About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 6, 2012


Even before we started our first week of August, low-level background noise--at the post office, on the street, at the Timbers--swelled into a resounding crescendo: “How can you expect anyone to come to 17 concerts in one month?” I attended less than half of them, only partly because our accelerating board meetings--to address this very problem--took place on concert nights. On other occasions I had to host musicians rehearsing for performance the next night. Not to mention the cost of so many tickets at once. Even if you are a chamber-music nut, two concerts on one weekend is a challenge.
Doris Lederer, Anna Polonsky, and Jim Campbell
Needless to say, we are re-visiting our schedule for next summer. 

Our first 10 years of success (1976-1985) were enviable enough so that others jumped onto the Gretna bandwagon to offer their favorite music. But as Alban Berg admonished a young George Gershwin, “Music is music.” We now share our audience with a lot of different kinds of it every summer. And unlike New York’s Chautauqua Institution, we don’t have thousands of people living on campus to populate several events going on at once.

Our recent strategy had been to balance popular performers--Vienna Boys Choir, Canadian Brass, Capitol Steps--against less celebrated but equally superb artists known to a smaller circle of cognoscenti. We came to learn that when we present blockbusters to make a profit, and pay an artist fee that in some cases approaches the cost of a BMW (that most Americans would no doubt choose instead), just one miscalculation (or thunderstorm) can sink us. The cognoscenti and others, by the way, were rewarded elaborately by the inexpensive superstars who played for an exquisite Audubon farewell concert on Labor Day weekend, including the three pictured above.

Incidentally, ‘classical’ music is really not the 'permanent collection' locked in a dusty canon for centuries, but a vibrant, exciting, and growing art attracting a surge of young players and composers around the globe, from Shanghai to Caracas to Kinshasa. (In case you haven’t noticed.) Unlike a painting by Rembrandt, also timeless but impossible to update, a Beethoven string quartet can be played in myriad ways, different for each generation and performance. But in our country one generation has been deprived of music in school and will never hear, or want to hear, a string quartet by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn. Although audiences distilled from millions in metropolitan regions like Los Angeles or New York show up in concert halls regularly, the economics of filling seats in the Playhouse in central Pennsylvania are increasingly perilous. Potential audience members may be unaware of most of Beethoven’s 55 piano sonatas and string quartets and may never have heard one of Bach’s 212 cantatas or any of Haydn’s 108 symphonies. Or even know that modern Beethovens live among us. Musicians know and have played all these works for centuries for good reasons.

So we asked ourselves and our friends, “Are there enough people ‘around here’ who still value the music that has nourished religions and cultures through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment and two World Wars, for 800 years?” Or has the time come to settle for other kinds of ‘arts and entertainment?’ 

A resounding “No!” came fast, loud and clear from our usual suspects, especially those on our board, in all the ways they could have expressed it. 
The answer from the Gretna community has not yet been clearly audible. 

Call me an old fossil, but I have believed, with the eloquent Paul Paulnack of Boston Conservatory, that “music is a basic need of human survival... one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.”  Hollow words, I suppose, to someone who hears human-generated sounds during every hour awake--but hasn’t listened much. 

We would be interested in hearing from you, having read this far. Respond to this post if you have an opinion.

Programs of our substantial winter season at Elizabethtown College and in Millersville’s Ware Center in Lancaster will appear here soon.

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