‘Classical music isn’t dead! It’s just too expensive.’
January 20, 2015 by norman lebrecht
Chicago pianist Lori Kaufman, rebased after a period in Asia, is keeping a close eye on her home town music scene. In her first report for Slipped Disc, Lori wonders why the Symphony audience is so…. advanced in age. She makes an important point. Let’s hear your views.
Classical music isn’t dead! It’s just too expensive.
Last week, Chicagoans were able to hear Tchaikovsky’s first symphony played live by not one but two exemplary ensembles, the youthful Civic Orchestra of Chicago and its benevolent sugar daddy, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
While both halls were close to 99% full, the demographic was shockingly different. One audience was much older than the other. Why? The Civic show, accompanied by pop culture superstar Yo Yo Ma was free, while the CSO charged $70 to over $200 for seats. Sound the trumpets, Classical music isn’t dead! It’s just too expensive.
Monday night, Lane Technical High School hosted an exuberant overflow of high school students of a wide range of ethnicities, but also young children, parents, multi-generational families, excited band students and their friends, teachers, school staff members, and even one mother who listened just outside the doors with her toddler so the music could caress the brainwaves of her developing child.
The energy in the hall was electric. I was sitting next to a woman with her two daughters, the oldest was seven and was excitedly scanning the musicians warming up onstage trying to locate the esteemed soloist. “Mommy, is THAT Yo-Yo Ma? In the purple sweater? Where IS he? When is he coming out??” I asked the young music lover if she has ever heard Mr Ma play in a concert, and she said “No, but my mom has a recording of him.” Glancing around, the rest of the lucky ticket holders seemed just as charged up watching the young musicians surfing their fingerboards onstage. I can’t remember attending a concert where there was such a buzz of anticipation in the hall.
The Lane Tech showing proved that there are a lot of Chicagoans who would leap for a chance to hear world class music played live. Indeed, we were treated to a thrilling evening of wall-to-wall Tchaikovsky, interspersed with words of wisdom from miked-up Ma and charismatic boy-next-door conductor Scott Speck. Maestro Speck recently endeared himself to Chicago Tchaikovsky lovers by showing off in a much-lauded Nutcracker run at the Joffrey Ballet, where the musicians of the orchestra almost stole the limelight by playing every bit as gracefully as the dancers.
Tchaikovsky’s first Symphony is a perfect ideological fit for this group of talented young people, Civic Orchestra is a virtuoso “training” orchestra, with players who will soon be principals in the world’s top ensembles. Everyone onstage delighted in the spontaneity and whimsy of the young Tchaikovsky. Maestro Speck wanted to take us on a sleigh ride through a wintry Russian landscape, and though high school auditoriums are notoriously overheated, he recreated the imagery perfectly. Next, Mr Ma left the cello section and went up to the front for one of his signature concerti, the Rococo Variations. Here, the orchestra members responded with cheekiness and enthusiasm to every coy gesture of Mr Ma, making the concerto more like an affectionate foray into chamber music. Naturally, the ovations were stunning, and the attendees were blessed with a superbly delivered 6th Symphony after the break.
Later in the week, downtown at Symphony Hall, the audience entered in a more staid manner. They were largely of a certain, rather distinguished age group, and no children to be seen. One of the youngest members of the audience might have been 18 year old Kathleen Mills, a freshman at the Unversity of Chicago. “I was so fortunate to be able to attend the concert on Thursday. For the Muti and Bronfman concert, I paid $15 for a (student-priced) ticket that would have otherwise cost me five or ten times the price. I also think that people my age would enjoy classical music with more exposure.” While the CSO generously provides such affordable tickets for students, how many college and high school students actually know about this boon or take advantage of it? And what about families who cannot afford multiple high priced tickets?
On Thursday night, the CSO “warmed up” by playing the Brahms second piano concerto with powerhouse soloist Yefim Bronfman. Riccardo Muti’s direction was, quite simply, a masterclass in how to accompany a soloist. He parsed through the score assigning everyone’s role a particulate timbre, volume, and character. The balance was so astonishingly perfect that the musicians allowed Bronfman to alternate between a colossal Incredible Hulk and gentle David Banner, every single note carrying like a carrier pigeon straight into the audience, whether a finely woven texture of pianissimo or the most trenchant fortissimo-plus.
After the intermission, Muti brought us a wholly different Tchaikovsky than the one we heard four days earlier. Where Civic played the First Symphony like an amuse-bouche, the CSO gnawed into it like a Porterhouse steak. Here we saw the grandeur and tortured pain of this symphonic work, the depth and breadth and anguish of a troubled composer washed over us like tumultuous waves. Here we saw even more of the orchestra’s precision and commitment, yet also their delight (and frequent smiles) in every gesture of their Director.
While violin bows danced up and down in perfect synchronization, Muti knew just how to highlight the gifted members of each wind section, in particular, four horns whose timbre so completely melded to each other that it sounded like one person breathing into a turbo-charged horn. In our digital age of striving for perfection, this is it, folks, perfection on a plate. You can’t get this from listening to itunes, you must see it up close, 100 artists putting their hearts and brains together to create a flawless work of art. Certainly, they earn their salary every night. The CSO is currently running on a $60 million budget and they need every cent of that to keep to such a dizzyingly high artistic standard. But how can we get more people inside to experience what they have to offer?
YoYo Ma said from the stage Monday night: “You can’t think about self-doubt when you are onstage showing someone how absolutely passionate you are about this thing you are doing, this thing that you think is just so completely amazing that you must share it with the world.” I know that Maestro Muti is committed to bringing great music to EVERYONE in the community, not just those who can afford it. How can we help to accomplish this? And to keep more US orchestras in business with a vibrant operating budget? What is the answer? I don’t know. But I sure would like to tell it to that seven year old girl sitting next to me earlier last week.
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