Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 2: Program Notes

This is the second installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first installment here.

Program Notes:

After finding my seat (which is sometimes easier said than done), one of the very first things I do when attending a classical concert is sit down, open the program book, and read through the program notes. Whether or not I am familiar with the pieces on the program, these short essays often provide useful information and prepare me for the music I am about to hear. Program notes can include any or all of the following: historical, cultural, and biographical information; stories about the work’s composition and premiere; details on instrumentation and length; musical features to listen for; texts and translations (if a vocal work); and other interesting facts relating to the piece.

However, there exists a fine line between good program notes and bad program notes. Some performing organizations do a fantastic job with their notes, providing the information in an informative, yet engaging fashion. Others, not so much. Some program notes are too “jargony.” Some don’t provide enough information. Some provide too much. Some are flat out boring.

So, what makes a good program note? As someone who has experience reading, writing, and editing program notes, I have seen a wide variety of formats over the years, and am slowly gaining insight into what works well and what doesn’t. While I don’t profess to be an expert on this subject quite yet (maybe someday!), here are my thoughts on what makes an ideal program note and how performance organizations could both revitalize and maximize the potential of this tool. Additionally, interspersed throughout are some examples of excellent program notes or organizations who are doing intriguing things with the concept itself.

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Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette

The notion that “classical music is dying” is one that’s been tossed around and repeated so often over the decades that it’s almost become cliché.

The truth of the matter is, classical music is not dying. It’s very much alive and well in an abundance of ways. Say what you will about the digital realm, but there’s no question that services like Amazon, YouTube, and Wikipedia have made it easier than ever to purchase recordings, access videos, and look up information about the music. (There’s even a new website – Primephonic – which is dedicated exclusively to streaming classical music.) Live score-to-film concerts, which have presented everything from Casablanca to Star Wars, can attract hundreds (or thousands) of eager audience members, both young and old. Startups like Groupmuse are reviving the classical salon by staging intimate chamber music performances in people’s homes. These few examples only scratch the surface of how classical music is still thriving and continuing to inspire, amaze, and draw in listeners all over the world.

However, not all is as it could be.

Most notably, it’s difficult to ignore the preeminent symbol of classical music – the concert hall. Though it is, has been, and will likely remain the optimal location to experience this music, the statistics of professional orchestras both in the U.S. and elsewhere often paint a dismal picture. Diminishing budgets, an aging subscriber base, and stagnant repertoire can make it easy to slap the “anachronistic” label on the art form and those who practice it. In a recent article for the Washington Post, music critic Anne Midgette shared a similar concern, saying that, “Classical music isn’t in trouble. It’s classical music’s institutions that are the problem.” (The scandals that recently came to light with prominent conductors Charles Dutoit and James Levine, the latter of which Midgette’s article discusses, do not help things either.) There are exceptions of course, but the future of concerts and professional orchestras as a whole can look rather bleak.

So, what can be done to bring the classical concert fully and unabashedly into the 21st century? How can it maintain its relevance and better reflect our fast-paced and increasingly diverse society? How can it successfully “bridge the gap,” maintaining a respect for the music but positively challenge the way that it is both experienced and understood?

In this multiple-part series, I will outline some thoughts that I have on the current state of the classical concert and provide some suggestions which could breathe some fresh air into this beloved, yet sometimes tired-old institution. (I will also highlight groups and organizations that are currently doing some really awesome and innovative things.) It is my belief that more discussions like this could prove fruitful in enticing new audiences, maintaining the passion of lifelong fans (like myself), and securing the success of the art form for years to come.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the opinions I express here are solely my own. I do recognize that some of them may be built from general information gleaned online, personal biases, and my experiences in a relatively limited sphere (i.e. mainly attending classical concerts in California for most of my life and not many elsewhere). I will do my best to point out any biases or generalizations that I make, or back them up with factual support when appropriate. (Like any good scholar would do!)

In any case, my first set of thoughts are as follows, with more to come soon…

Continue reading “Revitalizing the Classical Concert – Part 1: Introduction and Concert Etiquette”

Beauty in Silence: The Music of Arvo Pärt

Let’s face it, amidst our technology-saturated, go-getter culture, silence can be difficult to come by. We’re almost constantly surrounded by sound, whether it be from our devices, conversation with others, or ambient noise from our everyday activities. Silence, while sometimes sought out for a means of escape or reflection, is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon.

In classical music though, silence can be a powerful tool. Say what you will about contemporary concert hall etiquette, but when an audience quietly respect the breaks between the movements of a symphony, it can be a wondrous moment. For composers too, silence can be a great asset. In an article entitled “Forerunners of Modern Music,” the American composer John Cage observed that, “The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.” (Cage is perhaps most famous – or infamous – for his 1952 piece 4’33”).

One figure who makes an especially profound use of this idea is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. In addition to utilizing simple tonalities and sparse textures, many of his pieces make ample use of silence, which is often meticulously composed into the score. Together, these features give Pärt’s music a strikingly original and contemplative quality, which has left a lasting impression on contemporary classical music.

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