By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Our concert halls are too large for the expectation of ticket sales, and too large for the shape of the music even in a sold-out house. (More of the good news about Walt Disney Hall is that there are roughly 1,000 fewer seats than at the Pavilion. But that's still larger than most of the best European halls.) Since it's a given that no major musical event breaks even from box-office receipts, even at the disgraceful $148 top for some of last season's threadbare L.A. Opera offerings, it makes no sense to belabor the equation that seat sales equal profits. The one local exception, of course, is the Philharmonic's Hollywood Bowl, whose nearly 18,000 seats serve as cash cow for the orchestra's indoor activities. Nobody suggests, of course, that the concert format at the Bowl could also serve as the way things might run in Disney; you have to admit, however, that even on a slow night in Cahuenga Pass, with the expanse of empty seats big enough to accommodate the Indy 500, the 5,000 who do show up could drive an indoor-concert manager green with envy.
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Music matters: Classical music's major encumbrance is its reputation as highbrow and inaccessible. The evidence is all around, just in its language: andante con moto, rondo capriccioso. The older audience uses this erudition as a shield against nonbelievers. The younger audience, when it gains access to the sanctum, is viewed with alarm. Its members are not always well-trained, by the standards of their elders; they applaud in the wrong places, and even cheer. The elders scowl as the opera houses install screens to project translations of opera texts, crippling the out-of-reach reputation of what Samuel Johnson once referred to as "an exotic and irrational entertainment." Yet the installation of supertitles, even at the Met, where they were opposed the longest, has brought on a huge boost in opera-going and, more to the point, opera-understanding. In the aforementioned RAND report on the state of the performing arts (theater, dance, opera, classical, other), opera was the only category that showed an income upswing over the past several years.
The highbrow thing is on the wane. If the last century began as a time of defiance and invention -- Schoenberg, Stravinsky, those guys -- our present and our future seem engulfed in a new wave of synthesis. Classical composition at its most abstruse crested about 1980, in the gnarled working-out of complex puzzle making as propounded by Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. Even as this style seems to have subsided in favor of the born-again tonality of John Adams and Philip Glass, I detect some of that old-timey complexity still hanging on, not among the latest graduates of Princeton and CalArts, but in the advanced workmanship of some of the newer rockers -- Radiohead, Sonic Youth, back to the well-nigh unplayable patterns of Frank Zappa. On this side of the bridge, the best music by a so-called "serious" (useless term!) composer I've heard in recent months is the Passion According to St. Mark by the Argentine/American/Jewish Osvaldo Golijov, in which one of the archetypal musical forms -- the Passion oratorio of Bach and before -- is merged into a wildly exuberant Latino street celebration. Classical? Pop? Highbrow? Lowbrow? All of the above?
John Seabrook came up with a pretty good answer in his latest book's title, Nobrow. Seabrook, a leading light among New Yorkerstaffers, is thus in a position to witness the process he so rightly names from close-up, as his own publication retreats from its famous nose-in-the-air stance and becomes more relevant in the process. But "nobrow" as practiced at The New Yorker isn't the same as the dumbing-down that also afflicts the classical scene, the evil wrought by those who would speed the transition from high- to no- at an unseemly rate. Exhibit A, the lurid marketing circus called The Three Tenors, is followed close on by the blatant falsification of the classical life in movies like Shine, and in the exploitation, bordering on cruelty, of such sideshow creatures as Shine's David Helfgott and the pretty-voiced but hopelessly adrift Andrea Bocelli. The dumbing-down process even spawns its own literature, tomes with names like Who's Afraid of Classical Music and It Isn't As Bad As It Sounds offering assurance to the tone-deaf-by-choice among us that their number is legion.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Music will survive as long as people want to listen to it. There are ways that this can be made to happen, and they all come under the heading of Making Music Matter, also known as Making People Care. The Philharmonic's Stravinsky Festival last February triumphantly demonstrated the process. For a full month, awareness of Stravinsky's achievements and importance were deeply impressed on the local consciousness. Museums and universities participated. Banners flew. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, video footage of Stravinsky unfurled before each concert, almost as though the old boy himself were there to welcome us. It helped, of course, that Esa-Pekka Salonen wields a strong baton on Stravinsky's behalf. Major critics from New York and overseas knew enough to come by for these events, and they now do so regularly. The term "cultural desert," once regarded as synonymous with Los Angeles music, seems to have vanished from the vocabulary. Local newspaper criticism is no longer the trapeze act of virtuoso negativism it once was, and I don't need to name names.