March 18, 2008 at 11:53 AMI was formulating a response to this thread, and it got long.
I don't understand why threads on this site invariably turn towards screeds against "dumbing down" classical music. Or lamentations about what a bad state classical music is in these days. I don't really see it: not the dumbing down, not the dire straits. I feel like I'm a guest at a musical banquet. There is so much available to me that there is no way I can consume it all. But it's all so tasty!
As an amateur, and a musical "mudblood" at that, I know and love more non-musicians than musicians. My family and friends, for the most part, comprise the audience people talk about. Highly educated and intelligent, with advanced degrees in other subjects, they have some interest in but little knowledge about classical music. I try to get them to come to my concerts, and, believe it or not, they come. And they enjoy themselves and come back again.
One thing that I've noticed in conversation is that people like this seem to be nervous about having to make intelligent-sounding observations about the concert that won't mark them as foolish. They're scared of the post-concert talk: will I say something that other people think is stupid? As far as I'm concerned, post-concert talk is supposed to be fun, not a source of anxiety. If you thought the emperor had no clothes, or if you were moved to tears by Bolero, you ought to be allowed to say so without being worried that someone's going to think you're a rube.
Another thing I've noticed about non-musician audiences is that they often really can't tell the difference between a good community orchestra and a professional one. I've heard that particular comment about my community orchestra several times--that we sound like professionals, or are as good as professionals. I even heard it about my high school orchestra, and youth orchestra. It isn't true, of course, but I don't think people are "just saying it." And when they admit this, it is usually with shame and profuse apology.
I can tell the difference there, as a community orchestra insider, but honestly, when I start getting to the level of different professional orchestras, I have the same problem. For example, I recently learned that the professional orchestra I grew up listening to, the orchestra where my violin teacher played and Michael Tilson Thomas got his conducting start, the Buffalo Philharmonic, isn't a "major" orchestra. There are some rules about what is major and what is not that are important to some people, I guess, but that really doesn't mean much to many listeners in the audience. As a Buffalo Philharmonic fan, I just end up feeling a little dissed.
That's where I think the problem lies, if there's a problem at all. Asking audiences to make, and to value, distinctions that are not meaningful to them turns them off. And there's really no need for it. Music really can be for everyone.
Some outreach efforts may fall flat for some listeners (some do, and have, for me too), but I think that's a sign of life, and of vibrancy in the enterprise. Not all experiments are successful, not all risks pay off. That's the point.
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