Rejuvenating contemporary classical music

TALLINN Music Week draws a young crowd. One imagines that they might listen to techno, R&B or jazz in their spare time; they do not seem like the types typically found in a classical concert hall. This year, festival organisers took a risk in featuring Steve Reich, a contemporary classical composer, in their opening concert. Mr Reich, who composes in the minimalist style, is known for pieces such as Clapping Music—an ensemble clapping rhythmically for four minutes. Even die-hard classical music fans can find Mr Reich’s oeuvre hard to digest; younger detractors will be even harder to win over. 

Other contemporary classical composers face similar problems. Though pieces by Mr Reich, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter and other giants of the genre are regularly performed by symphony orchestras, they usually feature in the concert’s brief overture slot, sandwiched between more familiar pieces. Though no concert planner disputes the value of music written after the 1930s—giants of the period include Arnold Schönberg and Dmitry Shostakovich—a performance featuring only contemporary works is unlikely to attract regular concert-goers. Of the 10 most-performed works last year, none were written later than the 1800s; the same is true of the most-performed classical composers, with none living later than the 1800s. The non-classical music audience, of course, won’t consider classical concerts in the first place. 

Yet Mr Reich enjoyed an attentive crowd in Tallinn; chances were they didn’t realise they were listening to contemporary classical music. “People want to hear things that have a concept attached to them,” explains Kristjan Järvi, the Estonian conductor who performed the pieces with his Baltic Sea Philharmonic. Mr Järvi’s idea for the concert, where Mr Reich’s unusually crowd-pleasing interpretation of Radiohead songs formed the centrepiece, was to create an all-round experience of music and light design. The performance took place not in a concert hall but in a former power station now functioning as a creative hub. “Concert hall lighting has all the atmosphere of a dentist’s office,” Mr Järvi says. And, he argues, “traditional classical concerts only appeal to a certain crowd, people who have been introduced to classical music by their parents.” 

He is on to something. To outsiders, classical music seems akin to a masonic rite, an activity that you can only enjoy as a member of a secret brotherhood. If you didn’t grow up attending classical concerts, how do you learn how they work? What’s a movement? When do you applaud? How should you dress? It’s an intimidating proposition, especially when everyone else seems comfortably ensconced. And if the performance features a hard-to-understand contemporary oeuvre, the proposition becomes positively forbidding. 

But what if the focus, as in Mr Järvi’s power station performance, is not exclusively on the music? Richard Wagner, the 19th-century German composer, radically changed the concept of opera by creating what he called Gesamtkunstwerk (a “total work of art”). To Wagner’s mind, acting should not be secondary to the music in operatic performances. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, as displayed in his “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, was hardly a box-office hit. Though it featured a plot as rich as any Shakespearean drama, and acting instructions far beyond the rudimentary posing that had until then been typical in opera productions, the Ring was hardly a box office hit. Having attended the “Ring”, which totals around 15 hours, Peter Tchaikovsky declared: “After the final notes of Götterdämmerung [the final opera] I felt as though I had been released from prison.” 

Yet thanks to his revolutionary Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner still enjoys a loyal following. And even though the five-and-a-half hour Götterdämmerung may not be to everyone’s liking, Wagner’s point still holds true: the concept is bigger than the music. Perhaps the best, or only, way to make contemporary classical music palatable to audiences beyond hard-core fans of four-minute handclaps is to embed it in a Gesamtkunstwerk, which can encompass lighting design and unorthodox performance spaces. Mr Järvi, for his part, has even created a production company to accompany his musical efforts; last autumn he premiered Regular Crisis, a “multi-media cantata” on the topic of recurring global financial crises.

Is there a place for contemporary classical music if the only way to make audiences want to listen to it is to coat it in lighting shows and multimedia productions? There is. Without it, we won’t have the chance to challenge our minds and ears: though we may well decide that Clapping Music is not to our taste, we will have given it a chance. And by giving contemporary composers an opportunity to be performed, we give future generations a sense of what our musical period was about. What classical music—especially the contemporary kind—needs to thrive among 21st-century audiences may not be pre-concert cocktail receptions or other incentives. It may simply need a completely different concert format. Enticing someone to go to the dentist is a losing battle.

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