Gear­ing up for chal­lenges ahead

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­EN­DAR - mark.swed@la­times.com

pan­els sur­vey­ing the state of the field.

The cur­ricu­lum for such sym­po­siums is ex­pected to ask all the press­ing ques­tions. What hor­rors will dis­rup­tive dig­i­tal un­leash next? How can we de­velop new au­di­ences with­out teach­ing mu­sic in schools? Can clas­si­cal mu­sic, that sliver of a sliver of the mod­ern zeit­geist, pos­si­bly mat­ter? Where, ev­ery­one in the busi­ness des­per­ately wants to know, will the next dol­lar come from?

If any­one should be anx­ious, it’s Gra­ham Parker. Last July he was ap­pointed pres­i­dent of the U.S. divi­sion of Universal Mu­sic Classics, which in­cludes such fa­bled clas­si­cal record la­bels as Deutsche Gram­mophon and Decca. The clas­si­cal mar­ket has long been ex­pected to die on the vine. Clas­si­cal buy­ers still want CDs but can’t read­ily find them. To top the charts, a new clas­si­cal re­lease once needed to sell tens of thou­sands. Now a few hun­dred units make for a cov­eted best­seller.

But that doesn’t mean the clas­si­cal mu­sic baby need be thrown out with the the CD bath­wa­ter. A cheer­fully up­beat Parker ended the con­fer­ence rais­ing eye­brows with the claim that in any given month an ex­tra­or­di­nary 30% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion lis­tens to clas­si­cal mu­sic on some de­vice. That trans­lates to 100 mil­lion peo­ple in our coun­try alone! An­other happy num­ber he threw out is that more than 40 mil­lion Amer­i­cans sing in a cho­rus (an es­ti­mate that in­cludes church choirs).

Of course, how you best reach these mil­lions is an­other mat­ter. There are also mil­lions more who don’t know what they are miss­ing. Clas­si­cal mu­sic might just sup­ply the spir­i­tual nour­ish­ment they seek.

Tech­nol­ogy is ever the ele­phant in the room. The his­tory of sharks out to cheat mu­si­cians is long and dis­hon­or­able. To­day it’s Sil­i­con Valley’s abil­ity to re­di­rect prof­its from the creators and pro­duc­ers to the likes of Apple, Ama­zon and Spo­tify. Equally trou­bling is the power of tech­nol­ogy in the form of virtual re­al­ity, holo­grams and things we may not yet know about, to suck the life out of live mu­sic.

Deeply con­nect­ing

Again, such dire pre­dic­tions are noth­ing new in clas­si­cal mu­sic. And yet so much clas­si­cal has been around for so long that it would be hard to get rid of it all. Live per­for­mance has lasted, fur­ther­more, be­cause, as Los An­ge­les Opera head Christo­pher Koelsch said Tues­day, “The hu­man crea­ture craves the com­mu­nal.”

For his part, Sam Bodkin asked what the world needs and rapidly an­swered his own ques­tion: “It needs more sub­stance, beauty and in­ti­macy, and clas­si­cal mu­sic checks all those boxes.”

So Bodkin founded Group­muse, which uses so­cial me­dia to build au­di­ences for in­ti­mate con­certs in homes, break­ing down the bar­rier be­tween lis­tener and per­former. “Peo­ple are look­ing to go places they can’t find in con­tem­po­rary com­mer­cial so­ci­ety,” he said. Beethoven in your living room or grungy base­ment — as far as Bodkin is con­cerned, any place can pro­vide a new­bie’s aha mo­ment.

What is maybe new to our time is the ne­ces­sity for ev­ery­one — the creators, the prac­ti­tion­ers, the pro­duc­ers and the au­di­ence — to be­come de­ter­minedly flex­i­ble. The ways to make and con­sume clas­si­cal mu­sic keep ex­pand­ing. The tech­no­log­i­cal won­ders of the mod­ern world take, but they also give. It is not just good but es­sen­tial to be adapt­able and open. And wary.

