Opinion: Classical Concerts are Better Than Classical Recordings

Concerts!  What about them?  I took them for granted while in music school–let’s put that out there.  With the hundreds of annual performances, I missed a multitude of evenings because I had my head in a textbook, with some headphones on in the library, or writing notes on paper.  And I’m glad I studied, listened, and composed.  But I forgot that once I would get out of college, I would lose the connections to many of the great concerts throughout the year.

Luckily, I’ve been able to attend some great concerts after graduating.  The three most recent:

  1. Yovianna Garcia and the Alturas Duo presented by the Connecticut Guitar Society (everything from Bach to Chilean folk music to newly composed music and premieres).
  2. Janet Arms and other Hartt musicians performing works for flute (plus other instruments) composed by Hartt School Composition Professors (Robert Carl, Stephen Gryc, David Macbride, Larry Alan Smith, Ken Steen, and Joseph Turrin).
  3. The ensemble “Foot in the Door” performing works of the sound/noise/modern European/Spectralist nature (Scelsi, Furrer, Sciarrino, and Grisey).

Attending these three wonderful performances has led me to a conclusion that seems fitting: I like classical music better live, as opposed to recorded, and I think classical concerts are better than classical recordings.

Why do I say this?  Classical music isn’t usually as recording-dependent as popular or other styles of music.  When I listen to my favorite progressive metal bands, you can bet my ears are dependent on the thickness of synths, layered guitars, vocal doublings and harmonizations, and explosively miced percussion.  That music is dependent on the recording studio–I have nearly always found live textures of these bands to be greatly thinner than their albums.  Classical music, however, is generally different.  I don’t hear as much overdubbing, and the texture and orchestration is usually determined by the composer or the structure set up by the composer for the piece.

When one attends a classical concert, generally the orchestration, texture, and overall feel of the piece is the same as if it were recorded.  You don’t lose layers of sound, overtones, and harmonies to the same extent that you do when you are comparing a rock band’s studio and live albums.  You may ask, “What about the technical level of performance?  Aren’t recordings usually more technically correct and precise than live performances?”  To this I devote the next ideas:

Drama of live performance is a huge factor.  This goes for any musical or artistic performance–and even applies to a sporting event or TV game show.  The charisma of a performer, the stage presence, the ability to show what they have to offer, and the close proximity to the precipice of disaster are all factors that elevate the mood of a live performance.  I would rather see a performer bare it all and make some mistakes, than have a recording that leaves me with no physical impression of the person actually playing the music.

And that brings me to my next argument: since a recording is of one performance, it is a very static object.  A live performance is different each time, even by the same players on the same repertoire.  (There is a caveat to this–one can always re-record.  It is no surprise that Glen Gould caused such a stir when he re-recorded the Goldberg Variations–people expect recordings to be immortal, static, and immaculate!)

When one hears a recording, one often doesn’t see the musicians who made that recording.  Live music adds the visual element, but also something a video can’t either: the human element.  The connection between performer and audience member is electric in a performance, and that connection can’t be transferred by electrons through wires into reproduction.

And there’s also the audience itself.  The social experience of being at a concert, being able to talk about it right after, and experiencing something with someone sitting right next to you is different than listening to Naxos at the library or at on the ride home.  You can of course listen to recordings in groups, but this isn’t the full step forward into a full communal concert experience.

The recordings typically made by classical musicians don’t really enhance the musical experience of the piece being performed, and so the recordings pale in comparison to the experience of a live concert.  This is different from other genres, where the production is different.

I hope to attend more concerts; I realize I used to take them for granted.  I hope you don’t make the same reclusive mistakes I’ve made.


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