Photo by Sogni Hal
There's no better way to start appreciating classical music than enjoying the stylings of the greats comfortably, live and in person.
By Lorin Wilkerson
Are you interested in or curious about classical music, but have no idea how to find a live performance or what all goes into getting ready for one? Maybe you aren’t even that interested in it, but feel for some reason that you should be. Have you thought about going to see some live classical music but are a bit intimidated by the ‘stuffiness’ of the scene? If any of these questions sound like you, then read on and discover how to find classical music performances that you’ll love no matter where you live, as well as learn classical music etiquette, what to wear, and how to make the most of your experience.
This can be an interesting question to tackle whether you live in the Big Apple or in the middle of a wheat field in Nebraska 200 miles from the nearest city. If you live in or near one of the ‘Big Three’ cities of America (NYC, Los Angeles, or Chicago) then your choices are endless; living in other extremely large metro areas they might be almost as boundless. You will have an opportunity to hear world-renowned conductors, the finest performers, and some of the most highly regarded ensembles in the world. Your task is not so much finding a performance as finding one that will fit your needs from among a bewildering array of choices.
If you live in a more modest-sized city you will still be confronted with many decisions. I live in Portland Oregon, with maybe 1.5 million or so in the metro area, and yet there are still more ensembles playing more concerts than I could possibly attend, even if I wanted to go to them all. If you live in or near any city with 50-75 thousand or more people, you should have no problem finding a performance, although the pickings do tend to get slimmer the smaller your city. Simply pick up the Arts or Living section from one of your major dailies and look at the music calendar. Or if you are familiar with the name(s) of some groups in your area that you are interested in, go to their website (google it if you have to) to find more specific details. You can usually purchase tickets online immediately, and have them waiting for you at the door before the concert.
If you live in a small town or in a truly rural area, you might have to do a little more legwork, but all is not lost. I grew up in an extremely rural part of Oregon, and yet was still able to find classical performances to attend. There was a smallish college town about 30 miles away which was usually the source for most classical music in the area, and occasionally there was even outreach to the really small towns like mine. So if you pay attention, again to your local newspapers and to the online arts calendar for your area (if you haven’t looked yet, you’d be surprised at how many very small towns and rural areas have them) you should be able to find something that works for you. Conversely, you can plan on taking an overnight (or longer) trip to a large city that might be farther away, and really make an event out of it.
The ‘how’ part of the question really entails many things: how to figure out if a performance is one that you’ll be interested in, what to wear, concert hall etiquette, etc.
What do I want to hear?
If you live in an area with many choices but aren’t very familiar with classical music, try sticking to some of the more well-known composers for your first outing. It’s hard to go wrong with a Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn symphony, a Bach concerto, or a performance of Handel’s Messiah or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.
Many people include attending a performance of those majestic works as a major part of their holiday traditions. Chamber music ensembles (groups of 2-15 or so performers) are part of a rich and beautiful genre all their own. Eventually you’ll discover more composers you like and your tastes will branch out from there. For a crash course in learning and talking about classical music, see this article I wrote for Primer last summer.)
If you don’t have so many options, this whole part becomes much easier: go and hear whatever happens to be available! This can be a very rewarding option; some of the best listening experiences I’ve had have been at concerts of works by composers I’d never even heard of.
What do I wear?
There is no hard and fast rule on this, but a general rule applies: dress nicely. If you’re going to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, don’t look like a schmuck: wear a suit–even tuxedos are not out of place. The same thing can be said for major orchestras, operas and other important ensembles in a good-sized city. At the very least, wear slacks, sports coat and tie, although at the wrong place even this can leave you looking under-dressed.
Whatever you do, don’t be that guy that wears jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops to the symphony; save that for the Jack Johnson concert. Especially if you’re on a nice date—there is a time to show some class, and this is that time.
Even in small towns the audience will dress well. Classical music concerts are usually less common here, so people tend to dress in such a way that shows respect for the occasion and for the dignity of the music. You’ll never go wrong by doing the same.
There are a few things to be aware of. One is that this is not a sporting event; it’s more formal, and people are coming to enjoy a dignified evening, so save the profanity-laced tirades for another time. I swear like a sailor when the occasion calls for it, but it’s important to recognize that this can impinge upon other people’s ability to enjoy the show, so it’s ok to put a damper on it for the evening.
