Does classical music still matter?: Some will keep following the fate of the melody

Comstock Hall: Photo by Tom Fougerousse  The University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall has the best acoustics in the city for listening to classical music.
Comstock Hall: Photo by Tom Fougerousse The University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall has the best acoustics in the city for listening to classical music.
It’s not a colossal publishing smash, but a new book called “Why Classical Music Still Matters” has managed to create a stir among people for whom classical music does still matter. The small-sized book, by Fordham University professor Lawrence Kramer, is mostly about the music — but it has also had the side effect of causing some fans to reassess what can be done to save classical music. If anything.

The No. 1 problem for classical music is that it is so far off the public screen that it almost does not exist. The orchestra, like most high art subjects, generally makes the news only when it can’t meet payroll. Then the TV trucks are parked outside the concert hall, and ordinary citizens who barely know anything about anything are asked what they think about the orchestra going broke. Most say they don’t think about classical music. Meanwhile, it is common for orchestras and opera companies to be cash strapped. But neither these public responses nor the organizations’ budget status is news.

The biggest problem for orchestras and opera companies is lack of interest. The thing about classical music in America, and right here in Louisville, is there are plenty of good orchestras, and a lots of excellent players — but, alas, not enough audience.

Yet even if few in number, it is obvious that some people do still care about classical music, and will buy tickets, sit on boards, make cash contributions, head up endowment drives, try to talk their friends into attending — and, in short, do all the things that keep the symphony orchestras flush with enough cash to put on another season.

But why?
That’s the question Kramer asks, and his way of answering is to explain the beauty of it all. What it means to him.
Like when he talks about melody: “The fate of melody is the first great differential feature of classical music,” Kramer writes. “Grasping the fate of melody, in all its luminous detail, is not something to do while listening to classical music, it is listening to classical music.”

What he means is there is personal involvement for the listener, throwing all in with the composer, the conductor, the players — even the resounding hall, itself — to follow the melody as it plays out to its fate.
And that’s just what he thinks about melody. (Which could explain why more people are reading about Harry Potter this summer than a book about classical music.)

Classical music meets contemporary culture

Lawrence Kramer’s small book has big ideas about the value of classical music.
Lawrence Kramer’s small book has big ideas about the value of classical music.
But Kramer has many interesting things to say that connect to the culture we all do know about. He talks about an episode of the TV series “The West Wing” in which Yo Yo Ma is performing a Bach suite for cello at the White House. The melancholy mood of the music provides the setting of what the show will be about. Then the melody returns at the end to express the conclusion of the story in pure musical notes. I saw that one, and if you did, you understand what Kramer is talking about.

So Kramer’s answer to “why classical music still matters” is its magical ability to tell a story, and its sublime beauty.

Then along comes New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein to stick a pin in Kramer’s beautiful balloon by pointing out the plain problem of classical music today, as opposed to a century ago when classical music sat on top of the world.

“What has changed,” said Rothstein, “is not how much the tradition means to its devotees, but how little it means to everyone else.”

And can you believe what does?

How about hip-hop music in which (and you will please excuse the crudity of the expression) the performers hold their thing while they sing.
I mean, there has always been bad music, but what can you say when cars roll down the street thudding like bombs, and country crooners make $10 million a year searching (ever in vain) to find the right note? You just have to conclude that the death of western civilization is near — and that orchestras are merely a line item on the casualty list.

Here’s Rothstein again: “From being the center of cultural aspiration, art music has become almost quaintly marginal; from being the bourgeois accomplishment (Someday you’ll thank me), musical lessons have become optional attempts at self-expression; from appearing on news magazine covers, maestros now barely rate boldface in gossip columns.”

Yes, but who would wish to have their name appear with the likes of Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears? (Maybe Paris Hilton.)
But if that’s what people want, why bother?

Checking in on the kids

“Prescriptions have been plentiful,” said Rothstein, “but so many years have gone by without significant music education in the schools and musical commitment in the homes, and so many ears have gotten used to different sounds and minds to different frames of reference, that the question has changed from ‘What can be done?’ to ‘Why should anything be done at all?’”

That sounds so smart it must be true. But let’s set a few things straight.
First, there is still music in the schools. You can get an earful any school day, at, say, Floyd Central High School or the Youth Performing Arts School. Plenty of kids are taking private lessons and can really play. Are they a significant percentile compared to those playing sports at school? No. But when has it ever been?
Even without mass audience interest, the kid players of today follow classical music. They know who violinists Sarah Chang and Hillary Hahn are. “Playing right now on my i-Pod,” they’ll tell you.

