My review of the Ecstatic Music Festival opening night is on Bachtrack. For the sake of journalistic objectivity, and their mission to attract more listeners to classical music, I kept it pretty neutral. But here’s more on how I really felt.
Before I offer criticisms, let me say that I did not think the music was bad. I was head bopping along with everyone else. I wanted to sit more comfortably with a drink in my hand.
But what I missed, is what I ordinarily seek in the concert hall: complexity. All the songs were about 3-5 minutes long, and followed the standard pop format of verse-chorus-bridge. The concert paired Jherek Bischoff with the Wordless Music Orchestra, and they soldiered on enthusiastically, but because they were amplified, the same could have been accomplished by a decent Casio. In fact, putting pop stars in front of an orchestra reminded me of old-fashioned pops concerts of show-tunes and gaffs. (Here’s the Boston Pops playing “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) This is the new classical music?
Bischoff’s branch of contemporary classical music is sometimes described as post-Reichian, composers who explored permutations of tonality rather than the “challenging” sound world of atonality. Reich is an interesting and compelling composer, and you heard plenty of him in Bischoff. Compare the first track on Bischoff’s myspace page (which I somehow can’t embed) with Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973):
Hey, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but the big difference is that Reich develops his ideas for a full 15 minutes. There’s a sense of form. Bischoff’s songs, like all pop songs, repeat an idea or two for a couple of minutes, and are over when someone turns down the radio dial. I have nothing against shortness! Great things happen in small forms. But I don’t know how anyone who has listened to classical music can listen to this and say that both forms are setting out to accomplish the same things. Bischoff entertains me in 3-5 minute bursts. Reich creates a world.
All that said, there were a ton of non-musical elements to the performance that classical musicians should start emulating right now. When a classical superstar takes the stage, their body language and facial expression tell you that you are in the presence of greatness – great music performed by someone who is undoubtedly great. It’s how we’re trained. Those of us who felt as students like a mouse at the foot of a great mountain of Beethoven can turn out to be mousy performers, and our teachers will scold us to “take the stage” and inspire confidence before we even sound a note. True. But a performance that promotes the godlike-ness of classical music and its acolytes does nothing to help the audience relate.
But before these Ecstatic singers sang, something about them said “I have something really personal to tell you, and I need to tell it to you.” I’m thinking of Mirah and Carla Bozulich who smiled, made eye contact, focused themselves, and drew the audience right in. There was no diva sweep or body gestures that made you feel like they were great and you were not. All the performers somehow seemed like people you could talk to. Maybe it had something to do with their funky and more casual dress (though still in concert blacks), but I think it was more in stage demeanor and how they interacted with each other on stage.
If it’s a given that classical music will always be chasing other markets – whether through old-fashioned or new-fangled pops concerts – let them take these elements and apply them to interesting music. That would be the best of both worlds.