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Classical music can cleanse the soul — unless, of course, we’re distracted

Why do people go to classical music concerts?

This is a question I tend to ponder at this time of the year, usually after reviewing performances of music I know pretty well. Recently, for instance, I attended what is shaping up as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s semi-annual concert of the Brandenburg Concertos. I lucked out and didn’t get offered a gig to review “Messiah” for the zillionth time.

They were sell-outs, of course. And I have to admit that the SPCO cheated — delightfully, I thought — by adding a Mozart string trio that I hadn’t heard performed live since my student days at Indiana University.

Musically speaking, this is the season for comfort food, though any programmer will tell you that the familiar sells through most of the year. We accept this as established fact, yet when you think about it, it ought to be a little mystifying.

If you’re a classical-music enthusiast, you probably have a recording — or several recordings — of the Brandenburgs and at least one of “Messiah” — or at least excerpts on a cheapo record titled “Handel’s Greatest Hits.” Why shell out sometimes premium money to attend a live performance?

We can run down the reasons usually cited for attending arts events, starting with the Aristotelian definition of the purpose of art: To enlighten and entertain. And the psychological one about the human impulse to be part of a collective event — which is the only reason I can think of to explain why people shell out hundreds of dollars for lousy, nosebleed seats at the far end of a football stadium.

Aristotelian definitions notwithstanding, I think many music fans go to live classical concerts to avoid being distracted. How many of us can sit in our living rooms for an hour and listen intently to a recording, resolutely avoiding the urge to read something, say something to a companion or look out the window at the squirrel gnawing on the expensive birdfeeder we just bought?

So we spend a week’s grocery budget on tickets, put on serious clothes, drive to the concert hall, pay 10 bucks for parking and sit quietly and intently as we are reminded that humans can create something that is simultaneously both eternal and ephemeral. Yeah, it cleanses the soul.

Unless our minds wander. This leads me back to pondering why people want to attend concerts of music they know pretty well.

Shouldn’t we devote these undistracted moments to music we don’t know?  I have a hard time, in fact, making sense out unfamiliar music when I’m hearing it on a record. New music should be heard first in the concert hall. Familiar music is best reserved for the home stereo.

So that is my hope for the New Year: More new music in the concert hall. Or more old music that is unfamiliar; there’s plenty of that around, too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on a recording of the Brandenburgs and read a magazine. Happy holidays, or whatever salutation you prefer.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Don Lee on 12/23/2009 - 01:28 pm.

    Here are three reasons I like to attend performances of music I know pretty well:

    I feel better about forking over all that money for tickets and parking when I love at least one piece on the program. (That said, I feel better still when there’s another, unfamiliar piece on the program that looks exciting.)

    When I know the music, I anticipate and savor my favorite passages, I discover previously overlooked nuances and I can better understand how the performer’s interpretation colors a piece.

    Even the best speaker system doesn’t sound nearly as good as the real thing.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/26/2009 - 02:48 pm.

    I, on the other hand, enjoy encountering new works in the concert hall, especially ones without name recognition. After forty years, I’ve heard all the warhorses, and I long for pleasant surprises.

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