Live Classical Music Needs to Try Harder

I started listening to classical music at the same time I started playing the piano. Each fed the other: the more I played the more I wanted to listen, the more I listened the more I wanted to play.

Not long after, I went to see my first live performance, a very charming pianist whose name I forget. There was a Spanish theme, Mompou and Granados, then a trio of Chopin Mazurkas to finish. The setting was intimate (a small chapel), the music was excellent, but it was all a little stifling.

This is not a new observation. As a high art, classical music seems to be treated with such reverence and formality that its live appeal is somewhat diminished for us normal humans, dare I say it, sometimes to a level below listening to a recording at home.

In a previous post, I mentioned listening to Busoni’s Super Carmen in my pants. I can confirm that there is nothing stifling about celebrating joyous music whilst liberated from the tyranny of trousers and free from spirit-suffocating etiquette. This is probably not where the sweet spot for public concerts lies, but maybe it’s closer than some people would like to think. Here, take a look at AndrĂ© Rieu and audience having a whale of a time:

Of course, this is Rieu’s style: a mad technicolour waltz, classical music as popular entertainment (imagine such a thing). Not everything is suited to this treatment, Horowitz in his Russian homecoming for example:

As far as unbridled joy goes, if someone in the audience even perceptibly swayed to Horowitz, they should have been discreetly murdered where they sat. But the vast majority of performances aren’t by legends of Horowitz’s stature, why can’t the rest have a little more fun?

I’m reasonably sure that I don’t know exactly what I think, but I present this anecdote as evidence that something is amiss: I recently saw a pianist play Schubert’s Four Impromptus and, as tradition seems to dictate, no applause was offered in-between. They were all sublime, but the second was on a higher plane. By the time the fourth was finished, the excitement of the second had long-since subsided within me and I was clapping the enthusiastic but vague applause of someone who really wanted to clap eleven minutes earlier. It was a great performance, yet I left disappointed.