Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stuffy Organists

I was vaguely following a thread on a popular listserv devoted to organists. Discretion prevents me from naming said listserv; but its initials are PIPORG-L.

Every so often arises a debate as to who is more effacaciously killing the organist profession, those who play "lighter" music to "please the crowds," or the "purists" who play only "serious" music.

Such debates are like water in a toilet bowl: it swirls around continuously, but ultimately it can go only in one direction.

Then my fancy was caught by this one sentence by a list member:

I think "stuffy" organists who play ONLY classical pieces or some of the less accessible modern pieces are a bigger problem.

Back when I was a teenager and knew everything, something bothered me about going to concerts at Symphony Hall. There was something bogus about it all. You take a great composer, who struggled his whole life with money. Now we hear said composer's music in Carnegie Hall, played by musicians with formal black-and-white attire, all for the special price of $219 a ticket. The interpretations are too boring; the program notes are too erudite; it's an experience carefully tailored to the people with more money that taste -- the exact kind of people that made the composers' lives miserable. I was very conscious of this irony when I was a teenager and knew everything.

I'm pleased that organists are wrestling with these matters. I believe that we musicians are the ones who are going to have to make the change.

The "overly serious organists" need to be less boring. We need to speak to the audience about what we're playing. If we love a work, we should be able to explain to others why we love it. And if we don't love it, why would we play it? And what of the daredevil technical warhorses that we play to impress our colleagues, to make sure they see the finely sculpted muscles that we are flexing? Unless we have 2,000 such colleagues, all of whom are willing to buy tickets to our Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall concert, how is said event going to be financially feasible? Even 50 such colleagues, if they were willing to attend our church service every Sunday, are not going to be enough to keep the church afloat financially. From a purely mathematical point of view, making music only for the cognoscenti is not going to make ends meet.

As for the "not serious enough organists," you need to dare to be a little more boring, perhaps. Most classical concert organizers have the same flawed thinking as most Roman Catholic pastors of a certain generation. "We gotta bring more people in the door!" Yes, but to experience what exactly? A baseball game at Fenway Park attracts 35,000 people. A Sunday Mass does not attract 35,000 people. Mathematically -- and I'm speaking only mathematically -- more people would show up to Mass if the Bread and Wine were replaced by hot dogs and beer, the chalice replaced by a baseball bat, the Lectionary replaced by a score card. Yes, the numbers of people entering the door would increase mathematically. But what are they attending? When I was a child, I entered church and smelled incense. Recently I entered a church which I will not name and smelled coffee. The clergy of the latter is baffled, utterly baffled, why parishioners are now texting and talking and drinking beverages in the pews. So during the opening announcements, the congregation is told verbally that they are about to witness a "sacred" worship service. Their ears hear those words while their noses smell coffee. Which sense are they going to believe?

Musicians must not make the analogous mistake. Yes, a concert audience will be mathematically larger if you have less Bach and more rock music. But what will the audience actually be hearing? Dare to play what you feel is good music.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm headed to the 4:00 Mass for a cup of coffee.