Porgy and BessI love Porgy and Bess. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard the Leontyne Price/William Warfield RCA recording of excerpts from the opera in the mid-60s. The moment I hear that first octave gliss announcing the overture, and that thrilling Stravinsky-like syncopated ostinato that begins the score, I’m lost. And I don’t regain myself until the strange, half-apologetic sixth chord that ends the opera has sounded, after Porgy has demanded of the Catfish Row residents that they “Bring my goat!” (Stephen Sondheim claims to love this line) and Porgy is on his way to find Bess in New York.

Basically, the beauty of the music simply dissolves everything I want to think and decide and judge and insist about Porgy and Bess. It all just gets lost in the overwhelming sense of joy I have in simply listening to the music, in an exalted state of thankful wonder, again and again and again. 

Read more: Controversially Uncontroversial: Porgy and Bess at the Met

Run Rabbit RunIn September of 2010, a long time ago, now, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their season with a performance of John Adams’ orchestral showpiece, Harmonielehre, named after the early 20th-century harmony text by Arnold Schoenberg. I was excited to hear the work live and impressed by Peter Oundjian’s and the TSO’s chutzpah in making a statement with the Adams as the season opener. Less so my seatmate in Roy Thomson Hall.

Surveying the program, he turned to me and said “Watch what happens at intermission.” (The Adams was scheduled for the entire second half of the concert.) “People will be running out of here like rabbits!” “Why,” I asked, soaked in innocence. He jabbed his program next to the date of composition of the Adams. The stark “1985” seemed to make any further conversation unnecessary. “Modern music,” he finally observed, as though I were a bit dim. “But it’s a very accessible piece,” I meekly protested. “They’d enjoy it.” He looked me up and down for the first time, in obvious wonderment. “Like rabbits,” he reiterated.

And he was right. About 25 percent of the seats that had been full of satisfied patrons listening to Mozart and Schumann, or whatever, during the first half of the concert, lay empty in protest at a terrific reading of the Adams. The TSO was probably delighted the bleeding was only a quarter of the house.

I was reminded of my rabbit-predicting friend as I read the New Yorker’s Alex Ross lament the conservatism of Kirill Petrenko’s programming as he assumes the music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic. Not a Harmonielehre in sight (a work now almost 40 years old, by the way), or any other modern repertoire. A bit of Berg and Schoenberg, but that’s it. Ross worries that Petrenko is abandoning the significant role that major symphony orchestras should have in championing the music of now.

But I think Ross is wrong.

Read more: Run, Rabbit, Run: New music & the traditional symphony

SpoonsBack in my broadcasting days, I was interviewing a British journalist – this must have been 15 years ago – about the projected demise of classical music.

I said, as I introduced the interview, that the eradication of classical music had been confidently predicted since recording was invented in the late-19th century, but that, although the last rites had been pronounced and the funeral arrangements made, the patient stubbornly refused to die. Then, after my “hello”, he responded with words guaranteed to stop the heart of every broadcaster on earth, trust me. “I’m afraid there’s an error in your introduction.” I gulped, swore to myself, and gamely said “How so?” “Well,” he went on, “you said the demise of classical music has been predicted since the beginning of the 20th century. The first instance I could find of such a statement was 1741!” (That was the year of Messiah, by the way).

I was reminded of this exchange this August while reading accounts of the annual meeting of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, basically an umbrella group pressing for musicians’ rights in the classical field. The usual litany of problems: funding, reduced government support, aging audiences, lack of demographic diversity, labour troubles. And to be fair, those problems are all too real. The economics of classical music, especially at the level of large organizations, are an actuarial definition of hell. Enormous fixed costs with no easy possibility of reducing them – you can’t just eliminate the second violins from a Mozart symphony. Fixed costs that are increasing. A very real limit to how far ticket prices can rise to meet those increased costs without depressing the potential number of buyers, so that higher prices, bizarrely, result in lower revenue. An art form that only finds success with an endless succession of greatest hits programs, thus reducing the ability to attract new audiences not familiar with the established repertoire. And a current audience that, barring great advances in cryogenics, will all be dead in ten years or so. How can this enterprise possibly survive?

But it does, and in some cases, even thrives. Umberto Eco, the famed Italian author, once told a Davos world economic forum audience that some things were never going to be replaced by new technology. His example? The spoon. The spoon will never disappear, he said, because nothing else does what it does as efficiently or as effectively. That’s classical music, to me – it provides an emotional, spiritual and esthetic experience that cannot be replicated, really, by anything else.

