Take a leaf out of sport’s book

Music has lost its unpredictability, its thrilling fear while sport’s passion shines, says Norman Lebrecht

On Music

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Since there’s nothing much happening on the music front, I shall write about a more important subject, namely sport. It is not me but governments who have declared sport to be more important, so much so that they have permitted televised football while opera houses and concert halls remain under lockdown. The official case for professional sport is that it is good for the public’s mental health. The case against concerts is — well, who cares?

In Australia, tennis stars are pampered in five-star hotels. The Japanese cabinet is holding crisis meetings in a bid to save this summer’s Olympics. Sri Lanka and India played England at cricket. Golfers will flock to the US Open in June. The European football championships are going ahead. Music, meanwhile, remains on mute.

No conversation is complete without checking the latest scores on your phone

Sixty years ago, C.P. Snow argued that there were Two Cultures in which people in the humanities knew nothing of science, and vice-versa. That chasm has since been bridged. Most of us know a bit of both, especially in a pandemic when science is a matter of life or death and music is required for remembrance of the dead.

Both pursuits, however, have been overtaken by sport. In Snow’s time no cultured person would admit to knowing which team was top of the league. In ours, no conversation is complete without checking the latest scores on your phone.

Sports chat is the great ice-breaker, whether at the clinic while receiving your vaccine or at a Zoom lecture by a Nobel laureate. Most arts people look down on professional sport. They would do better to ask themselves why sport has displaced them at the heart of our culture, why politicians will always listen to Marcus Rashford ahead of Simon Rattle.

We often hear musicians brag that they reached the top by practising six hours a day from infancy. No different, then, from Roger Federer, the Williams sisters and every footballer at Paris St-Germain. Once, a ghetto kid might choose between kicking a ball or playing the violin; that day is long gone. Today, sport offers aspirations that art cannot match. Why that is so is an existential question for the arts. If we don’t study the mass allure of sport we will soon be out of business.

The premier attraction of sport is uncertainty. An American conductor once told me he couldn’t understand how his patrons could spend five hours at a ballgame and still claim that Tristan und Isolde was too long. Easy, I replied. With Tristan they knew how it would end before they bought the ticket. In sport, there’s all to play for and the result is up in the air.

The premier attraction of sport is uncertainty

Back in Beethoven’s Vienna, people turned up at a concert not knowing what they were going to hear, except that it was something by that crazed deaf man who might set the house on re when he knocked the candelabra off the keyboard. Music has lost that unpredictability, that thrilling fear. Everything is prearranged three or four years in advance and rehearsed to needlepoint precision.

Beethoven’s orchestra was a mix of professionals and part-timers, and some of the amateurs were more skilled than the pros. Nowadays, music is globally professionalised. Musicians play for a wage, not the love of the game. Sport is no different, but the passion still shines through.

Once a weekend dream factory for enslaved industrial workers, sport found a way to create not just a community of fans so much as a participatory ambience. Go to any big match and you’ll be expected to sway and sing along with the crowd, even if you’re sipping Veuve Cliquot in the directors’ box. In classical concerts and opera, the audience is muted and tied to its seats, except between works when they are permitted to show polite appreciation. Does that sound like fun? Often, it is not.

Sport is a theatre of talking points, of near-misses and might-have-beens, of player comings and goings, a drama that keeps its public engaged from one weekend to the next. Music, with its enforced silences and “respect for the musicians”, resists public intrusion. Pop music got the message in the 1970s with a flurry of festivals where the mud-caked, chanting audience felt as much part of the experience as the musicians. How can classical concerts rekindle that fervour?

We need to observe sport and learn some lessons. Right now, some concert halls are doubling as vaccination centres. When the music resumes, they should leave the seats out and keep half the hall open for people to wander around, drinks and ices in hand, just as they did in London’s original Promenade Concerts.

Discriminatory pricing must be scrapped. All seats should be equal, and the best option is no seat at all

One of the crushing deterrents of classical concerts is the tiered seat pricing, putting the rich safely out of reach of the rest of us. Discriminatory pricing must be scrapped. All seats should be equal, and the best option is no seat at all.

While we’ll never rekindle the fire of a Beethoven concert, we need to stop planning concerts years in advance and allow performers to change the menu at the last minute, or to improvise on the spur of the moment, like the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero.

Musicians must become more human, dispensing with the PRs and hacks who depict them as mini-gods. They should take part instead in popular television, as the violinist Ivry Gitlis used to do in France and the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili still does. They need to lose that conservatoire angst of making a fool of themselves. The more fools, the better. Pierre Boulez used to hold after-concert chats with his audience, sat on rugs at London’s Roundhouse and New York’s Lincoln Center. You paid $3 and squatted on the floor. More, please.

Last summer, some festivals experimented with staging operas outdoors. No one died of shock or cold. Under open skies, sopranos were as vulnerable and endearing as goalkeepers. Music must cultivate a new breed of heroes. There are three cultures now, and ours is the least valued.

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