Tuesday, March 6, 2012

O contempora! O mores!

Our family made our yearly hajj to one of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's family concerts this past Sunday. These are family friendly, one-hour affairs and many of them have been quite good. It's a rite of passage in our home: you get to start coming along when you turn four.

Sunday's event was advertised as a Beethoven-fest with special emphasis on Symphony No. 5. But, alas, someone invited Ron Burgundy.

Actually, they invited Ron Burgundy and two of his too-cool-for-school buddies. PROJECT Trio (TM) consists of three guys in black T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers who are trying to make classical music cool. In fact, the word cool was mentioned quite often. Along with chill. And awesome.

My wife and I both noticed how very much the whole thing was of a piece with the contemporary worship phenomenon. Same Zeitgeist. Classical music (the Gospel) is good, right, and salutary - but you've got to reach out, man, to capture the younger generation. Make it accessible. Make it cool. And, of course, you need to do that, for some reason, amongst a crowd of folks who have already come to hear classical music. The mind boggles.

It was also like CoWo (syllables are so, like, unchill) in that the chief emotion able to be captured by PROJECT Trio's (TM) music is exuberance. Here is a piece we heard them play, performed by the felicitously named Contemporary Youth Orchestra. And that pretty much encapsulates their range.

Now, compare that to Beethoven. There is no comparison. And I will be the first to admit that Beethoven is not the composer with the widest range. But at least he was more than a one trick pony. He could do more than one thing quite well. Power, shame, tenderness, anger: that is a good start on what Beethoven can do. He can't do floating-like-a-feather (Mozart) nor did he care to do the gentle power of God (Bach, Haydn), but he did quite a lot.

There is something to this Zeitgeist thing. We could also mention here Trans Siberian Orchestra. Dumb it down, make it cool, accessible, draw on the most widely held and most easily contacted emotional responses: and do it all so that you can pack the seats. It still bears some semblance to classical music. But it's a wee fraction of a TSO or PROJECT Trio (TM) concert who are going to migrate from there to Telemann. And those who appreciate classical music, who bought tickets for Beethoven, are disgusted and demoralized. Egads: there was even a moment where they were narrating this deep experience they all had listening to a storm in Boulder, CO (of course!). It's hard to put one's finger on it - but their talk was downright evangelical. My wife put it best, "I was just waiting for one of them to say, 'And then we really just prayed about it and wrote this song.'"

But happy ending: my kids recognized how gauche it all was. "Those don't even sound like the instruments they are playing." "Why does he have to jump around?" "When are they going to play Beethoven?" Indeed, indeed.



  1. And this is not new, of course. In the late 1960's Walter/Wendy Carlos released "Switched On Bach" which was intended to make classical music accessible to the hippy crowd by using Moog synthesizers. There were the traveling organ light and laser shows of the 1970's for the disco crowd. In the 1980's there were some attempts to make classical music 'sexy' with teen virtuosos. And it all finally fails, because all that nonsense grates against the very nature of the music. So it ends up looking like weird and comical experiments.

  2. Our parish school went to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last month, and it was the same kind of deal. Our Kantor wrote them a kind letter saying that we came for the --- MUSIC --- from one of the world's great symphonies to boot. We were there so that the children might learn to love music that has stood the test of time and that here was no need for entertainment by jugglers, acrobatic etc. The music is the entertainment. He got a cordial email back that the extras were ways to help children not normally associated with classical music to be introduced to it. Again, why not give the music itself? Fr. Curtis, don't think too much. Too much boggling of the mind will drive you to inordinate amounts of your home brew.

  3. Oh, dare I even mention it? . . . I dare. The cellist for Project Trio is my cousin. He is often praised within the family as being "the only one of us who has done something meaningful with his life." And yes, they are all "too-cool-for school," though they did first meet at Juilliard. He played for my wedding - not this stuff though - actual classical music. From experience I can tell you this: they are fun to hang out with, drink some beers, talk about obscure movies, and play "frolf." But are a bit like intellectual frat guys. They fit well into NYC and are big in Germany. And, alas, they do see themselves as not so much religious, but, you got it, "spiritual."

  4. Fr. Mierow,

    Six degrees of Project Trio! What a world.