That’s not to say that classical music (such a terrible adjective, but it’s ours) is destined to live forever, without any effort taken to husband its resources carefully and provide for its future. It can die. What will keep it alive is not just great performances (although nothing can substitute for them), but a willingness even in these troubled times, I would say, especially in these troubled times, to strike out with boldness and originality in programming, repertoire and presentation to keep the art form vital.

The good news is that the audience problems that cause so many sleepless nights for so many artistic administrators may well solve themselves, as the traditional boundaries between musical genres break down. This, in fact, may well be the most significant development in music over the past 50 years. Classical players now have experience in jazz, pop performers know their opera, world music is blurring all sorts of musical lines. Contemporary musicians of all kinds are comfortable in wide areas of musical style and expertise. This is great news for the classics, because “classical” music, a minority musical niche, can only benefit from this expansion.

I said earlier that classical music was irreplaceable, but I didn’t say why. Classical music is like Umberto Eco’s spoon because it takes music seriously; it is a perfectly suited means of delving deep into music’s full range of techniques, meanings, emotion and power, rather than, as popular music does, happily skimming the surface in the worlds of entertainment and immediate pleasure – not that there is anything wrong with either of these – for the commercial rewards there. Depth doesn’t necessarily sell, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t attract. The fact that the classical gene – the gene for depth – is now being carried by young musicians who know their classics but are comfortable and excited by other forms of music does not mean a contraction of classical music, or a horrible death-spiral of crossover hybrids, whirring into meaninglessness and irrelevance. It means the opposite. It means that the world of classical music will be augmented by new consciousnesses, expanded to include elements of styles that already have their audiences, thereby liberating classical music from its depleting dependencies, both in terms of audience and repertoire.

That’s not to say that my ideal classical institutions wouldn’t include the classics – after all, they’re what got us here in the first place. But the classics can be presented in so many more inviting concertgoing styles than the typical symphony program set in a granite-like unalterability for over a hundred, otherwise changing, years. Nothing forbids orchestras or chamber groups from being a little more imaginative in their programming and presentation. Or even a lot more. Everybody is ready for something new – even the old-guard audiences that terrify precarious mainstream institutions into inertia. The proof of that is everywhere around us – in groups like the highly lauded Against the Grain Theatre, Opera Atelier and the new Tafelmusik, under Elisa Citterio, to name just a few. Even the Toronto Symphony, going through their own rebuild these days (a la the Blue Jays), have done well with their ventures out of the tried and true in the past few years. Many classical institutions are stuck in an artistic Stockholm syndrome, struck immobile by a fear of disturbing the delicate balance that allows them to survive. But disturb it they must – with care, certainly, and intelligence, and taste, but with courage in the end, and a belief in the value of what they have the good privilege to serve up to the world.

The listings in the magazine in your very hands at the moment –or scrollable on your screen – prove the immense ongoing interest in classical music. The precarious nature of the business has not stopped thousands of young people, if not hundreds of thousands, from entering institutions of musical learning annually, declaring their love of the art form by showing a willingness to dedicate their lives to it. Talent is not the problem in the musical world these days. New ideas are. And willingness, both by the venerable institutions that are the art form’s custodians and the audiences that have traditionally supported them, to help midwife the new world of the classics that is straining to be born.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Ronan Mattin, 9, and his grandfather, Stephen Mattin.It was the exclamation heard round the world.

On Sunday, May 11, at the end of a performance of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music performed by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, Ronan Mattin, age nine, after waiting a few seconds to register the music’s close, breathed out an astonished and appreciative reaction.

“Wow!” he exclaimed, out loud, to no one in particular, other than the gods and goddesses of Music, who were surely listening to Ronan in delight. So were the other patrons in the audience, who broke into the laughter of wonderment at Ronan’s spontaneous outburst of musical joy. And now, thanks to the social media tribal drums that encircle the planet, millions of other people have also shared Ronan Mattin’s pleasure.

There is much to say about Ronan’s “wow.” The first is to note that it was not a shout of excitement, if you listen to it, but a contoured exhalation of wonder, a bit of music itself, matching quite exactly the swelling and receding of the final crescendo and diminuendo of the Mozart Funeral Music. It was as though Ronan had added a hidden few bars to the score, finally completing the piece properly for the first time. It’s not impossible to imagine the composing Mozart reacting in exactly the same way as he put the final notes on the manuscript of his work. Ronan joined himself to the music, letting it invade his senses, as we all do, making us part of the music we listen to, our minds and spirit being the instrument on which it is actually played. Most of us observe and feel this swell of sympathy in silence; Ronan, perhaps because he is nine, did not.