The idea of putting faith in the artists was an­other cen­tral point. Luke Ritchie and Toby Cof­fey, who re­spec­tively head dig­i­tal innovation and devel­op­ment de­part­ments for the Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra and the neigh­bor­ing Na­tional Theatre at the South­bank Cen­tre in Lon­don, are work­ing at the cut­ting edge of virtual re­al­ity and did a fairly con­vinc­ing job of making that seem a less scary re­al­ity. Both demon­strated con­cern with en­hanc­ing con­tent and dis­dain for dig­i­tal trick­ery.

Ritchie has the ad­van­tage of the or­ches­tra’s tech­savvy prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor and artis­tic ad­vi­sor EsaPekka Salo­nen. He takes view­ers hooked up to those clumsy VR masks on an il­lu­mi­nat­ing tour of the or­ches­tra that you re­ally could never get any other way. The Na­tional Theatre is more rad­i­cal, with its im­mer­sive sto­ry­telling. An au­di­ence mem­ber can wear VR gog­gles that cre­ate a 360-de­gree spa­tial en­vi­ron­ment that feels com­pletely in­te­rior and dream­like, and at the same time in­ter­act with live ac­tors, re­sult­ing in in­tense sit­u­a­tions, where the the­atri­cal con­fu­sion be­tween re­al­ity and dream state weaken emo­tional de­fenses. The im­pli­ca­tion for opera is ter­ri­fy­ing and thrilling.

Sup­port­ing artists

How­ever en­cour­ag­ing the fact that artists may have a chance to help mold VR tech­nol­ogy, which is still in its in­fancy, that is a fu­ture as yet out of reach. And it is com­ing up against what is a much big­ger trend of re­viv­ing, as Bodkin is do­ing, the phys­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween per­former and au­di­ence.

“The value of dis­cov­ery in an au­di­ence is di­min­ish­ing,” lamented Kristy Ed­munds, ex­ec­u­tive and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Art of Per­for­mance at UCLA. But her so­lu­tion is sim­ply “lis­ten to and sup­port the artist.” She said that her guid­ing prin­ci­ple is some­thing that French di­rec­tor Ari­ane Mnouchkine once told her: “For some­body in the au­di­ence, this will be their first ex­pe­ri­ence with the­ater, and for some­body it will be their last.”

One of the great con­tri­bu­tions of Mnouchkine’s avant-garde com­pany, Le Théâtre du Soleil, has been the un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of space as the place. She took over for­mer mu­ni­tions fac­tory in east­ern Paris where she could cre­ate a uniquely com­mu­nal en­vi­ron­ment for a rev­e­la­tory new rit­u­al­is­tic the­ater. Yu­val Sharon, founder of the Los An­ge­les opera com­pany the In­dus­try, de­scribed how mas­ter­mind­ing op­eras in Union Sta­tion or in lim­ou­sines driv­ing through down­town L.A. of­fered a unique en­gage­ment be­tween city and artists, al­low­ing au­di­ences to find all kinds of un­ex­pected res­o­nances.

Though Sharon may be a paradigm shifter, he dis­tin­guished his ap­proach as a di­rec­tor from that of a dis­rup­tor. “The dic­tates of the work is ev­ery­thing,” he said, and, no, Wag­ner should not be done in Union Sta­tion, al­though his next project will be the cre­ation of a play-opera hy­brid of Brecht’s “Galileo,” with mu­sic by Andy Ak­iho, to be staged in Septem­ber around a bon­fire on the beach in San Pe­dro.

How to im­prove the world with­out making mat­ters worse? Would a holo­graph of Yuja Wang play­ing at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall broad­cast to au­di­ences in Kansas — yes, that was sug­gested — pro­vide peo­ple ac­cess to some­thing they would not oth­er­wise have, or would it make clas­si­cal mu­sic creepy?

Few stu­dents turned up for the con­fer­ence. They were busy with lessons and prac­tic­ing. Their duty is to be­come artists we can trust. Our duty is to cre­ate a world in which they can be trusted. That is not out of the ques­tion.

The news from pic­tureper­fect Mon­tecito is that how­ever great the chal­lenges may be for clas­si­cal mu­sic, the pos­si­bil­i­ties are greater. And there are a lot of peo­ple who care.

Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra

ESA-PEKKA SALO­NEN, prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor and artis­tic ad­vi­sor, leads the Lon­don-based Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra as part of a virtual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence.

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