WHEN THE FINAL note of a superb performance of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society had finished echoing through Symphony Hall, the respectful silence was broken by the lone voice of a young boy who, sounding appropriately amazed, simply said “Wow!” WCRB’s recording of this singular moment quickly went viral, allowing the entire world to share in the magic of this child’s experience.
The world-wide celebration of his reaction has been nothing short of amazing, but why? Perhaps it is because that seemingly out of place, yet so natural reaction spoke to people who likely think classical music presentation is rigidly formal and reserved for the well-heeled few. Classical music purists like to believe they are protecting this phenomenal art, but their rules of engagement do little to encourage people to enjoy a spectacular performance of music.
A friend of mine, a man who adores all kinds of music but makes his livelihood playing rock songs on the radio, recently attended a chamber music concert at Carnegie Hall. At the end of the first movement of a piano quartet, he was so thrilled, he applauded. The man sitting in front of him turned around and said, “We don’t do that. There’s no applauding between movements.”
That kind of attitude sells classical composers short and makes non-purists hesitate before they choose to pay good money to attend concerts. The classical music business needs to break down the rules and make concert-going a more contemporary experience. This won’t be easy as other than the inclusion of electric lights, little has changed on the classical stage since Mozart’s time. But to be clear, breaking down rules doesn’t mean disrespecting the music, the composers, or the performers. No one is suggesting that audiences sing along with La Bohème like the delighted crowds who attend Billy Joel concerts do with his songs. However, freeing new audiences to experience the beauty and power of classical music in their own way would go a long way to opening the tent and welcoming them in.
As a programmer of classical music on the radio, I have been criticized by purists for playing individual movements of great pieces. They say, for example, that Beethoven’s Fifth was meant to be heard in its entirety. I counter with, “Beethoven’s Fifth wasn’t meant to be heard on the radio at all!” In truth, if classical music radio stations had to rely on music written for this medium, our playlists would be limited to the sounds of silence, and I’m not referring to Simon and Garfunkel.
It is time the classical music business — from performers to programmers to purists — chooses to recognize that we are part of the highly competitive entertainment industry. There has never been a time in recorded history when there were more entertainment choices and we are asking our audiences to invest their precious time and financial resources in our offerings. The good news is that the product we have to share — the music — is so amazing that it will not only survive but thrive as a wider audience of music lovers is welcomed. We need to break down the barriers to entry and connect with listeners and audiences on a visceral and emotional level. While there is always an important role for education to play, let’s leave the intellectual exercises in the classroom and out of the concert venues.
One of my colleagues described that echoing “Wow!” as a battle cry, and I couldn’t agree more. It was a completely natural response, made in the most unlikely of places by a child who was so overcome by the beauty of a performance, it was the only reaction he could have had. Knowing something about Mozart, I like to think that somewhere in a distant world, he smiled when that reaction resounded far beyond the walls of Symphony Hall. The final note of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music is a solitary breath of happiness after an entire piece of sorrow. In a similar way, a simple “Wow!” has left me hopeful for the future of classical music performance.
Anthony Rudel is station manager at WCRB—Classical Radio Boston and author of “Classical Music Top 40,” “Tales from the Opera,” “Imagining Don Giovanni: A novel,” and “Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio.”