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.