relevance

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Conference: Culture and Arts in a Populist Age

October 30th in Washington, DC. This one-day conference explores the immediate future of the arts within the dynamic and controversial political environment that has emerged in the wake of the 2016 elections. Register now, as space is limited. Sponsored by the University of Arizona American Culture and Ideas Initiative and the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

view of Seaside, Florida

When orchestras rack their brains to discover the ways that they are relevant to their communities, they invariably come up with a wide range of replies that almost never includes their concert hall. Yet there is little else that could appear on that list that is as permanent and concrete as the daily encounter of a community with its concert hall.

Chef Spike Gjerde. Image courtesy of Woodberry Kitchen.

The prescriptions most loudly recommended for America’s challenged orchestras today stress complicity with the modern realities of speed, technology, and globalization. Shorter, quicker concerts geared towards shorter, quicker attention spans; the sensual and intellectual stimulation of novelty and fashion; harnessing technological innovation to prove that we can keep up; focusing our attention on bigger halls, bigger stars, and wider distribution, emphasizing the global and universal rather than the local and the particular – these are answers we hear over and over. But what if they’re wrong?

Giorgio Vasari: Six Tuscan Poets

It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young.

Mozart graffiti

The notion that music has properties and powers that can sharpen the mind and transform the soul is ancient. Such ideas formed the basis of Confucian civilization in China. In the West, they are attributed to Pythagoras and his followers and played a central role in Plato’s ideal state.

A symphony concert somewhere near Potocki Palace, Warsaw, in 2011. Image credit: Les Panchyshyn.

Selling music in wrapping paper which belies its nature will inevitably lead to disappointment: potential new audiences – especially the younger generations without much exposure to classical music – will feel cheated when they find out that a Mahler symphony does not sound at all like heavy metal or hip-hop.

Wilhelm Schreuer: Das Konzert im Schlossgarten

There has been a drumbeat of naysayers who prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras, telling us in somber tones that only rich, old folks go to concerts these days. I’m sorry, but that’s not how I’ve seen things.

Teens sharing a song.

To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.”

Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville

Designing with this particular attitude towards context does not mean we will arrive at one universally perfect solution every time. If we follow this formula, however, we are most likely to arrive at a building that will be relevant to, embraced and even loved by, the greatest number of people who will see it, visit it, or touch it on any given day.

Scene from Anthony Minghella's production of “Madame Butterfly,” which has become a Met favorite. Image credit: Metropolitan Opera.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera has stood resolutely against Regietheater decadence. In fact, its greatest gift to the world at the present moment is to mount productions – whether sleekly abstract or richly realistic – that allow the beauty of some of the most powerful music ever written to shine forth. The question now is whether that musical gift will continue.

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