The Magic of Live Performances

By Barry Kempton

There’s an interesting interview on the BBC website with Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood about classical music concerts.  It’s short, just a little bit provocative and worth reading.  He says that classical music concerts have had the excitement squeezed out of them.  His concern is that formality and rigidity have set in too strongly in the classical world (particularly the orchestra world) and thus spontaneity has been lost – both in the performers and in the audience’s behavior.

I think there is some merit in what he says – at least it’s a challenge which all of us involved in the classical music world should consider seriously.  Those of you who have read previous blog posts know already of Schubert Club Mix, our own “alternative” classical music series, the most recent presentation being piano duo Anderson & Roe at Bedlam Lowertown in St Paul a couple of weeks ago.  We are not alone in our approach – similar less formal classical music presentations are springing up all over the world.

However, the concert I heard yesterday afternoon in The Schubert Club’s Music in the Park Series given by the Danish String Quartet (pictured above) was a reminder that the traditional concert does not have to be synonymous with unexciting.  Yes, it was a quiet, respectful audience, but the reason for the silence was people were listening with complete focus, drawn in by the extraordinary music and musicianship on stage.

They (three Danes and a Norwegian) may not have looked the part of traditional string quartet members, but after brief and charming spoken introductions, they gave performances of string quartets by Carl Nielsen and Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen followed by a set of self-arranged folk music to a silent, captivated audience.  There wasn’t a cough or any spontaneous applause mid-way through a piece, but I put this down to intense listening to what was certainly a performance of both beauty and intensity.  Maybe it is too early to be speaking about highlights of the season, since it’s only October, but they have set the bar very high indeed.

My point?  The first and foremost key to engaging an audience has to be the quality of the music-making.  If it is at that magical level which commands the audience’s focus, then an audience will always respond and the live music experience will be more special than listening to the recording.  I do still believe, however, that it’s important to offer classical music presentations in a variety of venues with a different kinds of ambience and formality; but regardless of venue, performances are likely to be memorable only if the music-making really grabs the audience’s attention.  The future of live music depends on it.