[Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 2:26 AM Eastern on 18 Aug. See below.]
As someone trained as a classical musician who was virtually raised in a concert hall (Philadelphia's Academy of Music), and for whom live orchestral and chamber music concerts were the mother's milk of his youth, I find just the prospect of the diminishment or, worse, the eventual demise of the classical music concert to be a thing unthinkable. Or rather, a thing I'd rather not have to think about. As matters seem to stand today, however, there's nothing for it for someone such as myself but to think long and hard about it. Classical music concerts (the unadulterated sort), nationwide, are, so we are assured by any number of doomsayers in the print media, slowly dying out for want of enough audience to adequately support them except in our largest metropolitan centers. And even there, we're further told, the going today is fairly rough, and bound to get insupportably rougher unless a viable solution can be found for the apparent growing problem.
Did I say problem? Why a problem? I mean, if it's all true, and the marketplace really can't support the classical music concert, perhaps the thing has outlived its pertinence and importance for our cultural life, and ought to be permitted to go gently into that good night spared the always humiliating if heroic last-ditch efforts to provide it synthetic life-support. As one experienced and knowledgeable big-city cultural critic (whose name I here withhold because I don't mean what follows to be a personal challenge) remarked at various times fairly recently concerning the classical music concert:
By the mid-Sixties, it was possible to purchase high-quality [recorded] renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times....
[A] piece of classical music is infinitely more important than any possible [single] interpretation of it, and once a half-dozen first-class versions are available on CD, the marginal utility of hearing an additional one, whether on record or in person, becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. Therein lies the problem of the classical concert. [...] I no longer feel any compelling need to regularly experience [classical music] in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than I feel the need to own another recording of Beethoven's late quartets, no matter how good it may be.
I no longer go to hear the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example. I'm sure they play well, but I simply don't feel the need to see them live. [...] Similarly, I haven't been to a single classical concert at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall all season long and I'm a middle-aged listener who loves classical music passionately. Granted, I'm just one person in a big city, but if I'm not going to classical concerts, who is? And who will?
There are certainly several excellent points in all that, and one hesitates to argue against them. But casting prudence aside, I feel constrained to do just that.
But first, let me provide some further personal background the better for you to judge what I have to say in what follows.
I'm old enough to have been present at the birth of hi-fi in the '50s, and its subsequent development into stereo in the '60s. I immediately became what's (politely) known in the trade as an audiophile, and at one point in my life invested more than $30,000 (1980 dollars, the equivalent of approximately $75,000 2004 dollars) in an audio system which comprised the most accurate electronics and loudspeakers available at the time, all of it installed in a room acoustically designed (more mega $$$) to permit it to operate at its utmost potential.
I provide this information not to wow you, but to assure you I'm hardly one to pooh-pooh or sell short recorded performances. I love them. Nay, I cherish them, and couldn't imagine life without them. Lots of them.
But experiencing a recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert. And by that, I don't mean merely that playing back a recorded performance in a home environment can't equal the acoustic experience of a performance in a concert hall, even given a superbly recorded performance, superb reproduction equipment, and the most elaborately and carefully prepared listening environment. I mean the two experiences are two different musical experiences, exclusive even of the shared communal experience of a live concert which I here disregard entirely for purposes of simplicity, and to maintain focus on a more central aspect of the question. One hears music differently in a live performance, and that hearing simply cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good the reproduction may be in both recording and playback.
Many audiophiles who are also experienced concertgoers will dispute that claim (I, for instance, used to be one of them), but there's a largely unrecognized (or willfully unacknowledged) psycho-acoustic phenomenon at work in this business. Experienced, long-time concertgoers unconsciously "graft" the experience of a live hearing of the music onto the experience of the hearing of it via a reproduction, and imagine they're hearing and experiencing the music via the reproduction just as they hear and experience it in live performance.
But imagine is the operative word here. It's but a psycho-acoustic illusion; one that requires a long-time experience of live performance to create and maintain, consciously or unconsciously.
