As we head into the new year, the annual culture calendar is ready for take-off. But at least one genre is in some trouble: classical music.
After 50 years (!) at the helm of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, maestro Zubin Mehta retired a few years ago and the IPO made the bold choice to hire as his replacement a very young Lahav Shani – still in his 20s! The reason: as with almost all other major world orchestras, the audience for live classical music has been declining for many years, especially among younger adults.
Getting a young, talented conductor on board is a smart move. But it isn’t enough. The younger generation has a problem with classical music that goes well beyond the music itself or even expensive ticket prices. Here’s what I believe is the main issue – and what to do about it. (The final, ironic “proof” of my theory, I leave for the end – no peeking!)
First, some background. Music is primeval and primal – even other animals react to music (although other than birds and whales, most can’t produce it). Neuroscientists have seen how music activates parts of the human brain’s motor system i.e., the neural “directors” of talking, walking, and…dancing – even when we are sitting quietly listening to classical music!
Indeed, most languages have only one word for both singing and dancing. Recent research has even found that we recall music that we heard in the womb! (See the marvelous book by Harvard U professor, Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music). What sort of music?
Everything else being equal, young infants prefer fast, upbeat music to slow music.
Here’s a first clue to the problem – not that we need “clues.” From time immemorial – until the modern era – music has almost always been accompanied by dancing or some form of bodily movement. Whether to a beat (e.g., tom-tom drums), to flowing melody (waltz), or other types of musical tools and genres, we are literally (and usually also figuratively) “moved” by music.
And then organized religion took over – especially Christianity. Religious music migrated to the grand cathedrals where people were expected to sit quietly in their pews and listen respectfully. Later, around the 17th-18th centuries, such sedentary music morphed into the secular realm, as the social elite began to listen to sedate music in their salons. It was only around the late 18th century that symphony orchestras came into being, playing in new music halls built for such grand musical performances.
The main point in this very short history is that music slowly receded from its original performance status: from “up-and-at-‘em” to “sit quietly and keep quiet.” True, there were exceptions to the rule, but they tended to prove the rule. Gospel, for one, is the opposite of restrained, in-your-seat, music – as the congregants (not just the lead singers) sway to-and-fro. It is not coincidental that gospel tunes have become extremely popular outside of the church setting. Ditto for Shlomo Carlebach-style Jewish prayer songs.
This, then, is the core problem that classical music performances must deal with.
Compounding the challenge is what’s happening in its main competition for the hearts and ears of the younger generation. It is not a coincidence that contemporary youth flock to “rock” concerts where they don’t sit in seats but rather “stand” for 2-3 hours. The word “stand” here needs quotation marks because no one stands still at a rock concert. Rock & roll (of whatever particular sub-genre) is wildly popular precisely because it has broken the “seat” stranglehold of classical music. Think back to its origins: “Swing” (that’s what the body was doing, not just the music) and then “Rock and Roll” (no explanation needed), brought back the visceral element to music – and youth, unaffected by classical music’s sit-down mode, continue to flock to Rock concerts that speak not just to the ear but also (perhaps mainly) to the body.
So, what can the classical symphony orchestra’s management do? The answer is clear: remove the seats from the back part of the concert hall for “standing room only.” If this sounds “revolutionary,” it isn’t. Among other major, classical music institutions, the NY Metropolitan Opera – not exactly known for musical radicalism – over many decades has sold standing room only tickets. Or if one wants to be really revolutionary, we could follow the latest body-bending development in New York: to make way for the new musical “Here Lies Love,” the old Broadway Theater was recently gutted in large part, with its original 1,800 seats being reduced to around 800, replaced by a dancing room area for another 300 theatergoers in the former orchestra section! (Even the 800 who purchased a seat in the back are invited to line dance in the aisles.)
Whatever the seating change, it would enliven two (youthful) birds at the same time. First, as the cost of non-seat entrance is generally cheaper (although not in “Here Lies Love”), young music lovers could finally indulge themselves without breaking the (piggy) bank. Yes, the IPO does have an excellent, relatively inexpensive program for children (https://www.ipo.co.il/en/the-childrens-philharmonic), but here too they sit and listen. Don’t kids have enough of that in school?
Second, and crucially, “standing room” space enables the concertgoer free bodily reign i.e., the natural way to hear music. In fact, I would call it “moving room” to provide the flavor of its significant difference from regular seating. And if this succeeds, then more seats could be removed to make way for greater “non-seat” space, perhaps inaugurating a self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle.
And now for the surprise ending (something that great classical music aspires to). There’s a great irony lying clearly within the heart of classical music’s own vocabulary. As we all know, each section of a symphony or a concerto is called….
So why are we forced to sit tight in our seats when listening to a MOVEMENT? Especially when great music touches our deepest eMOTIONS?