Onwards and (Back) Upwards: Classical Music and the Everyday

February 29, 2012

The movement of classical music into non-traditional venues has been a major trend over the past few decades — initiated by groups like the Kronos Quartet and accelerated by Classical Revolution, Knight Arts, and, somewhat famously, members of the Cleveland Orchestra. Chloe Veltman’s latest ArtsJournal.com blog post points out that, at least in San Francisco, these have become “run of the mill.” Exciting! Maybe San Fran and other cultural epicenters are finally driving a collective, societal shift towards a more expansive display of classical music.

It is an interesting point, and, if it proves to be an indication of a larger trend, could hold major benefits for many up-and-coming performing groups. But what might this imply for artists more broadly? If the Opera on Tap model becomes a standard-issue experience, doesn’t that change the dynamics of audience expectations? I wonder what that would imply for tertiary music training, and for the emerging focus on entrepreneurship that is spreading quickly across North America’s conservatories and Universities.

Alarm Will Sound, eighth blackbird, and the Fifth House Ensemble are fluent in the new classical music vernacular that requires both a flexible understanding of audience wants and a clear artistic goal to succeed. Now, I don’t want to ruin the party. I’m certainly a proponent of those ideas, and have written about this topic before, but not everyone is as optimistic. In discussions with those working outside this niche I often hear concern about how our aggregate efforts to push forward may inadvertently break down classical music masterworks into culturally-marginalized vignettes. After all, many of these classical “jam” sessions don’t present works in their entirety, and often the performances are not polished. That isn’t really the point, either. But in the age of diminishing attention spans, the new status quo could be risky for the future of our field.

Perhaps we can look at this in another way. I believe that the freshness of experiencing classical music in a casual setting is not a reaction to the challenges of absorbing it. Rather, this is a function of the collective desire to enjoy classical music in the larger context of our social lives. Ironically, this new model also holds potential for revisiting the audience/performer relationships of centuries past. Engaging with music, classical or otherwise, in a bar or cafe is a communal experience that goes back much further than the relatively modern construct of the Western orchestra concert. It is also one that seems to better represent a diverse constituency with regard to age, ethnicity, and profession.

So, maybe this shift, if it exists, isn’t really a cultural one. Maybe it is a simple indication of our need to reflect, reminisce, and share the importance of music as a part of our daily adventures. In that case, maybe we should start preparing for a bigger and better party.

Check out Chloe Veltman’s blog here.

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