Chamber-sized crisis

All kidding aside, our last visit to the 92nd Street Y to hear the Tokyo Quartet and Robert Levin play Beethoven was disturbing in one respect: the age of the audience.  Of course, practically everybody in classical music wrings their collective hands at the age of the audience, rightly or wrongly–Michael likes to joke that the one place a guy will surely have to wait for the bathroom is a classical music concert–but for the Tokyo Quartet the sea of heads was even whiter and balder than usual, and it has been that way for every chamber concert we’ve attended.

The trouble is, nobody we’ve found–certainly not the NEA–collects chamber-music statistics.  But we’ve heard enough anecdotes to suggest that chamber music is in deeper trouble than orchestras or opera companies. Why?  Discussing this at intermission, a friend of ours–a longtime 92Y subscriber–suggested that there’s little individual glitz or glamour for marketers, and that the music is more abstract than even a solo recital (where a cult of personality can figure in), never mind the shock and awe of Turandot or Mahler 8.  Also, when one thinks of classical music as a stuffy fixture of parlor rooms, frilly weddings, and effete snobs, what image comes to mind?  A string quartet.

On the other hand, virtually all the instrumentalists we know love chamber music the most, even more than solo work.  Most new music is, for lack of a better category, chamber music.  And in many ways chamber music is much more amenable than orchestras or opera for experimenting with presentation.  The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is trying this out with its Late Night Rose series, and there’s always (Le) Poisson Rouge here in NYC or The Red Hedgehog in London.

So: is the crisis really deeper for string quartets and piano trios?  Can Chamber Music America–which intriguingly includes jazz–provide some real research?  And of course, what is to be done that’s specific to chamber music?  Should chamber music go back to its hausmusik roots?  Or is a little booze enough to make a Mozart string quartet sound less like wallpaper and more like the living art it should be?

(About the concert, by the way: Robert Levin’s tone in the op. 101 piano sonata was harsh, but that was probably due to the hall; he also took an intriguingly unsentimental, almost dry approach to a piece which we’re more accustomed to hearing as a rapt improvisation.  The op. 102 cello sonata with Levin and Tokyo Quartet cellist Clive Greensmith was spirited, and who can fail to be moved by Beethoven’s op. 132?)

–Amanda and Michael

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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