Barbarians at the Gate: The Orchestra vs. The Audience – Justin Kownacki

At last night's superlative PSO performance, in which conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier's magnificent orchestration of Ravel's Trio made its Pittsburgh debut, I learned a lot about the way an orchestration is created.  But I also discovered some of the barriers that classical music faces if it expects to find a toehold among modern audiences — and one of those barriers is the audience itself.

Tortelier has been constructing this orchestration since the 1980s, which means he's spent at least two decades translating a work intended for three instruments into a piece that can be performed by a full orchestra.  As such, he's solved a lot of problems along the way, and so he spent about 15 minutes before the performance explaining some of his decisions to the audience.  These anecdotes came complete with examples (played by the orchestra), often consisting of a few measures of Ravel's original work, immediately followed by Tortelier's full translation, so the audience could understand how the two works coexist.

Personally, I found this experience to be quite illuminating.  Tortelier offered a brief history of Ravel's original work, included notes on its various themes and the cultural significance of certain musical aspects, and then explained how and why he converted Ravel's relatively simple and elegant solutions into something far more complex.

However, while leaving Heinz Hall at the end of the night, I overheard another trio — two older gentlemen and a woman, walking a few paces behind me — complaining about Tortelier's explanation.  It wasn't that they disagreed with his choices; it's that they resented him explaining it at all.

"I felt like I was back in gradeschool," said one of the men.  "But I liked it when they finally played it."

Considering that Tortelier is essentially one of the world's authorities on Ravel, it's possible that the audience might have been flattered that they were getting a valued peek into the man's creative process.  Instead, they just wanted him to shut up and play.  And that insular attitude is, in my opinion, the greatest hurdle classical music has to clear if it expects to include anyone under the age of 40 in its audience: it has to be open to new ideas — and that includes reaching out to audiences who AREN'T classical music experts.

In addition, I detected a lot of upset clucking and shaking of heads from the older audience members in my section whenever any younger — or perhaps "less cultured" — audience members would clap during the breaks between movements of Grieg's Piano Concerto.  The issue of WHEN it's acceptable to applaud during a PSO performance has been discussed before, but evidently any diversion from the accepted norm will send some members of the audience into a hand-wringing fury.

And so, I wonder: if nothing about the orchestra ever changes, and the experience remains static from generation to generation, how long would it take for the size of the audience to dwindle to a point where the PSO could no longer operate?  Fortunately, the wiser heads behind the scenes at the PSO are too savvy to let that happen.  But every time they make modernizing concessions to non-native classical music listeners, they run the risk of upsetting their longtime constituents.

So how will classical music — and the PSO in particular — find a way to keep both old and new fans happily engaged?

2 thoughts on “Barbarians at the Gate: The Orchestra vs. The Audience – Justin Kownacki”

  • I, for one, greatly appreciated Tortelier’s introduction. Obviously it would be unnecessary for a typical repertoire piece, but for his own transcription of a piece no one knows anyway, it definitely added to the experience.
    That said, I insist that Yan Pascal make it his MO to introduce pieces with longer and longer comedic lectures, to the point where eventually his monologues last longer than the pieces themselves.

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