The surprising future of orchestral music has arrived
I was recently in an ornate orchestral hall built in the late Gilded Age, a setting designed to present an opera or symphonic music to a generation before World War I that craved such performance art. The concert I attended was sold out, with tickets running between $40 and $75.
The place was vibrating with anticipation as the full orchestra with winds, strings, brass, and percussion came on stage, and a 25-voice choir—live acoustic music without conspicuous electronics—filed in behind. The cheers, even before it all began, were glorious.
As I looked around the vast room full of wide smiles, I noted that that average age of the concert goers was late twenty-something. It was a slightly startling sight after having been to so many symphony concerts filled with septuagenarians. Not that there’s anything wrong with old people, but it always seemed to symbolize a dying art to me. Not this time though. This art and this room were alive and youthful and looking to the future.
What followed was two hours of dramatic, emotionally gripping symphonic music. The audience couldn’t wait to cheer and stand at every opportunity. At the intermission not a soul failed to return to his or her assigned seat.
I’ve been around the art-music sector of the music industry for many years, and, for me, this experience was all dreamy, even surreal. My whole life, I’ve heard the same old complaints from classical musicians. We are underfunded. Governments are stingy. The people are not coming to our concerts. The young are only interested in junk music. High art is being crowded out by pop: it’s Schubert vs. Spears, Beethoven vs. Bieber, Mahler vs. Madonna. Our concert halls and symphonies are being massacred by market forces. We need subsidies in order to uphold real music against the pathetic tastes of the middle class.
And so on it goes.
The conventional tactics for dealing with this obvious and old problem are well known. There are labor strikes—you know, those oppressed oboists and violists who are clamoring for their surplus value to be given back by the unnamed exploiter. Donors are being squeezed to make up for what can’t be gained in ticket sales. There are hectoring public campaigns to “support the arts” or feel really guilty. There are marketing gimmicks. There are foundations that provide temporary relief. All the while, musicians grow ever more bitter, resentful, and despairing.
So what made this event different? Many things. The bar was open with wine, beer, and spirits, and people were welcome to bring them to their seats, just like in a movie theater when people watch with soda and popcorn. Yes! Why doesn’t the Kennedy Center allow this? I don’t know. It should.
Also, the fantastic and rightly showy conductor was a young woman—defying the eternal stereotype and addressing another complaint about sexism in the history of orchestral conductors. Another thing: Many members of the audience were dressed in character, sporting funny ears, wigs, and costumes. Character? More on that follows.
Finally, the main event was something completely unexpected. The music was a performance of the soundtrack to the video game Legend of Zelda. The full name: “The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses.” Yes, a video game, a cult classic, one that began in 1989 and now has a beloved heritage and rich tradition.
The game itself is accompanied by a full suite of serious music composed over the course of 25 years by a dozen or so specialists (all well-trained musicians) from Japan. That means there is not a single god-like composer—we like to pretend they were all sui generis—but rather a crowdsourced, thematically arranged series of pieces, each of which is connected to some iteration of this long-running game.
The musicians seemed to love it, and the audience surely did. The exchange relationship between the musical producers and consumers was unlike anything I had experienced. This was not an audience obediently frozen in a stuffy pose waiting for the next assigned time to clap (never, never between movements, dammit!). They were serious, engaged people who were happy to gasp, laugh, cheer, ooh and ahh, and even cry. They did it all, and not on cue.
Above the orchestra floated a large screen that played scenes that matched the music, from its earliest and crudest computer animations to the latest and most dazzling visual art. We even saw the characters grow up in the course of their adventures, which are wonderful, faux-medieval tales of danger, courage, chivalry, and devotion.
My goodness, the whole scene just moved me so much. Here were the gamers all gathered, those “nerds” everyone made fun of during high school and college, and their love of their computer world was being validated and affirmed. But I suspect that even they didn’t understand the implications of all of this. I wanted to stand up and explain: Do you see what you have done here? Your consumers’ interests have brought back large-scale, live performance art—full choir and orchestra—through the most circuitous route one can possibly imagine.
And how different, really, is this from a Rossini opera about a love affair involving barbers, secret letters, singing lessons, stodgy aristocrats made to look silly, and narrow escapes down second-story ladders? Or a Mozart opera involving magic bells and flutes, evil queens, floating boys in an air balloon, and scary dwarfs and dragons? It’s all the same stuff. It’s that beautiful combination of audio and visual art—the sense that something is happening right there in front of you. They didn’t have video games but we do, and good for us!
All of this music could have easily been played on a loudspeaker, but that would have taken away the whole sense that something was being created on the spot. You want to see the violinists moving their bows, the percussionists crashing cymbals together, the bassoonist playing that most implausible of instruments. Adding to the irony is that the music on the Zelda game itself is mostly electronic, especially the choirs and their ethereal voices. Not here. It was human. It was life. We all experienced it in real time—fantasy became reality before our eyes and ears.
I thought back to my days hanging around the school of music, all those students and professors with long faces and grim demeanors, people down on markets, down on society, down on consumers. No one would have believed that he or she had a future in live performance music, filling up the old orchestral halls, by way of fun and wonderful video games. No, it took entrepreneurs and commerce to blaze this trail. It took markets to make this surprise happen.
The world of classical music, in fact, has been pathetically lacking in creative vision for many decades, if not an entire century. In large part, it keeps trying to recreate the past while cursing the present and despairing of the future. Why? Perhaps it is because this sector of life has been ever more removed from the commercial world through state education, subsidies, union control, copyrighted and monopolized musical scores, a culture of the entitled guild. None of it has worked and, needing to pay the rent, there has been a steady stream of young musicians leaving years of conservatory training to enter some other profession like making lattes.
But get outside those establishment circles and you see entirely different things happening. It was in Turkey when I first saw a performance of an all-woman string quartet. During the first part of the evening, they presented a solid program of Schubert, Mozart, and Haydn. Then came the change to leather and boots and an all-electronic/pop program followed by the same players. One can sneer at it as tacky (actually, I don’t think so) but people love it and pay the big bucks for it. Since I saw this performance two years ago, the approach has reemerged at several venues in the United States as well.
My point is not to isolate these two types of art-music presentations and say: This is the future for classically trained musicians. Maybe this is just the beginning. Maybe there are dozens of other approaches yet to be explored. What is needed is some serious entrepreneurship to find the new approaches and test them in the marketplace.
The main feature in success here is an intimate connection between the players and the audience—the same as you see in the pop music world. It’s not about the style. It’s about the economic and artistic relationship between the producers and consumers. It must be a value enhancing proposition for both sides for a true profit to emerge.
Meanwhile, I will never be able to read the quarterly harangue in The New York Times about the death of symphonies without thinking of this wonderful evening. Classical music is not dead. It is just now coming back to life.