Playing Them Like They Used To

I didn’t realize it, but until last week’s Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performance at Temple Israel here in Minneapolis, I hadn’t been to a normal classical music concert—i.e., by a generalist professional classical music group in a non-university setting—for at least a year. With this newly refreshed perspective on the matter, I have a few observations to make:

First, where are the Gen-Xers? The stereotype, it turns out, is 99% true: An indisputable majority of the SPCO’s consumers were senior citizens. I was genuinely surprised by the extent to which this well-trod cliché was indeed borne out. Running a distant second, however, were folks of my own vintage, Gen-Y dorks who had come to get their fix of Ravel, Beethoven, and renegade Ermenegildo Zegna model Matthias Pintscher. Conspicuously absent were listeners age 35-55. I guess they were all doing stuff with their kids or whatever.

Second, and more encouragingly, the program’s newest piece, Pintscher’s Songs from Solomon’s Garden, was entirely well received. The piece (which you hardly need me to tell you is a setting from the Song of Songs) is not especially radical, but it sounds like it is; the listenership on the whole seemed very respectful if not downright affectionate toward it. Pintscher, whose music I first heard several years ago at a MusicNOW concert in Chicago, has a kung fu grip on a certain kind of continental large-chamber-ensemble sound-world, but unlike his contemporary Enno Poppe, for instance, he seems happy to leverage these techniques toward experientially normative, well-behaved pieces. He’s also a credible conductor, apparently. In any case, whether due to his haircut, his compositional chops, or his exuberant manner at the podium, the crowd just ate him up with a spoon. This is grounds for optimism: People may not be immune to the schmooze, but neither are they infants, and they won’t simply put their fingers in their ears when they hear an unusual sound. This should go without saying, but it was nice to witness confirmation.

Third, the SPCO is a pretty sound ensemble, and even though I disagree with many of their programming decisions, what they do is ultimately worthwhile. It’s not, as I sometimes worry, a form of charity to attend mainstream classical music concerts; it’s not just eat-your-vegetables fronting to assert that groups like the SPCO really do provide a valuable service. The question of whether one should avail oneself of that service out of guilt, out of the fear that someday one’s children might ask, “Where were you, Daddy, when the SPCO went bankrupt?”, is made pretty inconsequential by the bona fide epiphanies that a live performance of Beethoven, Ravel, and (why not) Pintscher can afford. This, too, should go without saying: The fact that it doesn’t should tell you quite a bit about the state of classical and contemporary music in America.

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