“There’s Nothing Like Being There…” Really?

The Classic 100 Countdown on ABC Classic FM demonstrated a great many things about our listening culture. One of them was, I think, a demonstration of the widening gap between liking of classical music and being an active participant in the live concert culture of our cities. A significant proportion of the Top 100 weren’t there because of their presence in concert halls of the major orchestras or Musica Viva concerts. They were there due to their presence on ABC Classic, or on commercials and television programs. One doesn’t hear the Elgar Cello Concerto overly much in concert halls, nor even the Carmina Burana or Rhapsody in Blue.  Mahler Symphonies, yes, La Valse, yes, Shostakovich symphonies, yes. The works on the second hundred seemed to me to have more works people hear in contemporary concert halls.

This comes as no major surprise to me, as a vast bulk of “classical” music is a popular form of accompaniment to people’s lives – as a pleasant soundtrack to people’s cleaning, backyard reading, car or train trips.  This is no bad thing, as it adds to the listening palate for our society. A vast proportion of the music on the Top 200 is in turn beautiful, beguiling, passionate, heart wrenching, heart breaking and everything in between. I would happily have the list as a playlist on my iPod. Indeed, I find myself wanting to fill the gaps of things I don’t have in my collection.

It does pose a question, however, of what classical music organisations can do with the music of the 20th Century, in order to continue to give it life via live performances. Performances of Elgar don’t sell that well in concert halls, whilst Mahler does, for example. It’s a tricky game of trying to sell tickets but also maintain a variety of sounds to attract a range of audiences.  It is a vital question, as music needs the concert hall performances to be financially viable. This is amongst a culture that, once again, finds itself being attracted to the home cultural enjoyment rather than the inconveniences of live performance.

It’s an issue that is not restricted to classical music. Sporting organisations face increasing difficulty in attracting paying supporters – some rugby league clubs in Sydney, such as Penrith, feel lucky if they attract 10,000 to some home games.  There are other problems, such as the one faced by South Sydney Rabbitohs members, who can only purchase sideline tickets in their home ground of the ANZ Stadium, rather than undercover stadium seats.  There has also been the recent test match played in Hobart between Australia and New Zealand, where crowd numbers declined during the weekend’s play, rather than rose, as used to be the case. Ticket prices are one such reason, with $75 being the rate for a grandstand seat.  This, however, is not as absurd as a grandstand seat in the Trumper Stand at the SCG, which is $115 – explaining why that stand is almost always half empty at every test match and even during one day games. That’s about the cost of a premium seat at a Sydney Symphony concert – though it can be argued pretty successfully that the concert hall seat is better value, in terms of what can be seen and experienced.  Orchestras, however, don’t have television rights deals and registered clubs to support them if they don’t get the numbers through the door.

The chasm between live performance and home recordings, as well as live sport and sport on TV widens as the inconvenience of getting to concerts and games becomes more fraught.  Parking rates have increased well beyond inflation, especially in Sydney. Melbourne is lucky to have multiple public transport options to their sporting venues, even if there are large queues after games. Not as bad, though, as the annoyingly slow bus trips between Moore Park and Central.  In addition, food options are limited – food contracts are usually signed by a multinational company. You can see why people would want to sit at home in front of the big screen or radio, loaded with whatever food, beer or wine they’d choose to have.

Personally, I like the live performance. It focuses my mind on what it happening. When I am at home, there are far too many distractions – Twitter, blogs, television programs. Mahler Symphonies, for example, just can’t hold me at home, or even in the car. In a concert hall, however, live music takes me places, bends my mind, my perceptions, makes me reflect on my life to that point.  This is why I cannot do without my subscription. If I didn’t have it, I’d probably say “meh, can’t be bothered driving there”. When I get into the concert hall, however, I don’t regret making the effort. Indeed, I love to be pleasantly surprised, taken places I didn’t predict. I have, for the first time, purchased a membership to a football club for 2012 – I look forward to focusing on the travails and development of the Giants through the next few years. I won’t be able to follow their travails outside Sydney, due to the presence of most of their games on Foxtel. I refuse to pay News Limited for anything, especially television.

So, live games and live performances it is.

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