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Classical Resolutions: Christopher O'Riley And The Art Of Listening

Does classical music need fixing? Join the discussion with prominent musicians like pianist Christopher O'Riley by leaving your thoughts in the comments section.

Advocates for and acolytes of classical music proceed with confidence that a more intimate and comprehensive knowledge of great music breeds wider recognition and deeper appreciation. The more we hear, the better we love it. But listening is a skill that requires practice and focus, and elicits examination, consideration and discernment.

In its present state, classical music in the American cultural landscape seems to be ever more marginalized. I propose that getting more people to listen is a matter of those of us involved in the performance and presentation of classical music doing more listening ourselves. We should be putting our ears right to the rails of technology, societal attitudes, professional responsibilities and communal conscience. We in the classical industry are listening neither wisely (nor widely), nor too well.

Take, for instance, the recent loss of the Honolulu Symphony, the oldest orchestra west of the Rockies, in a city with more millionaires per capita than one might imagine. Part of the blame for that failure must lie with upper management, who didn't pick up the phone to respond to a philanthropist who instead donated $30 million to the local cultural foundation instead of the symphony. In order to listen properly, you must first answer the phone.

As horrifying and unconscionable as the loss of a superb orchestra would seem, the loss to the community is even greater, as the lion's share of instrumental instruction throughout the state was the responsibility of the now disenfranchised orchestra musicians, the same men and women who traveled through the state's islands to inspire the next generation of young musicians. And yet, even when the orchestra's fate was not yet made manifest, and one might imagine a hue and cry against the loss of the community's premiere ensemble, comments pouring into the newspaper only pointed up a perceived elitism and exclusivity of the orchestra. "Who needs 'em?" was the overwhelming impression.

Meanwhile, another similarly endangered orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, might fail partially because the musicians of the Motor City crew don't feel that any community service is their responsibility; that their practice time is sacred; and they can't be bothered to get out and serve their community, or prove in any way other than their musical excellence their civic worth and integrity. This ivory-tower attitude is a failure to listen to that portion of the community that wants to be shown, in sincere and substantive ways, why an orchestra is an essential part of the city's life.

Keeping one's ear to the ground, technologically, is essential for the ongoing health and development of classical music in this country. And yet, the access afforded by online sources of music calls into question the monetary value of music as a commodity. There are so many ways to hear music without paying for it, that the resale value has eroded to an alarming degree, not only in classical music, but in popular music as well.

One of the country's biggest major-label rock bands recently ramped up their latest album's post-production schedule because they had an opportunity to have the record release showcased by Starbucks. A minimum of hand-wringing accompanied the decision to basically give away, through important outlets like NPR Music, five of the record's dozen tracks prior to its release.

We have reached the point where consumers have to be really sold on the quality of the whole project before they'll shell out their shekels. And yet, orchestral recordings are exceedingly expensive to produce, and musician union agreements as regards live recording make the prospect of widely distributed recordings as rare as hen's teeth.

But isn't classical music, at least in terms of standard repertoire, a matter of interpretive difference and ingenuity? How can we decide who does the best Beethoven Ninth if we can only hear a handful of recorded performances? Wouldn't orchestras be better served by wider dissemination of their performances, not only on radio, but online? Wouldn't giving it away, just a little bit, be worth the recognition?

Even the uninitiated classical music listener can be encouraged to enlist their intuitive faculties. When presented with various options, we can, by the evidence of our sincerely committed listening, and the ineffable effect on our hearts by a truly great performance, decide who we wish to champion, who we want to hear more from. A New York radio station recently instituted a sort of competition whereby listeners were invited to vote for their favorite performance of a classical warhorse, the winner to be played at the lunchtime hour. This kind of interactivity is good for everybody, but if the variety of performances is not readily available, no one gains.

YouTube boasts a viewership the major networks envy, and the format engenders instantaneous comparison and browsing. Recently, From The Top, in conjunction with YouTube and Carnegie Hall presented such an interactive opportunity called Big Break. Young performers uploaded performances and invited listeners to vote to see who would be given the chance to appear on a family concert at Carnegie's Zankel Hall and a subsequent From the Top taping in New York. One's personal animus against competition shadowing classical music performance to the side, 200,000 hits and 70,000 votes cast said the contest was nothing to sneeze at. And the repertoire was not pablum: the winning contestant, a young Chicago percussionist, Marcelina Suchocka, played the Anders Koppel Marimba Concerto; not exactly standard or readily recognizable repertoire, but made compelling by the kinetic and readily recognizable excitement in her performance.

A talent for listening is often merely an attitude of openness. Sometimes the most avid classical music lovers will focus their tastes so claustrophobically as to shut out anything written after 1911, Bach played on the piano, organ music, etc. Our preferences are by nature personal, but our scope of interest must always remain accepting and experimental, not only in terms of relishing the experience of contemporary composition, but in the embrace of Duke Ellington's adage that "there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind."

We as performers decide what we believe in, what we can confidently and authoritatively prepare and present; the audience must decide what they feel is good or bad based on a honest and instantaneous reckoning based on one's own ears, one's heart.

I was never more encouraged in my own genre-stretching repertoire choices as when I met the venerable Claude Frank (someone who has played more music than most of us will ever hear, and would not be grudged any calcification of his listening habits). Backstage after one of my first recitals of Radiohead arrangements, he said, "I don't know Radiohead from a hole in the head, but I loved the music and I loved the piano playing."

Pianist Christopher O'Riley is the host of classical music program 'From the Top.'

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Christopher O'Riley