Last Saturday, I was surprised to see a fair number of students at the Williams Chamber Players concert. Although students still comprise only about 20 percent of the audience, the growth was promising.
I am excited by the growth, small as it was, because I am concerned about the future of art music. As elementary, middle and high schools cut back on arts education, more and more young people grow up never being exposed to one of the most powerful forms of creative expression. Without this early exposure, many youth become suspicious of art music and associate it with old age and snobbery. What self-conscious youngster would be bold enough to break with music that is popular with his or her peers and join the crowd whose favorite pastime is sipping tea and gossiping about whether Simon Rattle prefers croquet to polo?
Although the performance last Saturday was, as a whole, brilliantly executed by fine chamber musicians, the climate of the concert served to reinforce these negative stereotypes. What do I mean by the climate? Well, I was struck by a number of things.
Probably the most amusing anecdotes stem from the audience’s reaction to the various pieces of music. After the first movement of Devienne’s Bassoon Quartet, some audience members began clapping, because the performance of bassoonist Stephen Walt, and his colleagues violinist Timothy Baker, violist Susan St. Amour and cellist Douglas Moore, was quite exciting. However, as any “cultured” person would know, one does not clap between movements of a quartet, sonata or symphony, and the portion of the audience “in the know” took it upon themselves to hush those who were only having a normal reaction to the music. The clapping collapsed in an awkward heap.
What a stupid custom! Why inhibit the audience’s expression of excitement?
I was happy to hear later on that audience members were not afraid to laugh in response to the sardonic second movement of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, nor were they afraid to chuckle after Edwin Lawrence’s musical rendering of a poem about sluggishness.
This kind of audience engagement with the music ought to be cultivated; younger people who are gushing with vitality need to feel that they can react to the music freely. Now I’m not advocating that we all riot after our brains explode while being assaulted with ugly music, but we could stand to lose some of the stuffiness that often accompanies the sacred act of concert-going.
Besides losing the stuffiness, the musicians themselves could make wiser choices in terms of repertoire. Saturday’s program was actually intelligently chosen; there was a diversity of old and new music and fairly broad continuum of accessibility. To be particularly critical, I would have preferred to hear a Beethoven Quartet rather than the Trio that was performed, since the Trio was more-or-less an exercise leading to the Quartets anyway.
However, in other concerts at Williams and elsewhere, I have observed an unhealthy emphasis on music from the distant past, rather than music from the 20th century. I will admit that a lot of 20th century art music was conceived by academic composers for academic composers, with the result of sounding like chaos. However, there is a lot of 20th century music, especially music written in the last decade, that deserves to be performed.
Unfortunately, none of these suggestions alone will lure more audience members to the concert hall. One solution might be to bomb the pop music industry, but I would prefer the more conciliatory approach of exposing children to art music so that they can appreciate it, rather than fear it.