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An Optimist in War Time: Cultural Sphere Benefits From Increased Activism

Friday April 04, 2003

Even as the country has been plunged into a war, something positive might still come out of all this. Whatever the outcome of the pending crises, and whatever their duration, a significant portion of this country just may have been reawakened to become active, involved participants — players, voters, protesters, hell-raisers. 

The most important manifestation of that would, of course, be in the political, social and economic spheres. Beyond that, were there to be such a changing attitude toward personal activation, it would have to spill over into the cultural realm. 

The awakening entails people starting to value important things that they had been lulled into taking for granted or simply ignoring. This includes such a wide range of former “givens” as decent education for next generations and the availability of music from institutions long regarded as solid and high-minded but now threatened or taking on a commercial outlook. There’s no end to the list of our unchallenged assumptions.  

In the San Francisco Classical Voice, the particular concern is, of course, music. Our priority is to stimulate and perhaps deepen the engagement of people in the musical experience. That starts with bringing out, even just reminding readers, about what is so special, so treasurable, so valuable in this work, that work, this or that performer’s skills, this genre, say symphony, or that, say opera. 

We naturally presuppose that many people are involved in classical music; after all, just look at the attendance and patronage. But the seriousness, the depth or quality of the involvement is not so obvious. That has changed over time with the changes in our world and culture. In the 1930s, young though I was, I was always aware of audience members during intermissions and just after, buzzing about the music, the performance, praising, disparaging, arguing. You don’t hear that today. 

In that earlier time, attendance at the live concert or opera was a bigger deal than today. There was no alternative source. Performances then were not competing with or being diluted by the TV, LP, CD experience. Granted that those technologies have greatly expanded the interest in music. However, it might also be instructive to read our readers’ answers to the Question of the Week, “What was your most memorable childhood musical experience?” 

Almost every answer cites a live performing event, not a recording or broadcast. This does not intend to rule out such inspirational sources of our youth as the Met or major symphony broadcasts, especially for those in rural or small-town America. But it is the interaction with the live performance that strikes deepest. 

What the musical community is combating alongside every other creative force in society, and for that matter, politics, is passivity. It is passivity in perception and in the mental processing of information. It is passivity expressed in nonparticipation, unresponsiveness, inaction.  

Americans have been programmed in this passivity by the very means with which news, entertainment and cultural expressions are communicated: the television and related electronic media. 

It is well known and much discussed that these means do not encourage interaction. Watching news on TV hardly promotes the thoughtful consideration that is possible and fostered by the process of reading the newspaper. The newspaper is clearly a rapidly dwindling institution. There are only 16 cities left in the United States that still have more than one newspaper; only 200 papers are independently owned. 

A people who become less thoughtful, less active intellectually, become poorer listeners to music and are more inclined to favor, if not to insist upon, entertainment. Entertainment, after all, is now a dominant force in our culture. This takes the creative energy out of music life, frustrating, blocking those with something to say, something that is challenging, that addresses the whole and active listener. 

Musical institutions do take worthwhile steps to draw their listeners into more active engagement with the music itself, through pre-concert lectures, talks by the music directors and other strategies. The San Francisco Classical Voice tries to encourage the interactivity at the heart of the musical experience by providing a breadth of reviewing no longer offered by the drastically reduced press. 

These and other actions help, but in music as in all other fields, education, for one critical example, it will take a lot to turn the people of this nation around. 

Just maybe, the shock of the momentous events that are unfolding may have that positive effect. 


A version of this article first appeared in San Francisco Classical Voice. Robert P. Commanday, a Berkeley resident, is the editor of SFCV, which can be found at He is a former music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.