Touching the untouchable

Baroque on an electric guitar, late-night club concerts drink in hand, costume-drama Passions. Is nothing sacred any longer in a concert? Three experienced musicians state their views.

The age structure of concert audiences is the cause of some concern. The middle-aged and well-to-do conscientiously take their seats, but the young and casual listeners plump for a more familiar form of entertainment. Even the Zurich Tonhalle, an institution steeped in tradition, has been combining club with classical, and crossover concerts are the rule rather than the exception for orchestras. We Finns are only just getting used to them.

The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last autumn that the soloist at one of its concerts was to be pop artist Ismo Alanko elicited extreme and diametrically opposed reactions in its regular followers. Yet the concert was quickly sold out and the orchestra pulled in new listeners. And the latter hold the trump card in the bid for the most serious of the arts and full halls.

“Reinventing the wheel?”

Minna Pensola has, among other things, been hailed as “the high priestess of the violin”, but this must be due more to her playing than to a need to foster ‘sacred’ values. The CD cover showing her about to hit her quartet colleagues (Meta4) over the head with her fiddle leaves no one in a doubt that she’s a pretty sparky lady. Five years ago she was one of the founders of a concert-in-a-bistro concept (the Klasariklubi) designed to take classical music out among the punters.

“It can’t be right for classical music to be played only at a certain time and a certain place, and if you’re not there, you’ll miss it,” she thought. “A couple of weeks before the first club night I got a call from London. They were introducing the very same idea there and they reckoned it was truly ground-breaking.” Pensola also points out that live bistro music goes a long way back in time. She herself has been a backing player in restaurants. “Did we just reinvent the wheel?” she wonders.

Unlike at conventional concerts, the performances at the Klasariklubi don’t start until late at night. It’s all right for the audience to chat during the music, to sip their wine or quaff their beer without attracting angry glares. The club wants to make listening to music as natural as possible, also for people who, for one reason or another, don’t feel brave enough to attend a concert. Not to change conventions but to provide more opportunities.

“Clutching a beer mug may give the novice concertgoer confidence, because it’s more familiar than sitting in a concert. They know how they’re expected to behave.”

Like the setting, the concert format at the Klasariklubi is informal. The programme is not always announced in advance, the performers get ready in full view of the audience, and they tell about the music before they start to play. Minna Pensola likens the performances to those of a stand-up comedian, for whom contact with the audience is vital.

Although this is a club, it is not more compromised than in a concert. There is no attempt to make it lighter. But performing in a club must feel quite different from, say, a church recital?

“Of course every performance has to be the best you can manage, because the audience wants to experience something special. You can’t make a hash of things at a club, either. The conventional concert structure is, of course, more clear-cut, for the audience, too, whereas at the club it slowly evolves. For me, it’s a sort of role game.”

The Klasariklubi audience is made up of middleaged, well-educated classical-music lovers not short of a euro or two. In other words, the same people as those who frequent the Musiikkitalo on weekdays. They would pay more than ten euros to get in, and they listen to the performances just as they would in a silent, darkened concert hall. Yet the encounter of performer and audience has made the experience more of a communal occasion.

“One listener was delighted to be able to clink tankards with conductor Sakari Oramo after the performance. We are at one with the audience. So is it trying to woo the audience, if a musician gives more of himself?” The highpoints in Minna Pensola’s performing career have nevertheless been far, far removed from the club. The unequalled atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall in London, with all its weight of tradition, is something she has not yet found elsewhere.

“And what more conservative concert hall could there be than the Wigmore? I had a real struggle for them to let me play Bartók, which they considered too modern, and especially performed by a woman in trousers and standing.”

“Musicianship is a craft”

“God no!” exclaims conductor-harpsichordist Anssi Mattila when asked whether he is a purist. People tend to expect early-music specialists to defend holy rites and seek a one-and-only truth, but for him, musicianship is above all craftsmanship, artistry. He even shuns the word ‘art’ – a word charged with something greater and more unfathomable than what it originally meant: know-how, skill, technique. Concerts are made by human hand and rehearsals are hard work. “I’m not saying there isn’t an invisible world, and there is something mystical about the invisible in music. But you can’t make this mystery in a concert; it either happens or it doesn’t.”

According to Mattila, keeping strictly to the notes on the page and honouring the performing conventions are very debatable. He has written many articles about musicianship in which he questions the sanctity of the composer and the whole performing context. “Instead of being a disposable commodity, music has become an artefact, the composer an errand boy to a prince of the church instead of a craftsman, and ultimately a tipsy grasshopper leaping after grants. The craft aspect of the musician and composer has got forgotten in performance as well.”

