Daily Bow: The View from the Tweet Seats

Daily Bow LogoThe springboard for today’s Daily Bow is found, somewhat unexpectedly, in the food section of the Toronto Star, where columnist Corey Mintz recounts the conversation at a recent classical music brain-trust type of soiree he held for a handful of musical guests. Mintz played host to a dinner for Mervon Mehta (director of the Canada’s Royal Conservatory), violinist Aisslinn Nosky, violists Max Mandel and Pemi Paull, and music writer John Terauds. The Viennese-themed menu, which is detailed in the article and sounds to me as I write this article in the late morning like it would hit the spot, was not the main topic of discussion for the evening. Rather, Mintz had invited his musical friends to a round-table discussion of sorts on the state of classical concert attendance–and the various things that classical music organizations are doing to try to stem the flow of patrons out of the concert halls.

The premise of the discussion is nothing new to anyone in the classical world: we’re not playing to packed houses by any measure anymore, often no matter how big the names on the marquees are. As Mintz says, the consensus among his musician friends is that we are part of “an evaporating culture in which the best musicians play to half-empty concert halls, colossal rooms where an aging audience goes to loudly unwrap candies.” While that statement is a sweeping generalization and is perhaps more disheartening than it should be, it does have the unpleasant ring of truth to it. With major players in the orchestral world going down like dinosaurs, we are, as a community, understandably worried. In our worry, we collectively cast about for explanations, for the root of the underpopulation problem in our concert halls. Is the music not accessible, is it too old, is the experience out of touch, are we not raising children today with an appreciation for it, are we not sexy enough? The list of possible causes is infinite, and Mervon Mehta adds another one to the list: he says that “I think that one of the problems we have now with classical music is there’s too much of it.”

Mehta has something of a counter-intuitive point: Mintz writes that, indeed, most of the world can get the music anywhere (including in schmaltzy television commercials)–it’s become something like free background music, and anyone can download the complete oeuvre of Beethoven for free. But symphony tickets are expensive. Asks Mintz, “Why go to Italy to see the works of renaissance painters [sic] when you can just Google the images?”

Mintz’s point stands for a brief second, until one considers that, while Da Vinci’s original work stands and remains visible in its original form to this day, the same can hardly be said for Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach–that work needs to be brought to life, and, as Mehta points out, “A record is a poor copy.” What the musicians around Mintz’s table want to see are people coming to hear and see the real, live music in front of them–and for them to realize that music is truly a temporal art form. The discussion at Mintz’s table also covered some of the newer ways that orchestras are trying to bring people into the hall, ranging from Classical Revolution’s alternative-venue movement to the Toronto Symphony’s $14 tickets for 15-to-35-year-olds to Koener Hall’s somewhat odious idea of selling “Tweet Seats”: seats in the last two rows of the concert hall in which patrons will be permitted to use their phones.

The Tweet Seat idea and others like it smack of desperation and capitulation. Are we so desperate of people to like us (really, really like us), that we’ll throw the tradition of respect for the performers out the window? It seems that some among us are really getting that worried. Says violist Pemi Paul, “I live in a bubble where classical music is alive and well, full of people who are making a living at it, who are pushing the boundaries of it. But if you step outside of that world, nothing.” The fact of the matter is that he’s more or less correct. We are a community that is not mainstream, and it’s time to really get comfortable that it is never going to be mainstream the way it once was. That’s just not realistic, but the classical community has a hard time accepting that. But look at other arts communities. Does the prevalence of hip-hop dancing in the dance community negate the presence of ballet or mean that it is doomed? No. Does the vast majority of today’s youth prefer the moves they see in music videos? Very much so. But there’s still a thriving ballet community, just like there is a thriving classical music community. Are we going to have our very own MTV, with hordes of people screaming for Delius in the streets outside a concert? Decidedly not.

We do live in a bubble, but so very many communities are bubbles. They don’t need to be totally isolated–think of them more as Venn diagrams than bubbles. Within these spheres are whole communities, scientists, writers, artists, musician, even athletes who toil on the perceived outskirts of the mainstream society (think Canadian football players or anyone who does rhythmic gymnastics)–most of whom feel marginalized and under-represented when we talk about pop culture, but that’s part of the beauty of being in these communities. Rather than seeking to redefine our community and burst the bubble, why not focus on the Venn diagram part of it–the part where we can overlap and intersect with what’s going on in the world at large? So let’s not sell Tweet Seats to concerts, let’s focus on the really compelling part of classical music: the human element. That’s what brings us together: the fact that there are people just like you and me (and the guy across the street who break dances) who just happen to have a great skill set in classical music who come to work every night to breathe their life into the music.

The same way that the nation appreciates the strange acts that come onto “America’s Got Talent,” the audience doesn’t have to be into classical music (or flame-throwing or juggling or Tibetan throat singing) to get caught up in what they see in front of them. When people realize that a classmate, or the guy from the next cubicle, or the person in front of them in the grocery line has an unexpected skill or talent, that’s cool–that’s interesting, and that’s how we can get people hooked into classical music. The idea of going to a classical music event is not appealing to many people outside the bubble, because our personal isolation–think of the classical players you know who have no interest in any pop music or awareness of what happens outside the bubble–is off-putting. But the idea of going to a concert your friend or your friend’s friend is playing in is always appealing, even if you don’t know or love the type of music. Our art form is, for many, a world apart, but we as people don’t need to be. The less isolated and more connected to the mainstream we all are, the more channels there are going the opposite way, too–leading back to us. So if we want people to come into our world, we should go out into theirs, too, without trying to colonize it. Let the clubs have their own concerts, and invite the friends you make their to your own concerts. Classical music is past its moment as pop culture (long past), so from here on out, it’s about making personal connections and spreading classical music from person to person.  Get your friends to come with you, spread the word about concerts you’re going to or playing in on social media–tweet away! But put that phone away when you all get to your seats…please.

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