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The Crisis of Classical Music 15

img  Tobias

Imagine, if you like, the following situation: You waited a long time for this! You saved some money to finally be able to buy yourself that much sought-after ticket and watch Robbie Williams play live (okay, bad example, but stick with me for a second). As that big date approaches, you get all nervous and start getting out his records again, checking if you’ve still got all the lyrics memorised. Then, finally, the day has come and your foot is on the gas as you speed up to the location, whistling “Angels” while your heart fills with anxiety. You arrive at the venue, buy yourself a drink, take your seat and then the curtain lifts (literally or metaphorically I really couldn’t say) and Robbie arrives on stage. His boyish smile steals everybody’s heart, as he pulls out his perfectly white handkerchief and waves into the crowd. Then he starts singing “Nessun Dorma” by Puccini. “Okay”, you say to yourself, “a strange way to start the concert, but it’s a great song and man, that guy sure has some guts!” After completing the track however, Robbie merely takes a deep bow and then lashes into “La donna e mobile” and a string of other Classic opera arias. It is only after three quarters of an hour that the first originals come up, but by that time Williams has lost his audience. You decide to never go watch him play live again – and to be more careful before buying yourself another ticket.

An impossible situation? Well, not completely. For this is merely a slight exageration of what is happening in Classical concert halls all over the world. If you’re able to find a single live event which does not mix pre-20th century music (meaning: the music most people consider “Classical”) with contemporary compositions, then please mail in. It is almost as if both artists and organisors are ashamed of treating their audience to “just” Mozart, Beethoven or even Mahler. Each festival prides itself of a synthesis between the traditional and the “new” and instrumentalists are strutting the debut performances of commissioned works like badges of honour. The danger hereof is not only obvious or a mere threat, but an actual fact. Already, many concert visitors are lamenting the absence of their favourites and turning their backs on buying subscriptions. And this does not only affect the die-hards, whom the avantgardists accuse of blind conservativism.This goes for the less frequent spectator as well. When they go out to see a Classical concert, they want to go home with those great tunes in their ears. They do not want to sit through an hour of “tilted harmonies” and “rattling racket”.If people are staying away from the Philharmonics, then this is definitely a reason.

Of course, this development did not come falling out of the blue. Classical concerts were turning into boring and predictable events, serving the same menu each night, each season. The so-called avantgarde actually constituted a necessary and refreshign antidote to this deadlock. And of course, the border between Classical and Contemporary Music is as blurred as it could possibly be – aforementioned Mahler is just as much a part of he 20th as he is of the 21st century and where to place “Le Sacre Du Printemps” for example? One possible answer could be that, in the end, there is a line or a red thread, which goes back to Bach and even earlier composers and everything which fits this category has its rational place on the same stage. Juxtaposing different pieces from the same tradition can not only be a nice passtime, but a fascinating and enlightening experience. Artists were among the first to realize this. They were hardly ever as narrow minded as some members of the audience or as frightened of change as most organisors – it was them, who wanted to take their listeners to new places and establish Classics for the future, instead of repeating the past all over again.

And yet, over time this has caused a dilemma. The last thing I would want to do is criticse “progressive” programming. Quite to the contrary, it has given us some of the most noteworthy concerts over the past few decades. What I do feel is a major issue and part of the crisis is the inclusion of contemporary music in “Classical” concerts for its own sake. This is wrong in two ways: For one, it degrades contemporary music to the status of an appendix. And secondly, it all too often puts together what does not really belong together – or at least what only works in theory or on an intellectual level (where large chunks of the public do not experience music). If subsidies are being dold out, then they might just as well go into sensible campaigns to foster contemporary music as an important and exciting branch of its own, as well as supporting quality productions of “Classical Music”, which will get larger audiences into the concert halls again and keep them coming back for more. If things stay the way they are, they will turn to Robbie Williams instead.

"The Crisis of Classical Music" by Tobias Fischer

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