Don’t be late. At an opera especially, if you aren’t in your seat when the first note sounds you will typically not be allowed in until the end of the first act. If you just paid $250 for two tickets to the opera and you miss half of that because you didn’t get there on time, you might find your date less-than-forgiving. Even at a symphony you probably won’t be allowed in until after the current movement ends, which means you don’t get what you paid for and people will be annoyed that you have to tromp on their shoes to get to your seat where you should’ve been 30 minutes ago.
Don’t go if you’re sick and coughing and hacking all over the place, as this is very distracting. And don’t clap in between movements. If you are unsure at all about when to clap, wait for the audience to start and then join in. No one will look twice if you aren’t the first person to applaud, but you can look pretty strange if you’re the only one clapping up a storm in the middle of dead silence.
Tip: If you attend a performance where they serve drinks, order your drink for the intermission before the concert starts and it will be waiting for you as soon as you get there. Zero hassle, and your date thinks you’re very clever because she’s sipping her glass of pinot noir instead of wasting the whole intermission in that long line.
Photo by Ariel Backenroth
The classical music scene is a blast because it gives you a chance to get dressed up and have a dignified, ‘high-class’ evening. I personally love it. There is, however, a growing movement that seeks to take some of the starch out of the scene by playing chamber music (classical music for a small number of performers) in non-traditional venues. Groups such as Classical Revolution, which initially started in San Francisco but now has groups in Portland, New York, and Reno, among others, regularly play classical music in pubs and bars. For a $3-$5 cover you can hear classical music all night, suck down drinks, clap whenever you want, and generally do all the things you aren’t supposed to do at a more formal concert. If you just can’t possibly see yourself at the opera, or would like to ease into the classical scene, this can be a great way to do it. I heartily enjoy both the uber-formal and kick-back beer guzzling sides of the scene, but the latter is one that people rarely associate with classical music, and I think it’s important to know that it’s out there. You can do an online search for ‘classical in the clubs’ to see what’s happening along these lines in your area. In addition to the ones I mentioned, one just started up in Philadelphia last week, and there are also plans in the works for CR startups in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Berlin.
That’s perhaps the biggest question. Why go through the effort to seek out a live performance of classical music? If you are already a fan of the genre, then this question needs no further answer, or if you would like to impress your date with an elegant evening on the town, the answer is obvious. But if the idea is brand new to you, or perhaps you’ve dabbled in listening to classical for a long time but find your interest in it growing as your tastes mature, then it is time to ask yourself why you haven’t been to a live performance.
One huge reason it’s important to seek out live music is to support the performers and composers. It’s incredibly difficult to make a living in this field. There are a few true superstars who make the big bucks and who enjoy household name recognition, but for most classical artists who make their entire living at it, it’s a difficult game. Supporting people who have dedicated their lives to such a worthwhile enterprise is an important and honorable thing to do; it creates a sense of connection with your community and with the wider arts world as a whole.
Knowledge of classical music is important for many reasons, one of them being that such insight can be invaluable to understanding our society and culture in general. Why do we read Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, The Iliad or The Grapes of Wrath? Why do we go to the art museum to see Rembrandt’s Peter Denies Christ, or Degas’ The Little Dancer? Why go to Zion National Park in Utah or the Great Pyramid at Giza? It’s not that there are no more modern examples of literature to be found, or that we need to make a special effort to see pretty pictures; we could go online and peruse artwork, we could go downtown in any major city and see stupendously large buildings. Hell, we can just flip on the digital cable, watch a thousand glorious channels and ignore it all if we want.
The reason we continue to seek out great works of art, read the classics of literature, and see the wonders of the natural world and ancient civilizations is because of our desire to connect with those things that make us human, to feel the kinship we have with those who have gone before, in order to better understand where we are now. Classical music is as important a part of this tradition as any of the things mentioned above. It gives us a chance to hear where we come from, to get a sense of the spirit and the emotions of men long ago, to glimpse what notions of beauty or darkness drove them, and to understand that they were not so dissimilar from us.
Lorin is a long-time classical music lover and performer in the Portland area. He plays piano, mandolin, harmonica, and percussion. You can visit his blog, Musical Oozings.