“People were human in the Baroque era, too. Bach knocked back his ale and approached his work as a craft that had nothing sacred about it. Myths of geniuses and heroes, golden sections… complete rot, but for some reason it’s nevertheless impossible to explain why it moves us so profoundly. Take the Passions, for example.” The great Bach Passions invariably fill churches, so that any talk of dwindling audiences or the dumbing down of music can in this respect be forgotten. People are prepared to sit through choral works lasting several hours. Mattila sees no need for extra drama and acting in performances of the Passions. He, too, has been asked to appear in Baroque costume. “There’s no need to prance around in a cape. The music itself is so great it’s like a music video.”

The bulk of Baroque music was designed for entertainment and played in taverns, and people were not silent while it was going on. Indeed, Mattila shakes his head at the contemporary concert culture in which “the audience sit in silence in the dark and are afraid their rumbling tummies will disturb their neighbours”. The whole convention is, he points out, fairly new, and possibly dates from the time when the genteel middle classes took the place of the rowdy aristocracy and adopted what they imagined to be sophisticated behaviour. The still prevalent notion that classical music is for the elite and other kinds of music for the masses also springs from those days.

“And classical music is nowadays played at stations and shopping centres in the evenings to keep the hoodies away.”

Mattila also plays the electric guitar and digs Jimi Hendrix, and he has no problem performing a Bach Fantasia on an electric guitar. The organiser of all kinds of events in the early days of the Avanti! orchestra specialising in contemporary music, Mattila aims in his performances at diversity and, from time to time, at crossing generic boundaries.

“I’ve done all sorts of concerts, some of them experimental, but there are times when I just want to listen to music in peace and quiet.”

“Cheap tricks to woo audiences”

Ralf Gothóni is one of Finland’s most highly-acclaimed musicians – a pianist and conductor with a global reputation whose outspoken comments on the state of music are the subject of debate from time to time. His frank opinions on education policy, musical culture and even worldview have divided already discordant musical circles into two camps. Gothóni has even come to be regarded as a musical conservative loath to move with the world. Elsewhere, he subscribes to the good, traditional values.

Crossover events and concerts seasoned with extraneous tricks seem to him to be nothing more than cheap attempts to woo audiences; they lead nowhere and are not the way to rescue music. Yet he does not consider himself conservative.

“The fact that you don’t like crossover and tricks doesn’t mean you’re conservative, because there’s nothing new in them. The content does not change, however you package it. And only too often, performers nowadays are just narcissists out to attract media attention.

The concert as such is not, for Ralf Gothóni, particularly sacred, because the institution does not in itself sanctify anything; there is, however, something mystical and unfathomable in the moments filled with music. The sensitivity and the attempt to grasp the moment to which the musician aspires in every concert is lost if he resorts to cheap, facile tricks to sustain the interest of people who seldom go to concerts.

“The more delicate and tranquil the music performed is, the more I notice coughs in the audience. In this noisy day and age, it’s difficult to stop and listen to oneself and to calm down in a concert. Concentrating has, I suppose, become too onerous.”

Despite his critical comments about audiences, it is not, according to Gothóni, solely the audience’s fault if the music does not speak to it. He lists many reasons. The listener at a concert wants to experience something – call it understanding the music. If he fails to do so, he becomes indifferent and bored. Today’s widespread ignorance is partly the fault of the school system, which has reduced the teaching of music to a minimum. Gothóni draws a parallel with literature: instead of developing their own imagination by reading a novel, people buy it in fast-food format, as a pre-packed Hollywood DVD.

“Really and truly, there is no dead tradition except in the mind. To every single child, Beethoven’s Fifth is new and contemporary music the first time he hears it − if he gets to hear it, that is…”

For decades now, Ralf Gothóni has often talked about the works to be performed at concerts or stayed on afterwards to discuss them with members of the audience. This brings the artist closer to the audience and may make the concert more of a shared experience. “At a concert, the artist presents his view of the music, and of life in fact, for the audience to appraise. Behind each concert is the work of a lifetime. The performer has to try to achieve a level at which the listener can naturally understand. If all is successful, a very special and inexplicable energy field will be established, of the music and the souls in touch with it.”

Introducing light music into concerts has, he claims, done music as a whole a disservice, but he believes the craze has already gone out of fashion. From his colleagues he hears only irritated comments about concerts jazzed up with elements of show.

So what about attempts like the Klasariklubi to change the performing conventions? Is it easier to access an audience by performing in a club?

“Sure, I’ve been involved in this, too, but it would be childish to imagine that performing in a bistro is the ultimate solution. Musicians’ primary mission is to maintain a high standard and to trust the power of our finest cultural achievements to speak to people’s souls.”


The article was first published in Finnish Music Quarterly 1/2013.