Opera manners

The other piece that caught my eye this morning was from WQXR’s Operavore blog: Dressed to Kill: Are Opera Audiences Becoming Too Casual?

Some Italian commenters insisted that outbursts from the loggione [people who audibly express their dissatisfaction during a performance, rather than at the curtain call] are not only part of their birthright but an important component of the opera experience in Italy. One commenter, Antonio Augusto Rizzoli, a 76-year-old devoted operagoer from Venice, became something of a lightning rod not only for his defense of the loggionisti but his assertion that the way some people (particularly Americans) dress when they attend opera at Venice’s beautiful and historic Teatro La Fenice was much more offensive than any behavior by loggionisti.

I’ve only been to one performance where the audience made noise during the concert: a ballet arrangement of Massenet’s Manon at the Vienna State Opera, where a middle-aged lady in front of me booed, along with a handful of others scattered throughout the auditorium, and with such vigour that she seemed to need physical and emotional support from her family as she left at the end. Why she didn’t walk out sooner I have no idea; everyone would have been happier if she had.1

At a concert, my code of conduct is more or less the same as it is at the cinema or the theatre: don’t participate unless you’re invited to, and keep quiet out of respect to the other attendees. Making noise—whether it’s booing, munching popcorn, or answering a phone, is disrespectful to both performers and audience.

As for a dress code, there are no acoustical benefits to wearing a suit. Concerts are about music. Everything else is secondary. Again, it comes down to respect: if your clothes don’t distract the performers or obstruct the audience’s view, wear what you want. Rizzoli’s complaint is that he has to share a dark room with some people who are dressed in a way he doesn’t like. There aren’t many first-world problems more petulant than that.

It’s a big planet, and there’s room both for formal concert halls and more casual settings. If a concert hall or opera house wants to turn away people who don’t conform to their dress code, they can do that. But this approach is typical of the élitism—often imaginary, but not always—that puts people off classical music. And when opera houses inevitably come looking for the donations they need to survive, will people listen?

WQXR’s blogs are fast becoming my first daily read. You should definitely subscribe.

1 The orchestra’s performance wasn’t anything to write home about, though hardly worth lowing oneself into exhaustion. The dancers were superb.

On the Classical Cloud

I’ve been turning over Alex Ross’ piece from last week’s New Yorker, The Classical Cloud, in my mind for a little while now. A sort of nostalgic look at CD collections and the problems with subscription-based music, there’s a lot right with it. Ross writes:

My working process as a critic revolves around a stack of disks that I call the Listen Again pile: recent releases that have jumped out of the crowd and demand attention. None of this happens as easily on the computer. I experience no nostalgia for the first music I downloaded, which appears to have been Justin Timberlake.

A Listen Again pile will be familiar to any music fan who’s grown up in the last fifty years. For some, like my dad, it was a stack of vinyls wedged between record player and cabinet for convenient access. For others, it was a compilation patiently cobbled together on a 180-minute mixtape. For me, it was four or five CDs squeezed into the ludicrously oversized pockets of the trousers I used to wear to school.1

But the absence of nostalgia for downloads is Ross’ experience, and mine differs. Today, I keep an equivalent playlist on my phone: albums I haven’t heard for years, that deserve a listen anew, or that I’ve just bought, and am listening to on repeat. And, unlike Ross’ Justin Timberlake download, I have favourite artists and albums I’ve never heard on CD: Kate Bush, Martin Stig Andersen, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio; Peter Aidu’s extraordinary solo performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.2 Would my enjoyment of The Sensual World have been greater if I’d heard it on CD instead? I don’t see how it could have.

Ross goes on to highlight some of the problems with streaming, the primary one being the pittance made by musicians and labels on Spotify. Writing of Leon Fleisher’s extraordinary recital All the Things You Are, released by family-run independent label Bridge, Ross concludes that “only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.” He may be right.

But he makes a point in the article that I find it hard to agree with:

There is a downside to the glut of virtual product and the attendant plunge of prices. … [T]he streaming model favors superstars and conglomerates over workaday musicians and indie outfits. Its façade of infinite variety notwithstanding, it meshes neatly with the winner-take-all economy.

Ben Thompson, author of the business blog Stratechery, has argued that the internet provides a new kind of market. The incredible size of the internet allows a handful of giant corporations to dominate, as large corporations always have, to a scale that they haven’t reached before. But the diversity and reach of the internet are also unprecedented, and no corporation can satisfy every desire of every customer. 

This provides extraordinary opportunities for small enterprises too: there are niches that large companies will no longer be able to fill, but which are precisely what a small proportion of people want. And a small proportion of the people on the internet can still be an enormous number—more than enough to sustain a small business. Thompson has compared this, on his podcast Exponent, to a rainforest: fertile undergrowth thriving beneath enormous trees, but with little room for anything in the middle.

It’s not, in other words, a winner-take-all economy. It may be winner-take-most, but all is beyond the reach of even the most massive players.

That’s where Bridge comes in: in order to survive, independent labels like Bridge have to be extremely focussed, and there has to be a clear, desirable distinction between them and their competitors. And it may be that Spotify is not the place for them, that they need some other means of distribution that will make them both easier to discover and allow them to reap more rewards from that distribution. I do see some opportunities here: Spotify’s labelling of classical music is, as Ross points out, even more chaotic and inconsistent than iTunes’. And classical music makes complex demands for a relatively small audience: it may not even be worth Spotify’s or Apple’s while to fix it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anybody’s.

People have been prophesying the death of classical music for generations, but today it has a wider reach and more opportunities to be heard than at any other time in history. Labels will come and go, and small labels will be vulnerable for a long time, but the music is still here because people love it, and people always will.

1 Honestly. For what it’s worth, the other pocket contained a far-from-slimline Discman, cigarettes, and keys.

2 For two pianos. It needs to be seen to be believed.

Brandenburg in Summer

It was about a year ago that I first discovered that the Brandenburg Concertos, surprisingly, make perfect driving music, particularly in sunshine, and best of all if you’re not in a hurry. They’re Bach at his most optimistic, his lightest, and his most exciting, and are some of the most extraordinary pieces of music in history.

Their own history is extraordinary too. They were given to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, in 1721, but after receiving them he realised (or decided) that he couldn’t afford to have them performed, so left them on a bookshelf. There they stayed until his death thirteen years later, when they were sold for a pittance—a little less than $25, in today’s money. They vanished, and were forgotten, until their discovery in the Brandenburg archives in 1849. They were published a year later, and so were first performed a hundred and thirty years after their completion.1

This means that most of the great composers of the late 18th and early 19th century—household names like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—never had a chance to hear them. Even Felix Mendelssohn, the musician probably most responsible for the revival of interest in Bach’s music, died two years before they were rediscovered. Imagine how much he would have loved to conduct the first performance of the great lost works.

If you’ve never had a chance to listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, or if it’s been a while, then take some time out of your Sunday to hear them now. They’re true summer music, as bright and as light-of-touch as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but far more creative. Each one is fairly short: six concertos in all, consisting of six different combinations of instruments, each one showing off its instruments’ strengths.

And they can all be had for free, in a superb performance by the Czech Republic’s Musica Florea, here.

1 Actually, probably a bit longer. It’s very likely that they were completed before 1721 and just collected for the Margrave.