And there’s more to say about Ronan’s “wow.” Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music is six minutes of grief and travail, the resigned beauty of darkness illuminated sharply here and there with patches of barely alleviating light. You can hear prefigurations in the Funeral Music of the temple music, the music surrounding Sarastro and his acolytes, that Mozart wrote for The Magic Flute.

And then, at the very end of the piece, having carefully cycled through an immense chord sequence preparing us for a final grief-stricken cadence in C Minor, Mozart pulls a rabbit out of his musical hat and surprisingly ends the piece with one final swelling chord – in C Major, not C Minor, one chord only in this heavenly key. That was the chord that Ronan Mattin reacted to so evocatively. A journey though grief ends with an impossibly beautiful single ray of sunlight, a hint of peace and joy, with a suggestiveness that only music can provide. This is no Tierce de Picardie, a convention that ended minor pieces in the major, that had long passed out of fashion by 1785. This is the divine Mozart making a statement, a hint, really, a whisper, a hint of a whisper, as only he could, about a world he so incompletely understood.

But it was a sentiment that Ronan Mattin, who, we are told, lies on the autism spectrum, (as surely did the composer whose music he was listening to) responded to in a blinding instant. It was not simply the beauty of the music but the surprise and perfection of that last chord that I’m sure forced that exclamation from Ronan Mattin’s lips. Ronan, we have since learned from his family, is essentially non-verbal. He lives his complex and exacting life within an orbit of his own. But music, which so often drives the rest of us into contemplative silence, drove Ronan in the opposite direction – into speech, into the world. A more perfect realization of music’s power would be hard to find – its power to link the internal and the external, the world we share with no one but ourselves and the world we long to share with everyone else. Who can measure the power of recognition, the power of congruence that forced that “wow” from Ronan’s lips. We know, if he does not, that he was speaking that word for us all. And who can imagine how Ronan’s spirit reacted to the main work on the program for which the Masonic Funeral Music was just an appetizer – Mozart’s Requiem. One can only imagine what transpired in his inner world during that kaleidoscope of sentiment and emotion.

So, you might ask, what was Ronan doing in Symphony Hall in the first place that Sunday afternoon? Well, we’ve learned that Ronan was there with his grandfather, who often takes his autistic grandson on musical outings. The Mattins live in New Hampshire, north of Boston. Which leads us to our last question. What manner of man drives an hour and ten minutes on a Sunday afternoon to take his autistic nine-year-old grandson to an authentic instrument performance of Mozart’s Requiem?

A man in a dark age who believes in light, that’s who. A man – and there are so many of us, you know, so many of us – who remembers that the meanness and pettiness with which we are surrounded these days is only one side of the story, however raucous it may be. Who realizes that there is another reality in the world, a reality like the one Mozart created 200-odd years ago, a reality that his grandson must encounter, the sooner the better. Little Ronan Mattin spoke for all of us that Sunday in Symphony Hall, all of us who have been jolted by the discovery of unexpected beauty in the world. It’s shocking when it touches us – it makes us cry out in pleasure, or would if we had the innocence and courage of a New Hampshire nine-year-old. Let’s be thankful Ronan reminded us of what this music business is really all about. It’s not that without music life would be a mistake. Its more that without music, life wouldn’t be life at all.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Rear-viewMore and more these days, I do my music listening on YouTube. YouTube, rather than CDs, or ITunes, or the radio, or live concerts.
And I’m not alone.

YouTube, although intended as a video platform, has become the prime music-listening service on the planet. With 300 million daily users, 400 hours of content uploaded to the site every minute, and an enormous wealth of archival material hidden in its nooks and crannies, subterranean depths and byways, YouTube, without meaning to, has become the most important music-listening service the world has ever known. While music companies, tech entrepreneurs and record labels were viciously jockeying for position for two decades to determine what format would replace the CD and reap its multi-billion dollar profits, YouTube just snuck into predominance – a position it will never relinquish. It is just too rich as a music service to ever be challenged.

