Last week I stumbled upon a blog post titled "Shakespeare's Relevance*." The author, Amy Wratchford, gives ideas on how Shakespeare can be presented in today's society and still be relevant. The post has just as much relevance for the art music world as it does for the theatre.
Her first point is "about the need to adapt or translate Shakespeare’s work to make it accessible and relevant." She shares anecdotal stories about students - grade schoolers - enjoying Shakespeare in its original language - no translation needed.
Musicians can take this example when giving performances, and this point deserves more thought. But what I'd like to focus on now is Amy's second point: that the theatre-going experience has been made too sacred.
Stephen Hough just wrote about how Franz Liszt was a forbearer in bringing the lights down during recitals, leaving the audience (literally and sometimes metaphorically) in the dark - a tradition we've continued to this day. Alex Ross has written about the history of applause. (Mr Hough has a post about this, too.) Most of us have seen the scenes from Amadeus where the audience is more raucous than any of today's classical music audiences.
It's beyond my scope here to write about how classical music was transformed from an engaging experience to something that needs to be "absorbed" esoterically. It didn't happen overnight, and reverting back to old ways won't, either, but I believe it's possible and necessary. Perhaps it's as easy as changing the audience's experience, allowing them to "loosen up" and applaud between movements, or after a particularly challenging cadenza. Or leaving the house lights up so they can follow along with program notes or lyrics.
There is a lot of talk about the death of classical music, and just as many ways that it can be "improved" or "reinvented." One of my fears is that by trying to reach out to an audience that the music will be "dumbed-down." Amy writes:
This is what makes us unique in the spectrum of entertainment: our ability as creators of theatre to connect with our audience, live and in the flesh, with stories that challenge and comfort; that get under our skin and make us feel.
I say that this isn't the realm of Shakespeare alone, but of classical music and all arts. I believe we can reach out to students and audience members and challenge them, and not lessen the experience. Art is supposed to be challenging. Audiences need more connection to the music they're hearing, but engagement is more than showing a PowerPoint or video during a performance. It's more than writing accessible program notes or singing in English.
Day in and day out, we're inundated with sounds: at the mall, in the car, at home, even on the street corner. Music is more a part of our daily lives than at any other point in history. Yet we expect people to devote two hours of their day to pure listening, sitting quietly, and politely applauding at the end of a piece. This has its place, but it doesn't have to be the steadfast rule.
We don't need to lower our standards to get classical music to a wider audience, but we do need to work harder to fit it into our modern society. Let's start by treating the audience like the intelligent individuals they are, and give them the opportunity to show their delight (or displeasure) when the music moves them to.
*I can't remember who tweeted this article, so I can't give her credit, but I give her a hearty thank you!