By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It is the one art, above all, that involves the outside world as participants in its very existence. It involves the performer, who contributes a level of virtuosity (of intellect, of fingers, of the throat) as an overlay to the work itself. And it involves the rest of us, the listeners, and it sets the ground rules of that involvement. You can walk past a painting, or take in the architectural details of a building, at any speed you choose. You can't do that with music -- not with classical music, anyway. More important, it involves us -- at least to the extent of the indulgence we are willing to volunteer -- in its process.
It's that process, the composer's stipulations on the placement of landmarks along the predetermined time frame of a piece, that sets classical music apart from -- you'll notice that I didn't say "above" -- the other kinds of music with which our universe throbs. Classical music -- a Bach fugue, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, a Pierre Boulez electronic escapade suspended in both time and space -- takes up time, in carefully measured segments. The components within that time frame seem to move -- toward us, away from us, perhaps both -- in a sequence of statement, contrast, tension, relaxation. A three-minute fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier states its subject, plays it off against itself in counterpoint that increases in complexity, and resolves the process comfortably and with high imagination. Some of the same process occurs in the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" at four times the duration: a mysterious buzzing, a solo horn call as if from a distant planet, a new tune as beautiful as human mind has ever fashioned, an alternation of these contrasting elements, a resolution. Our reaction along the way -- the interplay of tension, surprise, delight, release, more tension, more release -- represents our participation in the process. There are different landmarks in the progress from death to resurrection over the 90 minutes of Mahler's Second Symphony, and in the passage from void to cataclysm over the 17-plus hours of Wagner's Ring. We may bristle at the abrasive interplay in a contemporary masterwork like Pierre Boulez's Répons (see box), but we still can't avoid the wonder of its communicative process, and we know after its 42-minute expanse that we've been somewhere, and have returned.
The process, the interaction of hearer and creator, remains the same, Bach to Boulez and beyond. What makes this kind of music "classical" is that the interplay of substance and structure has usually been laid out in advance. The great jazz people make their music new every time, and that, too, is wonderful.
* * *
Who listens?The public concert space where ticket buyers assemble to hear music performed is a fairly recent arrival: 220 years, more or less, out of the millennium or so of music we think of as accessible. Before, say, 1780, there were the patrons, the duke or prince with a music room for invited guests, a cathedral to support a choirmaster and in Italy first, and spreading northward -- the opera theater with its flocks of prima donnas of all genders and its flocks of aficionados likewise. By Beethoven's time -- 1825, say -- the new leisure class demanded larger halls and larger orchestras making louder noises in longer symphonies. For the next century and more, a community's prestige was defined by its musical amenities. In the Boston of my youth, almost everybody knew at least two things: where the Red Sox stood in the league, and what the Boston Symphony was performing that week. (They also knew that the concerts were invariably sold out.) Even if you didn't have a ticket to a live concert, you knew to anchor your weekly plans around the Met's opera broadcasts on Saturday and the New York Philharmonic's on Sunday.
Then came movies, then television, the LP, the CD, the Walkman, MP3, then everything else in the way of agreeably distracting alternatives to the notion of sitting well-dressed in a formal concert hall respectfully absorbing the message from onstage. The gray generations that filled Boston's Symphony Hall in its golden days -- and bustled out in anger at the first strains of Stravinsky or Shostakovich -- gave way to the newcomers who pegged their musical territory to embrace Dylan along with Mahler, Machaut alongside the Stones, and who found the proscenium arch an unseemly barrier between them and us. (Some of the best news about Walt Disney Hall, by the way, is the in-the-round plan for the performance space.)
However splendid the musical offering, the fact remains that the public concert is an exercise in artificiality. A pianist performing Bach's "Goldberg" Variations on the Music Center stage -- to a full house of 3,000, if it's Murray Perahia -- is still caught up in music meant for a single harpsichordist playing for an audience of one. A gritty new orchestral piece spatchcocked between the overture and the romantic concerto on a symphony night is taking up space in a room designed for music of a far different time and place. It is, of course, good that these things happen. Murray Perahia deserves his sold-out houses, and the new composer deserves the chance to fight his way toward recognition for his originality, or to flop in full view for his banality.
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