How to have a good first concert experience.

Parker Perry recently published a piece in the Twinsburg Bulletin about his experience attending a Cleveland Orchestra concert (he doesn’t specify which one, but based upon contextual clues, my guess is that he attended this one). He paints himself as a classical neophyte, and he’s college age, so he’s basically the exact kind of person that the Cleveland Orchestra is shooting for with their new pricing programs. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a great time. The sum of his article, so far as I can tell, is basically thus:

Judging by the rest of the audience, I had just witnessed three or four masterpieces… I had trouble enjoying myself. My brother did too. Perhaps me and my bro are just uncultured, southern swine. More likely it was just not for us (and by extension a lot of people in my age range)…. I have a hard time believing that the Cleveland Orchestra will have a lot of success pulling people my age and younger to Severance Hall a second time.

Looking at the program for that particular concert, I’d have to agree that this music isn’t for him… Or for even the average concert goer, for that matter. An obscure, discarded movement by Mahler? One of his first song cycles, which found more success when embedded in his symphonies than on its own? A Schoenberg transcription of a Brahms chamber piece? This is an interesting program, and a good choice for the erudite subscriber base that the Cleveland Orchestra draws from. However, this program is essentially a curiosity, and I would contend the notion that there was even a single masterpiece on display that evening. What a strange concert to chose for a first experience.

Did Mr. Perry know what he was getting himself into? When most people decide to go to a concert, you’ll hear them say things like “I’m going to go hear Tchaikovsky!” They pick the concert based on what music they want to hear. Given the fact that the repertoire of a group like the Cleveland Orchestra spans some 400 years, and dozens of different cultural and ethnic groups, picking any random concert to go to can be a pretty risky proposition. A symphony orchestra is kind of like a movie theater in this way – most experiences that it offers share many characteristics, but when you go can determine whether you see Arnold Schwarzenneger, or Meryl Streep. Given Mr. Perry’s lack of enthusiasm for the music being played, it doesn’t look like he took the time to figure out which music he thought he’d like.

Now I don’t think that the audience has to do its homework – I don’t think that it’s necessary to know the historical significance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony to appreciate the burbling scherzo, or the devastating funeral march. But if you’re hoping to see trombones, you’re going to be disappointed, because there are none! It is the responsibility of the concert goer to form his or her own expectations. Before we buy a book, we read the jacket to see if it will interest us. Before we see a movie, we watch the trailer, or at least find out who is starring in it. If you sit down with a book hoping to read a fantasy novel about dragons and sorcery, and wind up with a biography of Abraham Lincoln, of course you’re going to be disappointed, regardless of whether you have an interest in history.

“Hey, wanna go get a bite at this restaurant across town?””Maybe. What kind of food is it?” “No idea. Let’s hope it’s not sushi, I hate raw fish!”

How can you avoid Mr. Perry’s fate? Any of the actions below, aside from the pre-concert lecture are guaranteed to take less than ten minutes.

  • Many orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra included, posts their program notes on-line at least a week in advance on their website. In addition to giving you some basic historical information, many program notes describe the music, so you won’t be surprised when Sibelius’ 7th Symphony ends after only one movement!
  • The Cleveland Orchestra presented a pre-concert talk on the music specifically designed to introduce people to the music they’d be hearing that evening. This tactic is becoming more and more popular across America, because it allows the new listener to point their ears towards specific things. One student of mine who has become a regular concert goer credits just this small level of guidance with making her listening experience much more enjoyable.
  • Find a YouTube recording and skim it! I was able to find recordings of each of the pieces of music from Mr. Perry’s concert experience in under 30 seconds. If you don’t like what you hear, pick another concert.
  • Perform a Google search to find out just a little bit about the music. Do you absolutely have to have clarinets? Google will tell you that you’re better off not going to hear Bach. Again, it took me less than 30 seconds on Google to find relevant information on each of the pieces from Mr. Perry’s concert.

All of these actions can contribute both to the discernment process of which concert you pick, and to your ability to have a good time when you get there – because you’ll have something to look forward to. If you don’t take a moment to form your own expectations, then you won’t really have anything to get excited about. It’s my guess that if Mr. Perry had done even one of these things, he would’ve stood a better chance of enjoying himself.


One thought on “How to have a good first concert experience.

  1. Pingback: Why is Classical Music Difficult to Listen to? | Dana Huyge

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