  5. Weird. Perhaps I don't get it because I've spent my life trying not to be cool and in that endeavor overachieving.

    On the other hand, I do love P.D.Q. Bach because he knows how to do irreverence right.

  6. Forgot the link:

  7. Hey, when I want to see goof-balls jumping around and playing faux classical music (and I do like to see that from time to time: "rawk on!") I'll listen to Jethro Tull or ELO.... when I pay to hear me some Ludwig, I want Ludwig.
    Actually, I really like Vaughan-Williams and Handel (a good "spread")

  8. If you made your hajj (What is this? I come here for Christian words, not Muslim) more than yearly, Orchestras might not have to prostitute themselves to stay in business. :)

    I'm with you. I'd prefer a very stuffy concert of all old "boring" music. But like the musicians (who groan over the pops concerts just as much as we do), I recognize that I have to deal with it if I ever want to have a live performance of Beethoven, Bach, and the like. At all.

    But more than a Scaer-esque "Deal with it," I don't like the argument. Why should the orchestra have to be consistent? They aren't the Church, and classical music (certainly not pagan Beethoven!) isn't the Gospel. The Lord of the Rings concerts DO help bring in people and funds, apparently. Artistic fundamentalism DOES seem to kill the endeavor, and a little winsome pandering allows them to continue to make a living doing (mostly) what they love.

    We in the Church have the luxury of God's command to preach and teach purely. We have the promise that He will work and that the Gospel will be enough. That gives us the παρρησια (2 Cor. 3:12) not to prostitute our art. It even gives us the boldness to face martyrdom if people don't like it. Musicians, on the other hand, want to promote high art music and get paid to share it with people. And there is no such promise that "I the Lord will patron classical music and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

    Because it's not the Gospel. And woe to us if we, like so many of my musician friends already, begin to think of and worship it as if it were.

  9. Pastor Anderson, I actually think Switched On is interesting, and a very different thing than a flamboyant flutist trying to make Beethoven hip. The Moog was a totally new instrument, and skilled pianists thought it would be cool to try it out. Sure, I would never listen to Switched On over Glenn Gould, but hey, who hasn't tried playing Bach on something other than a harpsichord/piano/organ?

    Also, I understand what Project Trio is trying to do, and it is indeed the exact same thing as contemporary worship is doing. They both have noble motives, but completely miss the point. Beethoven doesn't need to be made appealing any more than does the Gospel.

  10. Also, the piano was not yet invented when Bach was writing, yet no one gives a second thought to hearing Glenn Gould's Well Tempered Clavier.

    I can't believe I'm defending Switched On Bach.

  11. Let me add that albums like Switched On Bach and others do not necessarily "fail" as I wrote, if they bring people into the great treasure house of classical music, who might otherwise not have heard it. The silly stuff like E. Powers Biggs light shows, where he tried to turn organ concerts into Pink Floyd concerts, I do think fail.

  12. Second guessing myself. I was a bit harsh on my own flesh and blood. I've always been jealous if Eric's (cellist for Project Trio) musical talent. The man can literally play any instrument he picks up. He has real talent. They all do. All three are classically trained. All three have master's degrees. Talented men, indeed. They have a niche. They capitalized on it. They put in their years of struggle. Believe me, I know first hand. But they've managed to make a name.

    I can see why Fr. Curtis and his family may have been disappointed by the concert. But have a second listen; try their own records, original stuff; check out the video on YouTube of them at Union Sq (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMUlhuTkM3w). Its early stuff. They try things. Experiment. Doing what good musicians do - stretching the boundaries. Their story encourages other young musicians. They don't claim to be Beethoven or Bach.

    That's all. Thought about it and felt like I had broken the 8th commandment. I did. I confess. Sorry Eric, Greg, and Peter. Keep up the good work.

  13. I think the problem is that we are so entrenched in our war that we see it everywhere. The problem is not with Project Trio or the St. Louis audience, it is with us.

    Yes, there are cultural things that run through both our war and the symphony's struggle to find an audience. But if the symphony has to sell its soul it is because the Church is no longer the patroness of the arts and artists have to compete in a capitalist market.


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