Close Listening: Classical music in a jazz-club space
The New Yorker | By Alex Ross
In November, the National Endowment for the Arts released the latest installment of its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which has been appearing every five years since 1982. Most people might be unable to imagine a duller document, but for those working in the arts—not least those working in classical music—it was as unputdownable as anything by Stephen King. The survey, whose results have been further refined in a report by the League of American Orchestras, indicates that the number of people who venture out to classical performances in a given year has been declining for almost three decades, and that such people are getting steadily older. Further, each new generation participates less than the one that came before it, and every generation—from Kurt Cobain’s X to Tom Brokaw’s Greatest—gives less of a hoot than it did when the previous survey was made, in 2002.
The keep-you-up-all-night item is a graph in the League of American Orchestras report demonstrating that, in the past, several generations experienced a spike in participation as they got older. That pattern led many music professionals to take the sanguine view that a taste for classical music is simply acquired as time goes by. Yet Generation X, which is now entering middle age (as my own joints tell me), shows no sign of chucking its Pixies records in favor of Prokofiev. This group actually attended concerts more often when the first Bush was President. If the Gen X line in the graph keeps plunging, it’s hard to imagine how most classical-music institutions will survive in their current form.
Before everyone jumps off the Matterhorn singing “Das Lied von der Erde,” I should point out a few nuggets of good news. More classical music is being consumed on the Internet than anyone suspected: forty million Americans have apparently sampled a bit of Bach or Brahms online. Hispanic-Americans are one demographic group whose attendance has crept up. Amateur music-making has increased. And—this is encouraging only in a philosophical sense—classical music is hardly alone in watching its claim on the public dwindle. Jazz, musical plays, nonmusical plays, and movies have all fallen off since 1982. Sporting events have suffered the biggest drop: thirty-six per cent. Essentially, any activity that requires us to travel to a venue, take a seat, and watch people performing in some disciplined fashion is not as popular as it used to be. We’d rather be at home, plopped in front of our “glowing rectangles,” to quote The Onion. We do get up occasionally to work off the fat, which explains why exercise is on the rise.
Despite the dire trends, the classical audience remains reasonably healthy. Although a smaller portion of the population is heading out to concerts, those who do go are going more often: orchestras reported a slight rise in total attendance between 2003 and 2007. The challenge is to bring younger generations into this shrinking but strongly committed cohort. Marketing will not be enough; a deeper transformation is required. There’s a growing feeling in the classical business that the customary way of presenting music must evolve if new devotees are to join the ranks. But how? Can you refresh the ritual while remaining true to the music?
In 2008, Justin Kantor and David Handler, two classical musicians in their late twenties, opened a club called (Le) Poisson Rouge, on the site of the storied old Village Gate, on Bleecker Street. They had the idea that classical music would be best served not in the standard configuration—what Handler has called the “preacher-and-congregation seating arrangement” of the standard hall—but in a jazz-club setting, with patrons seated at tables, waiters serving food and drink, and performers talking about their work. Kantor and Handler were hardly the first to make such a move, but they have done so in a stylish and attention-getting way.
I’ve dropped by (Le) Poisson Rouge several times in recent weeks, wondering whether it represents the classical future. Certainly, it’s a different experience, requiring an adjustment of familiar decorum. Last month, the violinist Hilary Hahn played a short Bach program at the club, and, just as she launched into the majestically doleful Chaconne in D Minor, a plate of nachos arrived at my table. It seemed a sacrilege to eat anything during such a work, least of all nachos. I remembered, though, that for some years Bach ran a weekly concert series at Zimmermann’s Coffee House, in Leipzig—a university establishment that was surely more like (Le) Poisson Rouge than like Carnegie Hall in atmosphere. So, in tribute to Bach, I endeavored to silently munch one or two nachos during the D-major middle section of the Chaconne. With the eerie turn back to the minor, however, I let them get cold.
There’s a certain amount of background noise at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Glasses clink, chairs creak, plates are dropped in the kitchen. But the audience is notably quieter than the average subscription crowd, which habitually coughs, rustles, reads, and snores through concerts. The pianist Jonathan Biss told me that the club’s patrons were “the most focussed audience that I’ve played for in New York.” The room encourages close attention in ways that the standard concert hall does not: a spotlight shines on the performers, the listeners are thrown into darkness, and there’s remarkably little space between you and the music. At Carnegie or Avery Fisher, house lighting trains attention on the crowd, creating innumerable opportunities for distraction.
Several nights later, the young Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, a player of uncommon sensitivity, presented an unconventional, almost free-associative program in which he mused on connections between poetry and music. After playing Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso and two of the composer’s Songs Without Words, Barnatan ceded the stage to the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and the guitarist Marco Cappelli, who gave a haunting rendition of John Dowland’s 1610 song “In Darkness Let Me Dwell.” Then, without a break, Barnatan launched into Thomas Adès’s “Darknesse Visible,” which deconstructs Dowland’s music in rapt slow motion. A diaphanous song by Gregory Spears and Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” ended the recital proper. Afterward, Controllar, an Amsterdam-based electronic duo, performed a set of engagingly twitchy art-pop songs, which at first seemed a violent stylistic swerve. But Controllar’s final number, “Eliot,” clarified the connection: Anat Spiegel achingly sang lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” (“Dance, dance / Like a dancing bear”) while Thomas Myrmel conjured up gritty grooves with a video-game controller. Such juxtapositions are the trademark of the alternative impresario Ronen Givony, who first drew notice in 2006 with the “Wordless Music” series, and who now books for the club.
(Le) Poisson Rouge is not an ideal space. The sound is dry: at Barnatan’s concert, a few soft passages that would have floated to the back of a naturally resonant hall were almost inaudible. Also, the programming is erratic. On many nights, the effort to mix genres yields bracing results: at a concert organized by Orange Mountain Music, Philip Glass’s eclectic boutique record label, the guitarist and composer Joel Harrison led an exuberant session of what he called “African-Appalachian jazz,” trading fast-fingered patterns with the Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso and the banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka. Sometimes, though, (Le) Poisson Rouge crosses over into musical purgatory, as when the Carpe Diem Quartet, a self-described “classical string quartet that rocks,” played, among other things, the theme from “The Simpsons.” And the smallish crowd that materialized for Barnatan’s brilliant recital showed that (Le) Poisson Rouge has no magic elixir when it comes to attracting an audience.
Still, the club has set in motion a brave experiment, from which mainstream organizations have much to learn. You can’t match the intimacy of such a space in a large venue, but a few scenic changes might make the concert hall a more alluring, more deeply musical place: you could move the program notes online, have an articulate spokesperson comment on each piece, bring down the houselights, and put the spotlight on the musicians, where it belongs. It’s worth a try, because the old model may be slowly killing the music.
A version of this article was published in the Feburary 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker and is available online here.