Wed., August 17, 2011:Modern Mentors

Level 42 engages the audience at the Prague Proms festival

Editorial: Learning from Modern Mentors

I started publishing Opus Osm partly because I wanted to find out why classical music is losing its audience.

Now I think I have one of the answers.

First, though, it must be said that classical music is not losing its audience. It has a very vibrant, committed, enthusiastic audience. It’s just relatively small. And not growing very fast.

So I’m adjusting my question to “Why isn’t this audience bigger?” Here’s the answer.

I agree with younger people who say classical music is boring.

It is, when you compare it to the concerts the Big audiences attend. At the Prague Proms’ Level 42 concert June 28, even before the music began we knew that something Big was about to happen. Beefy men in faded black t-shirts whipped giant snake-like electrical cords into place. Giant speakers loomed above the audience. Technicians ran back and forth across the stage. Someone tested the drums.

In comparison, before a classical music performance you typically face a few spiky music racks sitting forlornly on a soundless, empty stage.

Once Level 42 was on stage and playing, colored lights and spotlights swept across the audience, inviting us “in” as part of the performance. We could marvel at the intricate fingering of the guitar player because we could actually see it, giant, on the video screen. In fact, we could even watch ourselves on the big screen.

At a classical concert, however, the lights go dim – for many, a sign that it’s OK to nap. The darkness highlights the harshness of the single white spotlight trained straight down on the tiny performers on the distant stage. For some of us, that invites only eyestrain.

As Level 42′s energy level sagged slightly, one of the musicians clapped his hands above his head, the sign for the audience to join in and pump the energy back up. People clapped. People danced.

At a classical concert, we sit with hands folded in our laps, perhaps afraid to even nod our heads in time to the music. After the Level 42 concert, the musicians leaned over the stage to shake hands with the audience.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that classical performances adopt pop music techniques per se. That would be as inappropriate a match as those posters portraying classical musicians with the cleavage of hip-hop stars.

But most classical performances are suited to an audience that grew up with only books and the radio for entertainment. Today’s audience, however, is quite different. They’re constantly bombarded with frenetic, exciting visuals and a palpable, electric atmosphere. Even their techie side gets into the act as their fingers punch in the performance on their video cameras and mobile phones.

But classical concerts continue to rely mainly on the ability to listen – ironically, often called “the lost art.”

Let’s get smart about this problem. Let’s stop running on the past, and instead catch up with the rest of the people – as they are today. – oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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