Last weekend I went to three concerts. Well, I streamed them online, anyway: Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, a friend’s Piano Diploma graduation recital, and Garrick Olssohn’s solo recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
TV has done wonders for sports, to the extent that unless my team is playing, I’d much rather watch the Super Bowl on TV than at the stadium. Multiple camera angles, color commentary, on-field audio, and slow motion are so compelling that when I’m at a game live, I often find myself texting friends watching on TV to ask for clarification (“did that look like a fumble to you?”).
Much of that magic does actually translate to classical music as well. Beautiful, consumable sound bites that resemble sports highlights have already been quite successful. A much better view that shows you the conductor’s face, brings out key instrumental parts, and shows the soloist's virtuosity and emotion is a good place to start. A more comfortable seat and a reasonably-priced beverage of your choosing help, too. Depending on the hall, your seat, and your home speaker system, you may even be more immersed in the sound at home. You’ll never quite get the subtleties of sound that the artist practiced years to perfect, but you also won’t know what you’re missing. And for now, at least, it’s all free.
And yet, our environment shapes our thoughts and behavior more than of which we can ever be fully conscious. The Berlin Philharmonic gave a dark and haunting performance of the Berio Sinfonia and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Berio performance goes down as one of the piece’s most notable. But when my phone buzzed, I’ll admit that I took it out and looked. The spell was broken. It turns out audiences still need to be told to silence their cell phones after all.
Later, Garrick Olssohn’s Beethoven Sonata, Op. 22 felt so much like a recording (lack of applause and all), that it wasn’t until there were a couple of harmlessly missed notes that I remembered it was live! I greatly enjoyed his playing, especially the Prokofiev that came next, but I couldn’t help but think, “out of everything that I can listen to online — every Beethoven sonata performance from Schnabel to Richter to Sokolov — why this right now?”
In Stephen Hough’s book Rough Ideas, he notes that when there’s too much music, it risks becoming mere “wallpaper” — at best background to our thoughts, and usually to our activities as well. Even in person, it’s exceedingly difficult to keep these concerts special and give them the undivided attention that the music requires to reach its potential.
The most successful experience, for me, was actually my friend’s graduation recital. The “live”-ness was palpable, and my investment in the person helped to keep me engaged for the whole time. As a result, the music, gorgeously played, was able to speak and genuinely move.
Audiences often don’t understand — or at least underestimate — their role in the music-making process. They can understand that bodies in the room make the hall reverberate less and that adrenaline changes the performance as it would inspire a basketball player. But the real effect is more intangible. It’s the knowledge of sharing a journey with someone, of giving a part of yourself to someone that you can sense. Many people are accustomed to the feeling of being watched. Musicians know the feeling of being listened to. They can tell when an audience is bored or when they’re hooked. And this makes the musician listen to their sound just the slightest bit differently, and this listening, does — really does — affect their expression in a meaningful way.
At the risk of going too deep, though, I believe the depth of the effect is even more abstract. Couldn’t you just achieve the same state of flow playing for yourself on stage?
It is true that often we feel we’re playing our best late at night, alone in the dark, when we can lose ourselves, meditate, and introspect. And in that, there is a world that could be enough for many.
But for much great music, composers had other aims. Their art is provocative, it is questioning, it is moving. It is connecting. It wants to beseech, to enrage, and to pacify. It cares. It’s the difference between speaking soothing thoughts to yourself and sharing them with a friend. It’s shouting into your pillow versus going to a rally.
The thing is — the listener is not passive, ever. The listener adds another, vital, layer of interpretation. The composer’s ideas go through the score, through the performer, through the instruments, and finally through the listener. Any of these can and should change the meaning — and in a great work of art, this is not only expected, it is often the whole point. Great art meets listeners as individuals, at different points in their lives, and this deep engagement with the individual is what keeps it from becoming something in the background that we just get used to being there, mere wallpaper.
Part of the reason that live-streamed classical music struggles to make the leap across the screen from performer to listener is just a matter of time — of performers, institutions, and audiences making the adjustment. In a remarkable recent study, a violinist and his audience showed synchronized patterns of brain activity — over video no less.
A few months ago, millennial YouTubers TwoSet Violin streamed a live performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. The audio quality was imperfect, and the playing, while good, wasn’t the Berlin Phil with Janine Jansen (TwoSet's recommended performance, and currently available free). Nonetheless, 40,000 people streamed live – people from all around the world that may never even have heard classical music live before – and most stayed for the entire concerto.
The difference was a natural understanding of the medium. Their interactions with their fans weren't stilted; they were casual and open, without even a hint of a fourth wall. From the live chat – sarcastic *cough*s between movements or applause emojis – you might believe that the audience, too, felt that they were there. These were digital natives performing, by and large, for digital natives.
Sporting events played for in-person fans will never be replaced despite the captivation, education, and excitement of a televised sporting event. Concerts for in-person audiences won’t be replaced either. But one day, perhaps we'll see tech-enabled concerts that offer to classical audiences a game-changing alternative. And perhaps we’ll look back at this current time as the catalyst of a new era of classical music.