Tell Me Why You’re Making Me Listen To This

Anne Midgette has been asking some interesting questions about whether people who subscribe to whole seasons’ worth of classical music concerts should have to listen to music that they don’t like (in most people’s cases, any music without hummable tunes; in my case, Bruckner) as part of the deal, and has gotten a bunch of feisty responses. Apparently, many opera and symphony subscribers simply re-up each year and don’t pay too much attention to what’s on the various programs until they get there and are rewarded for their time and money with a decrepit clangor (at least in their eyes). Me, I tend to opt for the programs that feature music I haven’t heard before, but I’m going to offer a suggestion to appeal to people who don’t anyway:

With regard to subscription symphony concerts, orchestras could do a lot for the acceptance of new music by ensuring that the new music has some sort of connection with the other music on the program and explaining that connection.

If you didn’t know anything about classical music, you’d probably assume that the works on a program would be related somehow, in the same way that art museums curate exhibits composed of works that are related somehow. Of course, an average program’s three non-modern pieces don’t normally have any obvious connection, and when they do, programs composed entirely of works by one composer likely outnumber programs with actual themes. But especially if one piece is an outlier in some way, like if you can’t whistle anything in it, presenters should try to connect it with one or more of the less forbidding pieces on the program. The way things happen now, the modern work becomes an island on which the audience is summarily marooned until it ends; people like to feel like they’ve been brought somewhere, not simply dropped off, and they want to know how they’ll get home again.

A special bonus is that, with a connection spelled out, the exercise of listening becomes a learning experience, and while certainly not everyone is going to enjoy a Pedagogical Night Out, enough people do enjoy just said pedagogy that a significant percentage of the audience will enjoy the active effort of finding the common thread. (Also, people like me would enjoy exploring a program with an actual idea behind it, concept-driven as I am.)

I have read numerous descriptions of the orchestral program planning process, none of which I seem to be able to find on the Internet, and I understand that diverse constraints govern the selection of repertoire for said concerts. Nonetheless, if you are making a special effort to select one work from among the many worthy, unfamiliar modern pieces, you might want to make sure that you can explain to the audience why you are selecting this particular work, and what place it has hanging out with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and whatever other giants it must conquer in the audience’s affections.

This would be easier if more modern music actually sounded like it has a connection to other music in the world, but that’s a different blog post. (And I can’t speak to what opera fans go through when something with a post-1950 musical vocabulary shows up on the date they were saving in hope of a best-loved classic, but I don’t understand much about being an opera fan anyway.)

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