Had I been living under a rock for the last several months, I might have tuned into this week’s inaugural events under the impression that I had stumbled on some kind rock festival (the kind where they also play John Williams, evidently). And not just because of the panoply of pop royalty present, but rather from the size and enthusiasm of the audience.
Fortunately, the inauguration resembled Woodstock a good deal more than Altamont. The atmosphere was idealistic and communal, but hardly low-key—that rare paradox of passion tempered with commitment.
All in all, it’s remarkable how similar the experience of a political rally can be to that of a rock concert. Both experiences are well-suited to handle crowds of people and monumental emotions, as would appear the classical concert. Save for the happy anomaly like Bernstein’s 1989 “Ode to Freedom” concert in Berlin or that rare venture, the evening-length politico/religious crowd-pleaser (Mahler’s second and Britten’s War Requiem come to mind), I can’t think of an appropriate analogue. And I’m not just thinking of big events, like the Proms. I can think of several large festivals of classical music, but none that reflect the “big ideas” and sense of audience community that characterize both rock and politics.
That’s not to say that this difference characterizes a deficiency. To the contrary, I think that classical music’s limited success in these kinds of mass gatherings owes much to its finest qualities. Put simply, Big Ideas are more often than not also Vague Ideas—their size does not necessarily denote great intricacy. While much mainstream arena-rock is certainly detailed, it’s more the combined sense of “surface details” that colors the music with edge and oomph. In other words, most of the detail is effective as a wash. On the whole classical music seems to be much more concerned with its details and nuances interacting on the molecular level, saying something less monolithic but more specific. So perhaps it’s natural that rock’s more homogenous and non-rhetorical use of detail should be a good fit for the very different demands of the arena.