This week was a crazy week. My plan was to go to all but one of the Spring for Music concerts here in New York City, but unfortunately I ended up being under the weather for the middle of the week, and was only able to attend the first and last of the concerts. But even just seeing the bookends was enough for me to get a sense of what the festival is all about, and why it is such a wonderful addition to the cultural offerings in New York City.
I've been thinking a lot this week about pressure - in my case, the pressure I put on myself to try to be all things to all people. I have always been like this - an only child overachiever, who thinks that I have to be perfect at everything and loved by everyone or I am a failure. I bring this up because sitting in the audience at Spring for Music, I was noticing how even though we were in Carnegie Hall, in New York City, listening to classical symphonic literature, the normal pretense that often pervades concerts like this seemed absent. There was no pressure to act like a classical music audience and nod to each other politely over the bridges of our noses.
When the concerts began, they almost seemed more like sporting events. Whatever orchestra was playing had a huge "hometown crowd" present in the audience, and they were given colored scarves to wave in the air, while hooting their support for their orchestra. The audience was made up of people of all ages and walks of life, dressed in everything from suits to jeans. People seemed relaxed - there was no sense that anyone needed to act with a specific sense of decorum, or to understand everything that was being played on the first hearing, or to refrain from boisterous shouting during the applause. In just the two concerts I attended, there was a Russian bass who hid behind a podium so he could change into different disguises while he sang, and a concert that contained both a piece that required 5 different conductors and another piece written for solo electric violin. There were no "rules" - just exuberant music making. The pieces certainly weren't always "easy" - the Houston Symphony played all Shostakovich, and the Nashville Symphony played all 20th century American music, including Ives' unfinished 5th symphony, which was very difficult for me - a musician myself - to comprehend and internalize on my first hearing. But with each concert being preceded by an unstuffy explanation of what was about to be played and why it was chosen, and with the environment itself - the warmth and enthusiasm of the conductors and the musicians for the music they were playing, combined with the encouragement for the audience to enjoy themselves with abandon, I personally experienced two very joyous and fulfilling evenings of musical adventure.
So often, what keeps people from enjoying classical music is that they think they won't feel comfortable in the environment, or they think they won't understand the music. And certainly, classical musicians and presenters often take themselves too seriously, and encourage the kind of attitude that only the cultured intellectuals belong in this world. It becomes a vicious circle and keeps ordinary people from discovering what the many genres of so called "serious" music have to offer. But Spring for Music is onto something. They really thought outside the box in terms of marketing, holding blogging and programming competitions via their website before the music making even began. They encouraged these symphonies to bring as many of their hometown fans as possible, giving the orchestras and their regular listeners the opportunity to have a shared experience outside their normal sphere, and enjoy and be inspired by what New York has to offer. They encouraged this all important "come one, come all" idea that is often absent, by making the tickets remarkably affordable and making the concert environment one of unbridled enthusiasm as opposed to quiet thumb twiddling. But the best part is that instead of combining all of this with "classical music's greatest hits" they allowed the audience to still be challenged by presenting works that were very likely new to many of the listeners, but infusing those new works with the absolute passion and commitment required to make them resonate.
This is the big thing - how to make classical music more accessible without dumbing it down or distilling it to it's most basic famous pieces and nothing more. I think Spring for Music has found one answer to that question, and I hope that after their second, successful season, they become a model for more presenters and arts organizations down the road. And I'm not just saying that because they wrote me a check. I already cashed my check - at this point I could say whatever I wanted. And what I want is for people to know that this is a really good idea.
More like this, please.