(This piece was published as half of a debate with another Philadelphia arts journalist, Neal Zoran. Neal took the populist side, I was asked to take the elitist side. Since it was a debate, I expressed my opinions a little more strongly than I might have. Overall, however, the piece reflects my basic views.)




Tom Purdom



Should the members of the Guarneri String Quartet sport nose rings, wear leather jackets, and play a few string transcriptions of gangster rap at all their concerts? Should the Mozart Society add high powered loudspeakers to its musical forces and show us how Mozart would have written his Concerto for Flute and Harp if he had been savvy enough to give it a big bass beat?

If you listen to much of the advice classical music organizations are hearing nowadays, adjustments like that are their only hope. Young people avoid Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, we are told, because they feel out of place when they discover most of the men in the audience are actually wearing jackets and ties. Most of the music the Orchestra plays, furthermore, is strange, old fashioned stuff that was created decades before mankind discovered the glories of the electric guitar.

There are two reasons why I think costume changes, "broader repertoire", and similar gimmicks are bad ideas. (1) I don't think they'll work. (2) I wouldn't like it if they did.

Concert halls, art museums, and theaters are the last places on Earth where I can escape from modern popular culture. Car stereos boom rock music into my house when I'm trying to read. Radio freaks spread sonic grafitti through Rittenhouse Square. I can't even shop in a grocery store without encountering a sound system playing our local "Easy Listening" station. When I go to a chamber music concert, I want to hear chamber music. I don't want to sit through twenty minutes of pop merely because the management hopes a pop interlude will attract a few more ticket buyers. I suspect most of the people who attend chamber concerts feel the same way.

Hockey fans aren't forced to listen to Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp during the intervals between periods. Why should someone who wants to hear Debussy be forced to listen to some "crossover" version of a pop song?


I realize the Clothing Issue presents a problem for ultra-contemporary Americans. As one of my friends once put it, nowadays many of our fellow citizens feel they're wearing formal clothing when they put on a T shirt that doesn't flaunt an obscenity. All I can say is, I like the fact that there are still a few places where people dress up a bit. Most of the music I listen to was originally performed in courts, churches, and opera houses. A touch of elegance surrounds it with an appropriate frame. So does a modest general decorum.

Still, in spite of my eccentric personal preferences, I might be willing to support the T-shirts-and-pop approach if I thought it would work. Unfortunately, its advocates are overlooking the fundamental difference between popular culture and high culture. High culture makes demands on its audience.

The first demand that it makes is a particularly hard one for people who live in a conformist democracy. You must cut loose from the crowd. Popular music likes to claim it is rebellious and nonconformist. Those of us who prefer Bach to rock are portrayed as conventional and stodgy. In fact, a taste for the Musical Offering is decidedly unconventional in modern America.

The pop factories use the same tactics the cigarette companies used to employ. The cigarette moguls exploited the fantasies of teenagers who wanted to feel mature and sophisticated. The pop companies manipulate the adolescent's need to fit into the tribe.

By the time most Americans reach their twenties, they've been brainwashed into thinking they'll be socially and sexually ostracized if they don't listen to the right records, watch the right TV shows, and waste half their Sundays watching football games.

But suppose you do manage to liberate yourself from the pressures of mass culture sheep think. You'll soon find you're facing another obstacle. Most of the world's art was created for audiences that possessed a special background. Mozart and Haydn composed for a musically knowledgeable 18th Century upper class. Shakespeare may have written for the groundlings, but they were the groundlings of another world, Elizabethan England.

If you want to watch Shakespeare's plays, you have to acquire some of the knowledge that helps you bridge the gap created by four centuries of linguistic and cultural change. If you want to enjoy Mozart's symphonies in the way they were meant to be enjoyed, you must pick up some of the musical sophistication Vienesse bureaucrats brought to their recreations. Kenneth Branagh can transform Shakespeare's plays into successful movies, but here in Philadelphia his films play at the Ritz Five, not 19th and Chestnut. Most of the Philadelphians who watched Much Ado About Nothing entered the theater with prepared minds.

As for music-- talk to the audience at a chamber music concert and you'll discover at least half of them studied an instrument when they were young. Many are still active amateur musicians. The great works of music and theater are a pleasure, but they aren't the kind of pleasure you can absorb effortlessly, in the way poppers listen to their favorite radio stations as they drive to work.

I realize you don't have to earn a Ph.D. in musicology to enjoy Bach. I picked up my musical education on my own, over two decades. I read books on music history and music theory. I worked my way through a couple of thousand pages of program notes. At one point I even built a harpsichord, taught myself to play the recorder, and explored the lower levels of the Baroque repertoire. Most of it was fun-- in the same way a good hobby is fun. But it was active fun.

It was also an enterprise that required patience. I spent a lot of hours listening to music that didn't make much sense to me. Popular culture is the culture of instant gratification. High culture is a pleasure for people who are willing to listen to a string quartet three or four times before they begin to enjoy it.

We need marketing programs that sell the arts as they really are. If you lure people into the tent without proper preparation, they'll tune you out the moment they encounter sounds and images they find strange and incomprehensible.

If you tell someone they can enjoy the Eroica the first time they hear it, don't be surprised if they go away for good when they discover that isn't always true. Tell them their first hearing is the beginning of a lifelong adventure-- tell them taste must be educated and cultivated-- and some of them may stick around.

Fortunately, the people who run our arts organizations seem to understand the difference between marketing and pandering. The Philadelphia Orchestra has added some "let your hair down" events to its schedule but it hasn't included them in its regular subscription series.

At the annual Halloween concert, the musicians dress up in costumes and the Orchestra plays pieces linked to the Halloween theme. It's a good beginner's concert wrapped up in an entertaining package. It brings new people into the Academy and gives them a peek at the Orchestra's wares. But it doesn't interfere with the Orchestra's regular programming. Experienced listeners can ignore it.

The Orchestra's Yo-Yo Ma cello festival, on the other hand, was a good example of a serious concert that was marketed with flair and imagination. The audience was asked to listen to three unfamiliar works by contemporary American composers and the Orchestra surrounded the main event with educational discussions and entertaining sideshows like the sound of a hundred local cellists playing in the Liberty Place rotunda. The different events added up to a festival that was challenging, informative, and charming.

Karl Middleman's new Classical Symphony has done similar things. Middleman likes to combine his period instrument concerts with lectures, minuet lessons, and social events like pre-concert dinners. Most of the other musical organizations in the region are putting more emphasis on post-concert receptions, informative newsletters, and illuminating discussion sessions.

The Orchestra has also gone after the youth market by offering students big last minute discounts. I stand in line for several minutes almost every time I pick up reviewer's tickets and I can assure you the Student Rush program is working.

The Orchestra isn't attracting most of the students in the city, of course. But it never has. Pay no attention to the fretters who moan that the average age of the Philadelphia Orchestra audience is 55. The high average age reflects a fundamental truth-- the people who join this audience don't drop out when they reach 35. The number of young people who stand in line on Saturday night may look laughable by popular music standards, but most of them will still be buying tickets when they're old enough to collect their senior citizen discounts.

You're always in the minority when you head for the heights. But once people work their way up there, and see what it's like, they tend to stay until they drop.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this article appeared in Seven Arts Magazine, September, 1996.

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