I'll not pretend to know why it is that one hears and experiences music differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it's meaningful musically. And, pace Glenn Gould, it's well to remember that the experience of classical music live, whether in the chamber or the concert hall, is the way all classical music was intended to be heard and experienced by its composers, past and present. From music's very beginnings the live music experience has been sine qua non for the development of refined musical discernment and tastes, and so, I'm convinced, it shall remain. There's just no getting around it. A live performance is quite literally an irreproducible benchmark, and the only true and fully acceptable means of experiencing classical music. (I, of course, speak here about music written for acoustic instruments. I can't speak to the case of music written for electronic whatevers as I've no interest in, or concern for, such music, and therefore little experience of it.)
All by itself, that should be sufficient to counter the contention of the above quoted cultural critic vis-à-vis recorded versus live performances. But there's more.
This critic declared he "no longer feel[s] any compelling need to regularly experience [classical music] in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than [he] feel[s] the need to own another recording of Beethoven's late quartets, no matter how good it may be."
If one were inclined to be unkind in the matter, one might suggest this critic has grown a bit jaded musically concerning the standard classical repertoire; a not uncommon condition of concertgoers in our great metropolitan cultural centers.
But, for the nonce at least, I'm not inclined to be unkind, and so I'll suggest more gently that I think this critic has become a bit myopic in this matter. Relatively few persons in this country outside our metropolitan cultural centers have ready or frequent access to classical music concerts of any kind, much less classical music concerts performed by first-rate ensembles in a first-rate concert hall, and therefore will rarely have the opportunity to experience what this critic takes for every-day granted. And it's for those persons most particularly the overwhelming majority of Americans, not to even speak of those not yet born that live performances of classical music even "routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire" must remain an alive and vital enterprise.
And just how is that to be accomplished in today's unsympathetic, even hostile, to classical music cultural environment? Well, I can say with absolute certainty how it must not be accomplished. It must not, in any circumstance, be accomplished by "a loosening of the definitional boundaries around 'classical music'," which is what a recent study on the matter suggested be done to help classical music concerts stay alive. That phrase is, of course, nothing other than a lofty-sounding euphemism for prole-pandering, and the dumbing-down of the classical music concert, and that's lethal for classical music whether live or recorded as I pointed out in a previous post on this weblog.
Having said with absolute certainty what must not be done, can I say with absolute certainty what must? I can, and have in the above-linked post. But that strategy is for the long term only, and is impossible and totally useless unless classical music concerts survive long enough to make the implementation of such a strategy worthwhile, or even feasible. And that survival requires a short term solution, an immediate short term solution, and I've none that I'd be reckless enough to risk setting forth publicly. I'll say only that when it comes to generating immediate
loot funding for classical music concerts, the tactics I'd be willing to engage in would make Al Capone appear the perfect gentleman.
But that's just me, and, clearly, that won't do generally. There must be more, um, genteel but equally effective ways to go about the business, but I've neither the experience nor expertise to divine what they might be, nor the talent and temperament to implement them once divined. There must, however, be some out there who do, but who, at present, are putting their talents to use in other, more lucrative, fields. What's required is the instilling in them of the passion and will to put those talents to use in the service of the classical music concert.
And just how would that be accomplished?
A subject for another post once I've got it all figured out.
Update (2:26 AM Eastern on 18 Aug): Weblogger and music professor Scott Spiegelberg of Musical Perceptions writes to inform me that in this post I've misused the term psychoacoustic. I've here used the term as it's commonly been used in the Hi-Fi audio field since around 1963 or so. There, it refers to sonic phenomena perceived as objective (i.e., physically quantifiable) realities which are in fact not objective realities, but at least partially the products of, or determined by, unconscious psychological processes. In order to make this more clear, I've edited the text of this post to hyphenate the term so that it won't be confused with the more technical term used in the field of psychoacoustics.