Taking the Concert Away from the Concert-Hall

The Royal Albert Hall – too big for most classical music?

On Friday 21 December, a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise took place in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, sung by Christopher Dylan Herbert. The accompaniment was provided by the audience using hand-held radios that emitted the piano part. According to Zachary Woolf of the New York Times, it was only the lack of snow that prevented it from being the perfect setting for Willhelm Müller’s sorrowful poem. He concludes: ‘you have not truly experienced Winterreise until you have stood three or four feet from the singer, his breath visible in the cold.’

Taking classical music outside of the concert-hall is hardly a new idea: operas are staged in pubs and Bach is played on the tube. This year’s Aldeburgh Festival will celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary by staging his opera Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach. So what is the great attraction of taking music away from its traditional setting?Perhaps it is due to how limiting concert venues are. One of the biggest killers of performance is the massive concert-hall, where only large-scale works have any chance of filling its intimidating space. When Paul Lewis played at the Sheldonian last November, a solo pianist was expected to fill the same space as a full-sized symphony orchestra. The BBC Proms is one of the greatest culprits. In their quest to put together a varied programme, they may include a couple of Mozart chamber symphonies or concertos, even if their subtlety and brilliance is lost in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.

Venue can elevate a performance to the exceptional precisely because it can never be repeated. I experienced such a performance when Daniel Barenboim played Schubert’s piano music at the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik. It was not just the music that made it special, but the open-air atmosphere, with the audience gathered around the piano listening intently, and looking down from balconies. This is why I am inclined to believe Woolf’s account of Winterreise entirely. I doubt it was Hubert’s performance alone that made it unforgettable, but rather the remarkably fitting setting of a dreary winter’s day. The music touched its audience in a way that a warm, dry concert-hall would find impossible.Woolf’s account makes one wonder why traditional concert-halls have such a hold. Their draw is the exclusion of ‘earthly’ distractions: everything is focused on the music. Yet absolute concentration on the music can far more easily be achieved on one’s own, with a set of headphones and an empty house. Portable music players mean one can listen to music in any context, making the concert-hall increasingly irrelevant and dated. Why go when one can have an equally enjoyable experience of the music in the garden, or the bath? Obviously, the crucial difference is that the concert-hall islive. This is why we should be looking for new venues for live classical music, since as a setting the concert-hall has so little to give.

Originally published in the Oxford Student, January 2013


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