Watching Paint Dry: Banging Through the Stigma of Classical Music


By Rob Tomaro, Classical Music Editor of Cashbox Magazine

"You want me to do what? Do you realize the Canucks are in the playoffs tonight? But, instead, you want me to put on a tie and go see your cousin's kid play the violin? Are you nuts?"

This vituperous outburst, or something quite like it, occurs regularly around exasperated moms, wives, nieces and the like as they try to drag recalcitrant hubbies, brothers and significant others to symphony concert halls all across North America. Most guys would rather be yanked down into the caves by Morlocks than sit through Brahms.

The question of how and why this seemingly impenetrable wall went up around the classical music performance experience in our culture has long frustrated pundits and duffers, alike.  

And I'm not excluding myself from the stigma. I was a rock guitar player, then a composer.  Then, I somehow stumbled into a symphonic conducting class in graduate school and the next thing I knew, Beethoven was shaking me by the lapels and he's never let go.  Now, I 'm one of those annoying people you see jumping up and down at cocktail parties and railing into the wind:  "It's not boring!  Classical music can be exciting and fun!," which ranks in credibility just behind:  "Eat your peas!  They're good for you."

In our culture, the classical music performance experience is synonymous with unbearable tedium, an impression that's been drilled into us since birth.  It's perceived as an anachronistic leftover from a previous and now extinct aesthetic system, like a prehensile fin. Parodied endlessly on TV and cartoons, we've been inundated with images of pompous Maestros huffing and puffing onstage in their butler costumes while concertgoers try valiantly to stay awake.  

But it's just not like that, not if, as happened to me, something clicks inside and you get it. 

I didn't wake up in a conservatory at the age of twelve wearing a horsehair wig and Mozart clothes.  I was a halfback and a decent second baseman. It's Beethoven's fault.  At some point in my life, I must have needed, really needed to hear what he was putting down.  It spoke to me  more clearly and deeply than anything, and now nothing can take its place. 

My favorite moment after a concert is when, inevitably, some guy comes out of the audience and finds me backstage and says: "You know, my wife dragged me here, but I gotta admit it, that was actually good.  I'm comin' back."

Because it validates the fact that Beethoven speaks for himself, him and Brahms and the rest.   They reach out to us from across the years and rivet us in our seats, connect us to the flow of life and human kind, which is comforting and better than eating our peas, after all.

Beethoven better speak for himself, alright.  If he doesn't come across, then classical music has had it.   Fortunately, the connections that seem to be hard wired into us, the ones that tune into Beethoven, they're still picking up his signal. So, maybe classical music and the human race will both be hanging on for the foreseeable future.