On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

Gassy Classical

Concerts and Broadcasts, Yesterday and Today

[Italian version here]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: April, 2021

What I'm writing now was inspired by a voice. “Hearing voices, are you? We knew you were a little 'off,' but that's concerning. Have you considered getting some professional help?” says a different voice from amidst the readership. No, not that kind of voice. Just bear with me here, and if you don't listen to classical music or don't live in North America (or possibly the United Kingdom), I hope you'll forgive some musings that may not appear directly applicable to your own listening. “Oh, don't worry--we're quite used to your irrelevant ramblings. Won't bother us a bit.” Uh, thanks--I think.

Two or three years ago, rummaging through the bins at my local thrift store, I stumbled across a nicely, but not quite professionally, produced two-CD set presenting a concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under then-Music Director Charles Munch, originally broadcast on Friday, October 10, 1958. The discs bore no markings, even to show which was the playing side, but he case labeling was promising, and at the low asking price the set seemed worth taking a chance. Luck was with me: it indeed contained the promised program, with spirited performances of three symphonies--the Mozart 35th (“Haffner”), the Honegger 5th (“Di Tre Re”), and the Brahms 4th (“Which Nas no Nickname”)--and as an unexpected bonus also retained audience applause and broadcast commentary by the orchestra's long-time radio/TV announcer, William Pierce.

Hearing that voice, as you can in the brief video linked below, brought me up short. Although my family lived hundreds of miles south of Boston, it was a fixture of my youth, when every week I would join my parents in front of our lackluster early '60s vintage RCA color television set for another Evening at Pops broadcast by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, the “popular concerts” side of the BSO. Later, I would hear Mr. Pierce on FM radio as well in far better fidelity than what had emerged from the little oval speaker built into our TV set. Encountering it again at decades' remove--Pierce retired in 1991--did more than send me on an abrupt trip down memory lane: it brought home to me just how much I miss the old, more reserved style of broadcast presentation.

As those who follow it know, the world of classical music had been going through something of a panic attack for years before the current pandemic shut down the concert halls and opera houses. In a nutshell, the concern was, and is, that the public perception of classical music as an ossified art form with stuffy, antiquated conventions has led its audience to grow progressively older and thinner, and some critics maintain that a fixation on high-priced celebrity performers controlled by a cartel of promoters and recording companies has only exaccerbated the trend. In response, all manner of efforts have played out to make classical music more “accessible” or “relevant,” much to the open derision of certain observers and commentators. One prominent such voice is an English blogger and former record industry insider named Robert Singleton, whose thought-provoking blog “On an Overgrown Path” inspired what would become the name of this occasional column.[1] He looks askance at efforts to "dumb down" radio and concert life in an effort to make them appeal to uninterested masses, calls out music journalism as having become captive to the promoters of celebrity performers, and has suggested various other approaches geared toward recognizing that the ways in which younger listeners consume music have changed and that as a result traditional presentation modes have become ineffective.

All fair enough. On the surface, classical music has all manner of high society glitter, but dig below that facade and you'll find it has lost the central place it once held in modern culture. Witness our own favorite hobby, audio. When I first became aware of audio gear and developed an interest in the “how” of record playback, not just the “what,” equipment reviews were heavily weighted to classical music. The gold standard was how well gear could reproduce symphonic and chamber music and opera and the like, and popular music, if mentioned at all, was something of an afterthought. Today? We've taken a 180-degree turn. In general classical music is entirely absent or, at best, a single entry in a write-up otherwise overwhelmingly focused on pop or rock. At the audio shows I've attended, Motown is much more likely than Mozart. Or take something as mundane as the daily newspaper. Not so long ago, my local paper, the Washington Post, maintained a staff classical music critic and devoted serious space each week to classical reviews. Neither is any longer the case.

And so, coming back around to where I started, the world of a radio commentator like William Pierce--described, I think aptly, in one obituary as “patrician”--is long gone, and in its place we gradually, by small steps, have replaced it with one in which announcers, in a bid to draw in a new audience, strenuously try to be “personalities” or the listener's goopy best friend or, worst of all, the yuk-it-up back-slapping partners of co-commentators. We're having a party at the opera! We're all friends here! Isn't that grand? That must be why they call it “grand opera”! Very few are the broadcasters who can pull off such presentation without being what my 16-year-old daughter aptly calls “cringe-worthy.” That's what we need now, however, to bring in those younger listeners who will be the salvation of our financially foundering arts organizations, right?

