Bringing Back the Classical Craze!

By Nicholas Wan

As an experience, attending a classical music concert these days is about the furthest thing from actually being in a “concert”. You can expect to sit in the seats more often than you are out of them and no one ever stands up during the performance. In fact, if you make the bold decision to get up while the musicians are still playing, you will likely invite cold, disapproving stares from everyone in the room. No one would probably say anything however, because silence is that important to the concert decorum. In the unwritten rules of concert etiquette the audience is bound to remain absolutely quiet until the end of each piece (and not just the movement, so help you if you clap in between movements!) whereupon enthusiastic yet polite clapping ensues.

DSC_0353When did it become the norm to listen in such solemn reception, to repress all that excitement we feel inside when the music stirs us? Often I hear people pining for the good old days, but less often do we imagine that those days were louder, more boisterous, and more electrifying than the scenes of today! This is the atmosphere described in historian Joseph Horowitz’s book Moral Fire that was published last year. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, classical music had not yet been condensed to the niche it now occupies. Large crowds, young and old, gathered in the concert halls to hear their favorite classical pieces and opera singers. But they did not come just to hear the music. They came to revel in it, and to celebrate their love for it with screams and banners streaming across the orchestra pits! People jumped out of their seats as if wanting to join the musicians on stage and lose themselves to that world. The old days knew what it was like to appreciate the art. For something like music, there can be no revering without reveling, or devotion without emotion.

The directors of the Oyster Bay Music Festival recognized that a change was needed in how we approach classical music. It was time to make the genre cool again and to do this they needed to shed its stuffy image.

In an effort to bring a new direction to the experience the festival included numerous events that got the audience members involved and encouraged them to finally get out of their seats. After all, musicians appreciate strong audience reactions. As singer Stephanie Weiss notes, “I love performing for an audience because I love the feedback, it’s so helpful”.

On one day, the group took to a children’s educational arts and crafts center to play for an audience of young kids and their parents. The event focused on encouraging the kids to participate by turning the performance into a guessing game. Some of the younger musicians would act out charades of the title or theme of the pieces they were performing, such as swans for the theme from “Swan Lake”, and had the audience make their guesses. Not only did these spur younger audience members to become engaged in the music, but the relating of the pieces to animals or objects taught them to understand music’s symbolism and emotional nature as well. The flower-themed piece was flighty and light in tone (the kids loved this one), while the piece representing a frog was heavier and punctuated (the excellent performance very nearly scared away one of the young girls in the front row).


For their next recital, the troupe migrated to a nearby cafe. The venue was perfect for what the group wanted to achieve: a casual and intimate atmosphere that might allow patrons to converse or move around while the music was playing. A piano had been moved into the dining area and looked almost like a scene from an old ragtime bar. The musicians lounged around in the back room to eat their lunches and watch the younger ones horse around (some chose to take a quick nap instead after a long day of performing). Meanwhile, each one would take a turn next to the piano to sing or play a piece to entertain the cafe’s guests. For the most part, it was as close to a return to the old days as I had ever experienced. It was the first time, personally, that I watched classical musicians perform in a casual space (outside of subway stations and city streets). It was a wonderful feeling to see them let loose and be at ease. And it was a deep contrast to the stiff code of demeanor they normally adhered to in concert halls. I remember an instance where one singer made a slight blunder in the beginning of her piece. What might have been an embarrassing moment in a silent concert hall passed along smoothly when the audience members in the cafe joined in to finish it with her!

Unfortunately, it also seems the customs of our times have set in quite heavily. Despite the lively setting that was cultivated, a few guests still preferred silence during performances and the crowd slowly settled into a respectful quietness once again. Whether this was out of desire to concentrate their attentions fully on the music or simply an adherence to habit, it became clear that there is a difficulty in having casual and formal approaches existing together. While one part of the audience may find the new (or rather, old) interactive experience appealing, if the other part dissents then the energy of the crowd inevitably becomes compromised.

DSC_0552Nevertheless, any worthwhile ambition takes patience and small steps. Among the unorthodox venues the group performed in were cafes, colonial houses/museums, and even the Oyster Bay BMW dealership. These events were a good first step to making the turnaround to livelier concerts because the novelty of these environments inspires audiences to forgo formal conduct and just have fun with the music. Although I had not attended it myself, the festival directors related to me that this very thing happened at one of their last events: a vegetable orchestra workshop hosted by instrument maker Dale Strukenbruck! People streamed back and forth, between the workshop outside where Mr. Strukenbruck taught guests how to carve their own instruments from vegetables and the concert performance happening inside the venue. The event perfectly encapsulated the interactive experience the festival means to promote, where the music became something that livened up the day and got people on their feet to enjoy.

The festival directors and its student participants aim high in working towards reversing a paradigm that has long stood.

A more animated appreciation for classical music is something I could fully stand behind and I am sure that groups dedicated to this vision, like this one, will persist in making it a reality. On getting a community excited about music, co-director Sarah Adams believes “it’s an idea waiting to happen… I can feel from last year to this year that it’s building energy”. Already I have seen the roots of their fervor take hold, especially in the younger generation. My lasting memory of the festival is a simple image, but striking in its promise. It is that of a young child watching another boy of the same age (10 year old Jason Li) performing a concerto on the piano. Note by note, I could see the young boy become more excited. And at the climax of the piece, the boy’s fingers began to tap furiously across his lap as he imagined them to be the performer’s fingers as they flew across the keys. It’s not exactly the same as people leaping out of their seats and screaming in excitement, but it’s a hopeful start.

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