I have to admit I'm a little surprised by the comments on my last post, which was about the way we in classical music grasp for relevance by programming concerts built around things in history — Shostakovich and Stalin, for instance — that not many people care much about. And thereby showing how not relevant we are.
The response surprised me. But then after more than 30 years as a professional writer I know that even smart and sympathetic readers don't always get the full meaning of everything they read. And that, often enough, this is the writer's fault.
So, for whatever reason, the commenters read my post, and objected that Shostakovich's life under the Soviet regime really is relevant history, that we have artists repressed today, that we have painful controls in many places on what can be expressed, and that we need to think and talk about these things.
I wouldn't disagree. But my point was that programming that headlines Shostakovich and Stalin — that makes them the main attraction — won't get people talking. People won't come. The names won't provoke much reaction. Maybe once people do talk about repression and freedom, then they'll be fascinated by Soviet history from 80 years ago.
But before that, they won't be. But just saying, no matter how loudly, "Shostakovich and Stalin!" won't make them come to performances highlighting this history. Or buy CDs that invoke it.
The academic route
One estimable orchestra organized a symposium about S & S, which I'm sure interested some people who don't normally go to the orchestra's concerts. And in other ways may have bolstered the orchestra's place in its community (or, more precisely, in certain parts of its community). And may have been absorbing to attend.
I couldn't object to such an event. As part of a larger strategy to make the orchestra flourish, it has its place. But the main goal of any such strategy has to be to sell tickets. To make the orchestra so hot in its community that people — including many who don't go to symphonic concerts now — look at its programs and say, "Wow! Look what they're doing Thursday night! I've got to be there!"
I'd be amazed if Shostakovich and Stalin could do that. People should be interested, maybe, but right now they aren't. Contrast the likely (or anyway possible) reaction if the concert instead were about ISIS. Or, as I said in response to the comments, about the restrictions on teaching evolution in high schools that some states impose. These at least are current issues, things that people currently talk about.
But then what music would we play, to bring those issues alive?
Current relevance is a long discussion. But we've got to start having it.
Original Content: Maybe they should be interested, but…