Having left the classical-music beat back in the late Nineties, one of my few connections with it now comes when I give the “Upbeat Live” pre-concert lectures at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall in downtown L.A. Last night’s program, repeated tonight and tomorrow night, featured Gustav Holst’s mammoth orchestral suite, The Planets, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky.
Don’t worry — I’m not going to indulge in any performance criticism. But the thought did occur to me as I attended the concert what a magnificent edifice Western classical music is, how little appreciated it has become in a crudely utilitarian popular culture, and how much we’re going to miss it when it’s gone, whether through inanition, cultural decadence, or, in extremis, the imposition or voluntary adoption of an alien ethos antithetical to every Western value and incapable of co-existence.
From my seat on the left side of the hall, in one of the side balconies, right above the harps and the celesta, I had a clear view of the entire orchestra, each of the sections moving with internal synchronicity; the various solo players, including the concertmaster, rapt in attention as their moments to shine approached; and Sinaisky, beaming, cajoling, pleading, energizing and calming the band, all in pantomime — such a different view than when one sits in the orchestra seats, looking at the conductor’s back. (One is reminded of the old joke about the newbie who’s asked whether he liked the music. “Not much,” he replied, “but I did enjoy the conductor’s dance.”)
The evolution of Western music from the small ensembles and orchestras of the 18th century into the serried ranks of the late 19th- and early 20th-century colossi remains an astonishing achievement — and one that played an important (and largely unsung) role in the development of American cities. Whereas in Europe no town worth its salt was without an opera house, in the United States, the German and other Central European immigrant communities inevitably founded a symphony orchestra, around which the city’s cultural life was organized: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago, et al.
Today, Chicago has gone in public estimation from the home of the Chicago Symphony to the Murder Capital of America, and the other towns (long since shorn of their heritages) are not much better. School systems that once boasted the finest public musical educations in the world — New York City, for example — now offer metal detectors instead of Mozart. That’s the kind of progress the progressives invariably bring, but it never seems to occur to them that more Mozart = fewer metal detectors, instead of the other way around.