphony folded, and now it was only the Oregon Symphony performing four times a year for Salemites. There has always been an uneasy tug-of-war between the efforts of serious musical organizations to enrich their audiences and the desire of those same audiences to be entertained. Critics have looked with disdain on the intrusion of popular elements into serious music, while audiences have turned away from orchestras that programmed works too strenuous for their untrained ears. In response, orchestras began in the 1800s to tailor programming to different audiences. The Boston Pops orchestra--a pared-down version of the Boston Symphony--began performing concerts of light classics just four years after the founding of the BSO. My first experiences of classical music were PBS-televised Boston Pops concerts, with Arthur Fiedler's long white locks rocking out to arrangements of Beatles tunes, interspersed with Gershwin, movie soundtracks, and the William Tell Overture.

For all the concessions they make, pops concerts still draw an older clientele to the concert hall. When younger audiences rock, they do it to actual rock music, not toned-down string-infused arrangements of their favorites. This has led symphony organizations to create series of special concerts with performers who need no orchestral backup, as well as concerts that go beyond the tried-and-true pops format in gimmicky ways. Consider the flyer I received in the mail last week, soliciting subscriptions in the 2015/16 "Oregon Symphony Presents" series. Of the eighteen concerts in this series, four are "popcorn concerts," during which the soundtrack of a movie is played, live, while the movie is projected over the orchestra; three are holiday-themed pops concerts (Gospel Christmas, "Classical Christmas," and New Year's Celebration); three feature guest performers from the world of popular music; one features "The Tenors," singing a standard pops concert program; one features classical comedians; three are performances at which the symphony won't even be present; and, yes, one is a Pokemon concert featuring music from the world of video gaming. Only two concerts in this schedule fit the standard orchestra format of symphonies, overtures, and concertos. 

This is not, of course, the symphony's season in its entirety. There is also a classical series of concerts. The "Oregon Symphony Presents" series is clearly aimed at supporting these bedrock concerts by bringing in audiences who would never, otherwise, darken the Schnitz's doors. Financially, these concerts make the classical series possible. And culturally, they inoculate audiences to the very experience of being at a symphony concert, bringing them into an auditorium decorated for more serious music than can be heard in a stadium.

I understand all this. It makes hard, cold sense to me. And yet, I can't help feeling nostalgic for those days when I would to present my $2.00 student ticket at an Oregon Symphony concert in old Smith Auditorium, peer at the program notes in the inadequate light, struggle to get comfortable in one of those cramped thirty-year-old seats, and then plunge into two hours of music I had never, at that point, heard before. There was adventure to be had in those concerts. The conductor was not holding my hand, telling me what to listen for, waxing rhapsodic about what this or that piece of music meant to him personally. It was just me and the music. Some of it left me cold, some of it challenged my sensibilities, and some of it changed my life.

And Pikachu never took the stage.


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