Adjusting our ears to contemporary life

Here’s something. Think about the 19th century. Think about how Beethoven added trombones to his Fifth Symphony to get a bigger sound. The first time trombones had ever been used in an orchestra. The sound is just huge. Beethoven!

Today even the biggest symphony can’t fill up a football stadium with sound. But with the aid of electronic amplification and speakers as big as your W-Model SUV, three guitarists and a drummer can blow the ears off more than 100,000 screaming fans.

You know, times change.
In fact, it could be argued that the smaller the sound the more chance it will have in tomorrow’s world. For ears that actually listen, a string quartet, in which each of four voices is distinctly heard — without turning up the volume, and in fact, turning it down — is more interesting that the loud sounds.

You want loud sounds, well, they’re everywhere. Step outside and listen to the air conditioners.
But the best notes we heard last season were played by a string quartet in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville. One had to be silent to hear the quietest notes of a Shostakovich quartet.
In that respect, classical music — even in full symphonic ensemble and grand opera scale — might be the coming answer to the never-ending assault on one’s ears.

Finding a hit in the new and the noise

Here’s another thing: One reason classical music has lost popularity is it hasn’t had a hit in years.
It’s pretty obvious that the numbers and talent level of classical composers dropped off through the 20th century. The hits did not keep coming. Not that there aren’t people out there trying to create new music, but somebody like, say, Paul Simon, is off writing for a different kind of band.

In a way, orchestras kind of created their own problem. Faithfully, they strove to produce the works of new composers. But so often the sounds have been, well, excruciating. Thus driving away so many of us Baby Boomers who grew up playing art music, but can’t stand the new songs.
We’ll see if New Yorker music critic Alex Ross agrees with our low assessment of recent modern music when his new book about classical music arrives in October.

In advance of the publishing of “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” Ross writes that the past century’s classical music is a labyrinth that “remains an obscure world for most people.” He says that, “While paintings of Picasso and Jackson Pollack sell for $100 million or more, and lines from T.S. Eliot are quoted on the yearbook pages of alienated teenagers across the land, 20th-century classical music still sends ripples of unease through audiences.”

That’s far from the way the 20th century began.
In the first chapter of “The Rest is Noise,” Ross unveils, like a novel, the electricity coursing through the musical world in 1906 in anticipation of the premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome.” (Note to non-classical buffs: This is the same Richard Strauss from whose “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” comes the astonishing opening theme of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)
About that 1906 opening of “Salome,” Ross writes, “Word had gotten out that Strauss had created something beyond the pale — an ultra-dissonant Biblical spectacle, based on a play by a British degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company; a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna.”

Maybe that’s the kind of buzz they were trying for last season —100 years later — in New York.
The Metropolitan Opera gave a tremendous build-up to its 2006 premiere of a new opera called “The First Emperor,” by Chinese composer Tan Dun, who wrote the musical score for the hit movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The opera was billed as a titanic operatic spectacle, with Placido Domingo onstage amid a huge cast to sing a lead role. Excited fans fought for tickets and flocked to the debut.
Then they played it.

I enjoy catching the Met broadcasts on radio on Saturday afternoons, and tuned in specifically to hear “The First Emperor.” But here’s what it sounded like: Screech, scratch … Ka-Bong!
I haven’t heard anyone mention it since.
But something new will come along, and until then the opera companies and orchestras can do what they’ve always done: Play on.

A place for classical music, and those who love it
One thing that would help the Louisville Orchestra, in particular, is a brilliant new hall in which to play. You don’t hear orchestra leaders crying about it, but the truth is the acoustics in Whitney Hall are terrible. Deader’n a doornail.

A new symphony hall that is really something — with perfect sound, luxury boxes and perhaps a stage that reached out into the seating areas (the latter has proved popular in New York with the “Mostly Mozart” series at Lincoln Center). A great new hall might have the same effect in stimulating business as new sports stadiums and arenas always seem to have for sports teams. Look what happened when the Louisville Triple A baseball team moved into Louisville Slugger Field.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s not so devastating that classical music doesn’t enjoy the broad audience it once held. It might find a better niche simply as fine art. After all, only a small segment of the population is into painting, but museums are going great. Like Van Gogh. He’s old. Dead even. But not diminished. Maybe classical music can be — figuratively — hung on a wall like Van Gogh, for those who enjoy it. A dignified refuge from the blare.
Maybe classical music should not try to be something it isn’t, but what it is. Something, perhaps, just for those who would wish to follow the fate of the melody.
And for those who don’t — well, they have TV.

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