For me, what makes YouTube so delicious is the wealth of unexpected and one-of-a-kind treasures it contains. Because it is a crowd-sourced platform, with literally millions of people worldwide contributing content to its astonishing archive, basically anything that’s ever been recorded – from film, TV, radio, recordings, cell phones, piano rolls, 45s, 78s, you name it – has been uploaded by someone somewhere to YouTube. That means with the touch of a few keystrokes, you can access piano rolls of Scriabin playing his own music, and Scott Joplin, and Mahler (an amazing performance of the entire first movement of the Fifth Symphony). You can watch and listen to close to 100 years of the most famous performers and performances in the world. A TV feed of an impossibly young Pavarotti singing La Traviata live from La Scala – check. Dozens of videos of the greatest conductor ever placed on the earth, Carlos Kleiber, dancing his way into the heart of the music of everyone from Strauss, Jr. to Weber to Brahms – check. The single greatest performance (to my ear) of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater performed by Christophe Roussel and Les Talens Lyriques, not available anywhere else – check. The ability to quickly compare a dozen performances of Brahms’s enigmatic Opp. 117 and 118 late works, simply and effectively – check. Documentaries of Glenn Gould from European television unknown to us here – check. An absolutely riveting hour of Murray Perahia discussing Bach for Israeli television – check. Masterclasses from everyone from Andras Schiff to Joyce DiDonato to Scharzkopf to Leon Fleisher – check. And on and on. Whatever your taste, whatever your musical interest, whatever your curiosity, YouTube can endlessly satisfy it.

And that’s just in the world of classical music. When it comes to pop, or Broadway, or jazz, or any other world music, YouTube is as valuable a service, if not more so. Not to mention the thousands of really fine instructional videos available on the service – all for free – did I mention that? I taught myself the chords and voicings for the opening of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps the other night thanks to a fine YouTube instructor. I can honestly say that some of the most moving and illuminating musical experiences of my life have been occasioned by a YouTube video.

Of course, the service is not perfect. It’s owned by Google, so who knows to what nefarious purpose my viewing and listening history is put (although what someone thinks they can sell me because I listened to Marguerite Long and Ravel perform the premiere recording of his G-Major Piano Concerto is beyond me)? The quality of the sound is often weak, even terrible. The cataloguing system is non-existent, because each uploader gets to call his or her entry what they choose. (If you want a uniquely 21st-century exercise in total frustration, try refinding a YouTube video you once saw and loved, but can’t now remember how it was titled.) Because it was never intended to be a music-delivery system, noone at YouTube seems to have given much thought how to make it a better one – except for the billion-hit pop videos that make the channel a ton of money.

But it’s precisely the bumbling, unintended, poorly organized, haphazard nature of the service that I love. Wandering through YouTube is like wandering through an amazing maze of a great musical city, with corners and alleyways and treasures beckoning you from every quarter. You may start down an intended path, but you won’t stay there for long. And that’s because, even though it’s only 20 years old, more or less, the Internet has gone through many distinct phases in its journey from light to darkness. We’re deep in the dark Web today, with fake news and hate-filled belchings eroding the central foundations of this astounding information device. But it was only just a few years ago that the Web was a place of enlightenment and human development, unparalleled in human history. This is the Web of Wikipedia, still an astounding free, crowd-created source of knowledge. And it’s the YouTube created in that spirit that I value, the YouTube motivated by a simple and sincere desire to share things that are loved. To me, it’s the rare recording that someone has uploaded (that has 612 hits) because they wanted others to hear it, or the lovingly created analysis of a Bach fugue that someone has laboured over that make YouTube so special and wonderful, such a beacon of hope in an increasingly hopeless world.

And that’s why the question of copyright has so little relevance in the world of YouTube sharing. It’s a topic for another time, but copyright and music are, or should be, mortal enemies. That’s because the essence of music is to be shared – the very nature of its production, waves freely transmitted through the natural air, proclaims that truth. Music is about connecting people, and copyright is about disconnecting them, denying people valued and valuable experiences through force of law. All you have to do is revel in the intense joy of a YouTube discovery to realize how irrelevant copyright is to your experience and the discussion about the economics of music in the 21st century. Yes, of course, musicians have to be paid, but the notion that you or I might be denied the deeply powerful experience of watching and listening to Kleiber conduct Beethoven 7 because some uploader doesn’t have the rights to the material truly makes me recoil in disgust. Music was made to be heard. Anything that furthers that goal is divine; anything that hinders it is demonic.

And by that measure, YouTube is divine. Long may it, and the millions of its fans, and the sharing values we represent, prosper.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

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