Thursday, July 11, 2013

The empty concert hall

Although Minnesota hasn’t been my home for over a year, that doesn’t mean I haven’t kept track on some of the things going on there. And one of the stories in which I’ve been most interested is the nearly year-long lockout of the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. It’s been a sensational story throughout the arts community, and even the mainstream press. (This site provides a very good, concise rundown of the history of the dispute.)

I have many good memories of the Orchestra, having been a season-ticket holder for several years, so it’s natural that I should eventually have chosen to share some thoughts on it. For some time though, I hesitated over exactly what word to use to describe the situation. Not tragic; a natural disaster, a fatal illness, a dead child – that’s tragic. If not that, then, how about sad? Well, yes, it was sad in a way, but it wasn't as if my heart was broken or anything that extreme. Painful? Maybe psychically, but my back is far more painful than an orchestra lockout.

Finally I settled on unfortunate, although that seemed in some way to be a copout. Saying a situation is unfortunate is somewhat like telling a woman her dress is interesting, or that a blind date has a great personality. It’s so noncommittal that its real meaning is not what is said, but what is unsaid.

But after considering the issue*, it struck me that unfortunate is exactly what the lockout is. And my reasons for choosing the word might be just as unfortunate – or at least noncommittal. For while I am a great fan of classical music, the truth is that I do not need to have a live orchestra in order to achieve the fullest enjoyment from that music.

*And the dictionary definitions: unfavorable, inauspicious, regrettable. Or the most appropriate, perhaps: suffering from bad luck.

I hadn’t given this concept much thought until I read a column by Terry Teachout in which he discussed why he seldom went to live concerts anymore. I won’t quote him here, partly because I can’t find the exact article I’m thinking about, but also because I don’t want to superimpose my words on his, or to distort his own personal experience. Suffice it to say that I took his sentiments as an inspiration for my own reasoning. Which is thus:

First off, going to concerts is expensive. Perhaps I didn’t realize how expensive it was until we stopped going a couple of years ago. This was partly because I was unemployed and we couldn’t afford it, and partly because we were preparing to move. Yet even after we moved (the first time) and I returned to a regular job (the first time), we didn’t go back to being regular concertgoers. And in the meantime, we found that it was getting easier to pay our regular bills each month.

So there’s a financial consideration to be made. But it’s also true that for many, live music is the pearl of great price – the pleasure it provides is far more important than any monetary consideration, and we’ve always been prepared to make that sacrifice. Therefore, it might be fair to ask why a live concert might not be worth the cost. And that’s where the real soul-searching takes place. For, after several years of attending both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera, we found ourselves – bored. It’s not that the music wasn’t good – it was, and often was excellent. But it had lost the capacity to thrill.

It was partly because the Minnesota Orchestra didn’t seem to us to be quite as good as it once was, and the Minnesota Opera seemed stagnant in their productions. These observations may have been objectively true, or it may just have been the way we saw it, but it was there nonetheless.

It was partly because the selections themselves weren’t as interesting as they used to be. Now it’s true that everything’s exciting when it’s new, but it’s also true that familiarity can breed contempt. In short, there were too many old pieces we’d heard too often, and the new compositions were often somewhere between unsatisfying and unpleasant.

And, closely intertwined to those points, it was partly because technology has improved so dramatically in the past few years. For example, I can pop in a CD of any Beethoven or Mahler symphony, or any Wagner opera, and enjoy its crystal-clear sound and its excellent musicianship without leaving the comfort of my living room. No parking problems, no whispering people sitting next to us, no traffic congestion to deal with. The quality of the recordings is exceptional – at least as good as the live experience, and a far cry from the scratchy mono recordings of decades past. The quality of the playing, likewise, is meant to produce the best listening experience possible – anyone can enjoy the Chicago or Philadelphia orchestras even though they might be living in East Skitch. I can listen to what I want: maybe the Orchestra’s playing Haydn while I’m in the mood for Mozart, or the Opera’s performing Verdi when what I really want is Puccini. All of this for a fraction of the cost and hassle.

There’s also the fact that my visual experiences aren’t limited to attending the concert hall. A number of orchestras and opera companies broadcast in HD to movie theaters, and the performances are subsequently made available on Blu-Ray DVD, again for a fraction of the cost. Some, like the Metropolitan Opera, make past performances available to subscribers through online archives. All of this makes a great chunk of the history of classical music available to me, no matter where I live, no matter whether or not that area has an orchestra or an opera company, Great performances have been recorded and preserved for posterity, and I can access them for minimal cost. I’m guaranteed the best possible sound, I’m able to enjoy it in comfortable surroundings, and with an extensive enough library, I can pick and choose what appeals to me.

Now, I’m not immune to the argument that the experience of watching an opera in a movie theater or on television can’t compare to seeing it in person. Many operas, for example, are now starting to be staged and cast with the camera in mind, as opposed to the live audience. As well, the cameras, and not you, make the choice of what to look at on stage. I’ll leave it to as to what you might think of this trend, but I’ll readily concede that it’s not necessarily for the best.

On the other hand, the camera can also provide me with an angle unavailable to those in the opera hall; furthermore, considering the price of tickets, the camera can also allow me to actually see the performers from close range, instead of looking down on them from the nosebleed section. And as for the trend of staging productions for the camera rather than the live patron, the counterexample is that financial considerations often require companies to program familiar pieces in order to sell tickets, rather than new or underperformed works that might not put bodies in the seats – therefore, each approach has its own drawbacks.

Professional sports, especially the NFL, faces a similar situation, in that the home viewing experience now far outweighs that of attending a game in person. The HD picture on the big screen TV, with closeups, instant replays, and the pause button, and the Red Zone ability to watch other live games, all from a comfy couch with a few friends over, far outweighs sitting in a cramped seat, surrounded by obnoxious drunks, watching ant-sized players down below while consuming outrageously priced food and drink, in weather that could be wet, frozen or baking, all of which can be obtained for the cost of a second mortgage.

Much ink (and many pixels) have been, and will continue to be, used on the future of classical music, and what can be done to cultivate a new audience. The live concert isn’t, and shouldn’t be, dead. Nor have we sworn off live concertgoing ourselves, despite what I might have made it sound like; I love dressing up and going to the concert hall, and now that we’ve settled in Dallas, we may well return to being regular attendees at the orchestra and opera. But I cannot deny – I admit it, in fact – that my classical music appreciation has not only been enhanced but has grown as a result of this technology, and that at this moment I derive far more pleasure from it than I would if there was a Minnesota Orchestra for me to go and see.

Of course without live orchestras there can be no new music from new composers, no new recordings to make their way to CD or DVD, no ability for a communal experience with like-minded people. I don’t want that to disappear, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. The point I’m trying to make in this whole essay is that you could – and I want to emphasize could – make an argument that not every area needs a live orchestra or opera company, and the death of the Minnesota Orchestra, if it happens, shouldn't automatically lead to the death of the arts in the Twin Cities.

As we move increasingly to a virtual society of people who live in a cocoon of their own making, providing their own entertainment on their own timeline, consumed from the Cloud, connected only with earbuds and joined by friends who are seldom (if ever) seen in person, it shouldn't be a surprise that we would confront the same possibility for the world of classical music. It is, perhaps, tragic that this is the society in which we find ourselves, but we would be fools to deny it.

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