Well, maybe not.

A few days ago, my aforementioned daughter (pretty slick how I segued there, huh?) actually looked up from her phone for a few minutes. I think it was tied up installing some sort of update. Be that as it may, noticing I was in the room, she actually started a conversation! Well, that development alone would have been enough to send paternal jaw and upper plate hurtling floorward, but the real shockeroo was what she volunteered to me: "Dad, believe it or not, on TikTok there are kids saying they want classical music to come back." I'll admit I got a smile when she elaborated that many of her contemporaries are finding today's popular music lacking, inferior to what they were hearing a few years ago, just commercial and uninteresting. Doesn't that sound a bit like what every parent for the last century has said about the music of the incoming generation?[2] Kids grow up fast these days!

Be that as it may, she added that some kids out there are finding classical music to be more satisfying, with greater substance and real “teeth.” It seems to me something important may be lurking beneath the surface here.

I have no doubt Mr. Singleton is right, at least up to a point: the high-priced glamorous celebrity approach and formal audience rituals of classical music as presented today probably are not helpful, particularly when they apply porcine lipstick to humdrum, routine performances overhyped by gushing “personality” announcers oozing ersatz chumminess. That said, maybe, just maybe, the answer isn't focusing on the former or completely abandoning the latter. Maybe the answer is to follow that admirable advice in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: don't panic.

Instead, step back and give kids--or newcomer adults--a few tools and the freedom to explore. Yes, give them a bit of orientation in the field, the way William Pierce routinely offered up a little straightforward context for each piece in a BSO concert. Provide enough so they will know the most basic terms and forms--enough to know that “concerto” generally means soloist with orchestra and that not everything is a “song”--and have some idea of a few possible starting points in what is, after all, a vast literature. If you're feeling really daring, admit that not every performance is stimulating just because it has a recognized name behind it.[3] Don't abandon the concert hall, but put classical music in more day-to-day venues as well, as Mr. Singleton has suggested, and this one is key: find ways to get classical music into the ears of little kids. From my own experience with that now-16-year-old, these days everything aimed at the toddler-to-kinderdarten set is geared to promoting pop/rock. Once upon a time, classical music was noticeably in that mix, if not dominant, in the soundtracks of kids' programming--for the very good reason that it was royalty-free! Winning back a place at that table would, I think, do more to grow future audiences than all the “community outreach” and “audience development” initiatives on the face of the planet.

In short, provide some early exposure, impart a little background, grant youthful listeners the liberty to make their own judgments, and then let the music speak for itself, free from hype, free from trendy framing, free from puffery. The classics have survived and even thrived for centuries because the inspired minds that conceived them imbued their scores with something that speaks directly to our emotions, be they joy or grief or excitement or contented repose. (Or just the suspense of knowing if Elmer Fudd will finally “kill the wabbit”!) Trust those qualities, and perhaps the future isn't quite as bleak as we've been led to believe.

OK, I'll get down off my soapbox now. Thanks for letting me air my rash opinions.

“Oh, sorry, I was daydreaming for a while. Did you say something about Motown?”



[1] - A few days before my invitation to join the staff here at TNT, by force of 78 collector's habit I had typed “Pathe” for “Path” in an e-mail referring a friend to Mr. Singleton's blog, and an idea was born--one would hope like Venus emerging from the half shell, but one fears more like baby Godzilla emerging from an eggshell. Be that as it may, both Mr. Singleton and I owe a debt to Czech composer Leos Janacek and the title of his piano suite On an Overgrown Path.

[2] - “Dag-nabbit, Ethel, that tin pan alley folderol just isn't music like ragtime!” Which, in due course, gave way to “"That raucous swing music is no good, not like the Charleston!” and then “The Beatles? Rank amateurs! If you want good music, listen to Benny Goodman!” and then “New wave? Noise! The Beatles--now there was real music!” And so on. (I blush to confess, as one who just wrote "shockeroo" with a straight face, if forced to choose one of the foregoing, I'd probably go with ragtime....)

[3] - As Lili Kraus, a top-tier pianist of bygone days, once remarked, "Only mediocrity is always at its best."

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