Classical concert has become dead-boring, says prominent conductor

30 Sep 2018


Esa-Pekka Salonen recently voiced this statement. He happens to be an internationally acclaimed conductor and composer, and 'one of the most powerful figures in the global classical music industry', according to The Financial Times.


What makes the Maestro so pessimistic about a classical concert?


It is definitely not the artistic level of the performance. Mr. Salonen does not challenge the consensus of professional community that musicians have never been more perfect than they are today.


His idea is much bigger. He is referring to a classical concert as a genre, as a type of event.  His point being, the very ritual of traditional classical concert is becoming boring:


“The concert experience has become predictable… I’m not talking about artistic quality or content of the program, but the ritual itself. It’s quite predictable — and, visually, mostly dead boring, to be totally honest.” (A Manifesto for a 21st-Century Concert. (Drinks Allowed.)


This way, musicians are not the ones who are coming under criticism from Maestro. Actually, he points to the other component of the concert event. It is the way the music is presented to the public.


Today, only a few dispute the fact that public’s tastes have significally shifted due to the digital environment. And that Western society seems not to be doing anything to nurture the former interest in the art form. In his statement, Mr. Salonen proves it based on his vast concert experience and professional life.


What needs to be done?


The next question is: what can the musicians do to improve this situation?


Not much. Assuming, they are already doing their job well. (Is there a way to be better than perfect?)


There is also little they can do beyond their artistic area. Neither they are able to resist global trends like people’s obsession with digital media, nor they can influence the general concert management or even ticket prices which directly affect the attendance. Many factors beyond the stage are beyond of their control.


Still, Esa-Pekka Salonen proposes the way out.  His logic follows that if classical concert ritual is visually dead boring then it should be made visually entertaining. Visual arrangement is the clue.


At large, this approach is quite in accord with the mainstream line of thought today, but Maestro suggests an important specification.


He believes that modern classical concert should be based on digital technologies. And, the more the better. That might provide a new visual set and ambient experience. Thus, make the concert relevant to the way people perceive things in the digital era.


It is a cornerstone of his vision for the future of classical music.


With this, Mr. Salonen claims to be the defender of the new type of classical concert, perhaps a brand new art form. Classical tradition is to undergo a modern development in changing circumstances.  It is no accident that his interview with the New York Times where he addressed these issues is called a Manifesto.


Here are some more excerpts from this interview:


“Mr. Salonen … has lofty ideas about where to take the art form next. He’s a bit of a tech fanatic…. He thinks 360-degree sound systems and virtual reality, which could put audiences in the center of the action and show what he calls “the near-mysterious ways” orchestras work, are the next frontier.


(Technologies give a way to) a neo-Wagnerian idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk. You can write a piece for a symphony orchestra, electronics, holograms, V.R. and 360-sound design, this kind of amalgam of highly trained live musicians mixing with state-of-the-art technology.”


This interview was taken just to mark the world’s premiere of Mr. Salonen’s new composition in the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk. The piece, “Foreign Bodies”, was presented as an interdisciplinary extravaganza multi-sensory event. It was staged at the Lincoln Centre with the efforts of top American artistic forces, New York Philharmonic, Boston Ballet, including advanced  team of engineers and managers. 


Here is the teaser:



How did it go? A few reviews I found on the internet were generally of positive spirit. However, some came with a bit of reservation about alcohol at the venues, and other details.


The strongest, if not sarcastic response was given by “New York Classical Review”:


“A large orchestra is loud! It’s got an extra-large drum kit that takes four people to play!  There’s stuff to look at if you get bored! And a party afterward, with the kind of music you really like!


With its echoes of Strauss and Ravel, of Bernstein and Gershwin, the energetic piece—played indeed mostly at full throttle—was as much a commercial for the symphonic repertoire of the last 120 years as for the band itself.


…the whole event seemed at times like a commercial to sell the coolness of the symphony orchestra to the unconvinced.


Well, it’s easy to make fun. There’s a time and place for everything, and maybe this was the time to make a pitch for the younger demographic that orchestras are so concerned about attracting.”


 And here is quite an enthusiastic review from apparently young listener:


“…the New York Philharmonic really made an effort to appeal to younger audience goers. Drinks were allowed in the hall, instead of intermission there were “breaks”, there was a place to take Instagram photos, Jaap van Zweden buttons were being handed out, I received a reusable grocery bag with the NY Phil logo on it, and there were Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling outside the orchestra section of the hall…


While some of these additions were met sceptically by the typical concert goer, the younger members of the audience seemed enthralled. It is nice to see this sort of effort for a hall that can stiff and formal – while some of the ideas seemed a bit misplaced, hopefully in the future these can be fine-tuned to become regular parts of the concert experience”.


Let’s share in the joy of the listener who received a reusable grocery bag at the symphony. In the end, the goal is accomplished – he bought the ticket to the concert and went home happy.


More important is the question whether this kind of experience is really the future of classical concert in the 21 century.



Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen,







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