Why We Play the Old Stuff EVERY Year

I was responding on Greg Sandow’s blog to why the classical industry largely continues to play the standard repertoire each year.  We musicians of that industry can no longer take for granted that the WHY of classical is self-apparent.  Though enhanced here, I wrote:

The purposes of playing “the same works over and over” I believe are some of the following:

1) The standard repertoire is so inspirational, (fun, powerful, technical, musical), that I could never get tired of playing them. I can put myself into them; make them my own. A great composition gives the musicians more to play with and the proof of its greatness is whether it still stands up in its one-millionth performance.

2) It is a valuable legacy of humanity to itself, based in part on democratic principles, and is the most dramatic among the world’s different music. Everyone can and deserves to experience something of their own humanity represented in sound.

3) These works actually CHANGE from one performance to another, although perhaps too subtle for new audience to notice. That’s why repetition (esp. time listening) is so rewarding. Different recordings, conductors, moods, players, halls then make the same music FEEL very different. 

4) Both audience and players relish more chances to discover new cross-relations within the cannon: quickly they become good friends.

5) Musicians COMPETE WITH other ensembles & musicians. When inspired, we want to out-play each other. The world-class standard is our Olympics, our dream, our mission.

6) This is what we trained for: this music DEFINES classical as a solid medium. The canon sets the high standard most composers compete with or struggle against. Such competition (in my book) makes about half of us better composers. What’s not to like? Oh yeah; if classical doesn’t necessarily reflect YOU or TODAY, try thinking of classical as FANTASY, like a movie, or even as a GAME, like America’s Got Talent.

7) We must show what came before, what happened since, and what’s happening now: there is no vacuum. One end of the timeline defines the other end.


Taking this further, I will now add

8) The problem, if any, is abundance. There’s simply too much music we might want to try. In picking our strategy to absorb all that we might, it may seem easier to write off the whole cannon. I WANT to remain open to all humanity has to offer… but I can’t imagine taking in as much as possible without getting depressed. Rachmaninoff said, “Music is enough for a lifetime; but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

9) Implicit in the names X Symphony Orchestra, X Opera and X String Quartet is the commitment to continue performing primarily symphonies, operas and string quartets; commitment to bringing what defines classical music to life with each concert. While this has come to mean PRESERVING the old medium, and a dull stagnation for arguably MOST Americans, it is nonetheless the stated mission of these institutions that we will not change much. Ensembles committed to new music are available in many major cities, and are the best prepared to satisfy any desire to chuck the old repertoire.

10) The psycho-mechanics of diatonic harmony are still valid in larger culture, thanks in part to guitars and songs. Atonality is great in its own way, but tonic-dominant structures and harmonic modulations create a dramatic alternation of building tension and release in a series of waves that climax near each ending. This makes a very sensuous blending of inevitability with surprises, even if we know those surprises are coming. We choose whether or not to suspend our disbelief in movies as well as in music. We who can’t get enough Bach choose to ride his dramatic waves, just as musicians choose to realize their own re-creations in performance.

11) The fact that someone like me can compose lyrical music in the “old styles”, blending in some “folk music of our own time” like urban pop, and make it build to a satisfying climax means the classical medium is simply another TOOL in our arsenal of self- expression and reflection. When we believe this tool is powerful, then it is truly universal and not anachronistic. It has always been about faith.

12) Speaking of faith, you’ll find me comparing classical music to spirituality and a church quite a bit in these pages. It’s a fitting way to make sense of the tradition and its impact. These long-dead composers seem to be our saints. Canonized long after death, it seems we prefer our best composers long gone anyway; perhaps because they aren’t around to be humans anymore.

13) Continuing with the church analogies; slow works tend to feel like hymns, prayer or meditations, while fast works feel like animations or a good workout, which is another kind of spirituality. This is why I believe it’s best to hit new audiences with the lively ones.

The Best Earworms Money Can Buy

As symphony musicians, symphonies become, for lack of a better word, LOVERS.  This is certainly because we’ve practiced, rehearsed, heard, watched, studied and performed them so many times. We trained to play these. And the more we studied our parts, the more we loved them, they began loving us back. Giving them up would feel like giving up SEX! Fortunately, we never have to. We know these well enough to sing thru large parts of whole works. You should see me conduct (and sing) my cat thru some Brahms 4 until he jumps of the couch to find some peace. That’s why, for me, the most valuable thing about classical repertoire is its memorability. New music has trouble meeting this standard.

In conclusion: It should not surprise us that the industry works to preserve its own foundations. I wouldn’t want to destroy art museums just for the sake of making room for new art. Instead, we built new museums for new art. The same can be built for new music: we can have BOTH and find our own balance.

A burning question new audiences pose for traditional classical musicians then becomes:
How can we infect new listeners with our deep affinity on their first time?

With CutTime events and music, we’ve uncovered several easy methods: SO easy, they will seem silly and unprofessional to most professionals. And yet only professionals can possibly do them.

Can you guess what some of them are? Here’s a clue.

CutTime quartet + percussion on club stage as people listen on
CutTime Simfonica plays both background and foreground in clubs, changing the soundtrack of life.


2 thoughts on “Why We Play the Old Stuff EVERY Year

  1. David E. Robinson III Reply

    Keep up the great work, Rick. The orchestral and chamber music of old is absolutely timeless. Bringing the music to the people is a great thing. I do it with my youth orchestra, Sinfo-Nia as we have performed for so many predominately black audiences that would not otherwise see an orchestra performing live – church musicals, shopping malls, debutante cotillions, youth programs, banquets, “Hosea Feed the Hungry,” and other community events. We bring class to them and the audiences respond favorably. Although we will play some R & B, Negro spirituals, gospel, reggae, etc., we also play classical music, which many develop an appreciation for. I like what you wrote in your blog. This adds to why music is important in the public schools. We see that they have been cut in many major cities. Even the Atlanta Public School System have made cuts. I am in Dekalb County where we are now the only metro-area school system that still offers instrumental music in elementary schools. Keep on blending the music. Classical music is the foundation of all of it, even hip-hop.

  2. Chris du Plessis. Reply

    Thank you for a spot-on answer. May I add that I (and millions other people), as a non-musician, listen to “the same old Stuff” because it is art, because we love it and because it is timeless. That distinguish it from almost all form of so-called “modern music” which does not meet any of these criteria.

What do you think about this?