Less Respite, More Ruckus: Re-examining Classical Concerts, Past and Present
It’s a Friday night, and I’ve found myself in a dimly lit room packed wall-to-wall with people, some tapping away on their cell phones, others chatting, all eager for the set-up to complete so the featured musicians can come onstage and start the show. I notice that the man in front of me sips from a plastic cup filled with a foaming beverage, probably beer, and I recall that on my way in, I passed by a table with alcohol and snacks for sale. Considering I’m twenty-two years old, it’s easy to assume that I’m at some local club or bar, or even a rock concert; there is no shortage of these in Portland. However, the sea of white hair and the occasional magnifying glass that pops out of a purse and hovers over the program notes immediately identify the scene as otherwise. This is a concert with Chamber Music Northwest (CMNW), an annual summer festival of classical music. The woman next to me gently taps my arm and asks if I can show her how to turn off her cell phone. Yes, I definitely won’t need earplugs at tonight’s show.
Statistically, most college students aren’t spending their evenings at classical concerts. I guess I’m in the minority among my generation’s musical preferences, but I don’t mind. I eagerly jumped on board with All Classical: the “we” in “we love this music” applies to everyone, including the summer intern. Yet just because I’m a classical fanatic doesn’t mean that my concert outings are limited to ones featuring Poulenc and Vivaldi. I recently attended a concert that, by a few simple scene transformations, may appear to have little distance from the CMNW performance at Lincoln Hall. Just subtract a couple decades from the average audience age, scatter around a few more cups of beer, take away the chairs, and there you have it: a folk concert by Gregory Alan Isakov at the Crystal Ballroom.
But if we’re to be perfectly honest, many more than a few degrees of separation distinguish these concerts; in reality, the small transformations create two completely different atmospheres. For example, the string quartet of CMNW would be stunned if the audience jumped from their seats to dance along. And Mr. Isakov would be quite confused if audience members hushed each other as he walked out on stage. At Lincoln, a friend and I lowered our voices to a whisper if we wanted to speak briefly during the music. At the Crystal Ballroom, we had to shout. The only raised voices I hear at the classical performance are the calls of “bravo!” that follow a particularly well-played Beethoven quartet. I try to imagine this audience, which normally cringes nervously at the sound of a crinkling candy wrapper, instead imbued with the palpable energy of the folk concert fans, perhaps screaming out “we love you!” or waving their arms in hopes of catching a guitar pick tossed to the crowd. I almost start laughing at the thought. But then I remember a lecture from a recent music class on classical performance history. We may find this imagined scenario ridiculous, but a little over 200 years ago, it was the expected norm.
Consider the opera in 18th-century Italy. It was the place to go to check out the latest fashions, gossip, catch up with friends, and maybe hear a bit of music. “Listening to the music was only one of the things the audience was there to do,” explains Richard Taruskin, author of the comprehensive Oxford History of Western Music. The audience, “a mixture of aristocracy and urban middle class (what we would now call “professionals”—doctors, lawyers, clergy, civil servants, and military officers), was famed throughout Europe for its sublime inattention,” as well as its capacity for volume. The chatter often drowned out the music, and there was a constant stream of traffic from box to box. Only when a favorite singer or aria appeared front and center in the show would conversations momentarily pause. The now attentive audience was perhaps even more lively, “egging [the singer] on with applause and spontaneous shouts of encouragement at each vocal feat.” If cell phones had existed back then, I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been flurries of Snapchats, Tweets about who wore what, and clumps of giggling friends squeezing behind one outstretched arm to catch a selfie with the onstage prima donna.
Solo performers entertained similarly rowdy audiences. Franz Liszt is perhaps the best example of a historical “superstar” from the 19th century. The BBC recently published an article that compares Liszt to the Beatles, at least in terms of their audience reception. The article notes that Liszt’s contemporary, the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the frenzy of the composer’s fanatic fans that swooned, screamed, and threw themselves at his very feet. For good reason, too: Liszt was “indubitably the real deal.” His musical compositions were top notch and his technique unparalleled. He also had a dazzling stage presence, the kind we might expect today from a rock drummer or lead guitarist. The piano company Bösendorfer even crafted an instrument in his name, as I discovered on a recent visit to Classic Pianos, located on SE Milwaukie Ave. in Portland. The “Liszt Piano” is so named because as he was “wrecking nearly every piano made available to him” in Vienna, the Bösendorfer withstood the young virtuoso’s playing. If his status as celebrity musician weren’t enough, Liszt was also a rather handsome dude. As modern stars like Justin Bieber and the Beatles can attest, the flowing hair is really a hit with the ladies.
Gregory Alan Isakov wears a cowboy hat for the duration of the concert, so there’s really no telling what kind of hair he has, at least not from where I stand at the back of the Crystal Ballroom. Flowing or not, I presume that it’s his music and not his hair that is the main focus tonight. The musicians onstage make up an unusual ensemble for a typical folk concert. Mr. Isakov is performing with more than his usual band, including musicians on violin, viola, cello, and French horn. It’s him and what he’s termed “The Ghost Orchestra,” a collection of players from the Colorado Symphony. This travel-size group is on tour to promote his most recent album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, a collaboration with the eponymous full symphonic orchestra. Given the likeness shared between modern pop and historic classical music audiences, it’s not too much of a leap to picture this project as a distant but nevertheless connected, new-forming branch of classical music.
Musical boundaries are ever in flux, and I always looking forward to seeing (and of course hearing) how classical music evolves over time. It will be interesting to observe how audiences evolve, too, in both composition and behavior. Not to worry, the recent movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” exaggerates a scenario of extremes in which young navy soldiers and the elderly upper crust cross paths at a recital in Carnegie Hall. Yet harmony prevails, if not in Ms. Jenkins’ singing, then at least among audience members old and young alike. Will CMNW entertain drunken, screaming fans at future seasons? I would guess not. Is it likely that folk audiences will sit still with their cell phones on silent? Again, probably not. But it is eye-opening to know that over the course of history, we haven’t isolated the two extremes. As for the future of classical concerts, we’ll just have to keep listening to find out.
Over the course of my summer in Portland, I attended many concerts that were each spectacular showcases of incredible musical skill. Many thanks to Chamber Music Northwest, Gregory Alan Isakov and the Ghost Orchestra, the Portland Opera, the Portland Wind Symphony, and the many performers at All Classical’s weekly live broadcast, Thursdays @ Three for making live performance a frequent feature during my stay in Portland. I’ll experience one last classical treat this evening, September 1st, when the Oregon Symphony presents a Waterfront concert to kick off their 2016-17 season. Join us down by the river for free live music and fireworks, or tune into All Classical at 89.9 or streaming at www.allclassical.org for the live broadcast.