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Is It Getting Stuffy in Here?


by Jerome Weeks 12 Sep 2008

With all of the attention and praise devoted to Jaap van Zweden’s arrival as the Dallas Symphony’s new conductor — and the symphony’s debut next week of a new work by a major modern composer –it’s worth checking out Alex Ross’ piece in the New Yorker (“Why So Serious?” — a great title, by the […]

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With all of the attention and praise devoted to Jaap van Zweden’s arrival as the Dallas Symphony’s new conductor — and the symphony’s debut next week of a new work by a major modern composer –it’s worth checking out Alex Ross’ piece in the New Yorker (“Why So Serious?” — a great title, by the way) about how the entire ritual and paraphenalia of a classical music performance was developed in the 19th century — by the middle class. The next time you encounter any hauteur from an opera snob, you might want to point out that he’s the one being bourgeois.  “The funereal boredom” that afflicts many recitals was the result of our “sacralization” of classical music.

But, Ross says — echoing the argument of william Weber’s The Great Transformation of Musical Taste — there’s something to be said for what middle-class pretensions brought to the appreciation of the live concert. New kinds of expression, for starters (the playing of entire symphonies or whole evenings devoted to a single composer, an ethereal style of music that couldn’t have withstood the chattering aristos of earlier years). Actually, he believes, the strongest mark against our current classical concert is that it’s mostly devoted to dead composers — and that it’s confined to only one format:

Composers were empowered by the worshipfulness of the proceedings, but, generally, only if they were dead. Performers thrived on the new attentiveness, but struggled against the monkish strictures of conservatory training and certain inexplicable regulations governing behavior and dress. (The overarching problem of classical music is the tuxedo.) Listeners, too, come away feeling both liberated and confined. James Johnson identifies what he calls “the paradox of bourgeois individualism”—a culture of conformity encircling an art of untrammelled personal expression.

But the concert experience may still be evolving, Ross says. Read his story here.

Tuxedo image from made-in-china.com

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