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Alternative concert experiences

Alternative concert experiences: Supplementing, not replacing, the classical canon

Star Wars. Looney Tunes. Lord of the Rings.

Around the globe, live orchestras now perform titles once associated with mall entertainment. Movie music has moved from inconspicuous film accompaniment to center stage as some of the world’s leading ensemble musicians line up to play this alternative form of classical-like music.

Live performances of movie scores are an increasingly popular phenomenon. As I experienced a production recently, a classic film (An American in Paris, in my case) appeared on a large screen above a live orchestra. At points in the film when featured songs appeared, the film soundtrack was replaced by the live performance of the musicians on stage. Everything was calibrated down to a fraction of a second. The conductor’s attention was fixed on an unforgiving monitor so the music was correct in every frame.

Live movie music is not the only alternative to traditional concert-going to emerge in recent years. Non-profit TV is starting to broadcast more classical programming, but with a hitch. The assumption is that viewers will be quick to turn the dial if confronted by the sight of an orchestra in black playing traditional instruments. Instead, in the spirit of a popular New Year’s Day waltz broadcast, the TV camera may migrate outdoors and accompany the music with local sights and landmarks or follow the pretty pas de deux of a pair of elegant dancers.

In the more than 80 years since Fantasia teamed Philadelphia Orchestra musicians with whimsical Disney characters, marketing mavens have determined that classical music without enhancements not only sounds dull, it looks dull, too. If concert promoters want to boost attendance, attract new, preferably younger audiences, and make money in the bargain, the common wisdom is that they had better ratchet up the pleasure principle. So far, that’s included dressing up female musicians like china dolls (i.e., the Johann Strauss Orchestra) and offering charming patter by an affable conductor.

Three factors appear to have influenced this “entertainment‑a‑zation” of classical music as it stands today. First, shrinking revenues. In the States, it’s a familiar tune. When school districts make budget cuts, art and music programs are often the first to go. The popular viewpoint is that the arts do not need supporting. If they are any good, they will fund themselves.

Second, the Covid pandemic. The performing arts were especially hard hit by immediate, unconditional closings. Performers from low-paid freelancers to major international stars found themselves scrambling to pay the bills. As the world gradually returns to some form of normalcy, the damage appears permanent, at least for current generations. Many audience members, including our stalwart elders, may not care to return to a concert hall as a health and safety precaution. And musicians are still scrambling to make up lost revenues and stay motivated to practice and perform.

The third factor is the West’s increasing need to be entertained. There is little motivation to find the extra time and effort it takes to appreciate art music like classical, jazz or sophisticated music from other cultures on even the most basic level. Whereas listeners once had only to distinguish between a dozen or so types of music, now thousands of films, youtubes, and gaming activities—few with classical complexities— vie for consumer attention. The shorter attention spans of today’s audiences also is commonly mentioned as a reason to feature short selections, especially of contemporary works.

Yet, in addition to live music with a classic film, I have attended two other alternative productions recently which surprisingly surpassed my expectations and delivered works by my favorite composer in an entirely new way.

Beethoven by Candlelight

Attending Candlelight: Beethoven’s Best Works in Philadelphia’s lavish Masonic Temple was a no-brainer. I love Beethoven. I love candlelight, especially the worry‑free, battery‑operated variety. But I knew this would be no typical string quartet program. Would it be dumbed down? Would the musicians be up to the standards of a Philadelphia classical audience?

FeverUp is the organization behind this series of concerts featuring classical and other forms of music that could appeal to a general audience. In an intimate chapel illuminated by thousands of candles, four of the leading string players in the Northeast performed carefully selected individual movements from Beethoven quartets as candlelight provided a relaxing atmosphere. One could complain, I suppose, that entire quartets were not performed and all the issues that raises. But for one evening, it was a marvelous way to consider these movements afresh, as perfect jewels. For the uninitiated, it was an introduction to another facet of Beethoven beyond the 5th Symphony and Für Elise. And if the acoustics were not exactly perfect, there was recompense in the exquisite sonorities of individual and ensemble playing.

Beethoven and AI

Since he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as Music Director in 2012, Yannick Nézet‑Séguin has been exploring innovative ways to introduce new audiences to music in the classical tradition. Yannick is a risk‑taker and brings many of the musically unorthodox along for the ride. But I was concerned when I heard that Artificial Intellience-generated graphics were going to accompany a rare performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in April 2022 (a work completed in 1823, just before the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets). Distractions of any kind, I felt, would not be welcomed.

No need to fear. Musically, this was a polished and emotionally intense experience with stellar performances from the orchestra including concertmaster David Kim, who shone throughout the Sanctus, and outstanding musicianship by all the first chairs in their respective moments in the sun. It was a pleasure to watch Yannick, who reflects the mood and dynamic of every phrase with his entire body, a look of pure joy spreading over his face as the heavenly sounds unfold. The chorus and four world-class soloists reflected the orchestra’s commitment to a more diverse classical music universe. Though masked because of a Covid alert that weekend, the choral voices rang out true and clear, the four soloists remarkable in their individual articulations.

Behind the stage, a brilliant white screen, looking a bit like an overgrown cookie sheet, ranged high above the Verizon Hall/Kimmel Center stage. On this canvas, visual designer Refik Anadol unleashed the force of AI in an ever-morphing tumble of colors and shapes drawn, in part from a database of more than 12 million images of buildings that Beethoven may have encountered. Swirling, sweeping, spiraling organic forms dazzled the eyes, but complemented, rather than interfered with the music. Is it possible that our brains process less music when diverted by kinetic art of this type? It may be so. But we have the liberty to direct our focus to the object of our choice. For me, the music of Beethoven was the docking station for my attention. This was as fine a performance as one could hope to encounter, and as for the second movement, Gloria, I have heard none finer.

Are alternatives really necessary?

Far be it for me to suggest that alternative classical music performances and venues should become the norm. There is no substitute for skilled, insightful musicians performing works that have withstood the test of time. Yet, I am not willing to dismiss new approaches, even though not all of them will be successful. The alternative experiences I’ve had this spring have not replaced what we typically think of as live musical concerts. Rather, they are an enjoyable add-on, and, like the candlelit quartet movements, gently nudge us to consider old favorites from a fresh point of view. All of us should share in opening doors to respectful innovation, otherwise the art we love may languish further in the years ahead. There is no more reliable path between tradition and innovation than an open mind.

Linda Holt



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