On Sunday my wife and I heard a really splendid concert. The UC Alumni Chorus, a fine small pickup orchestra and organist, and the UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales teamed up to perform one of my long-time favorites and something I’d not heard before (the Poulenc Gloria and the Duruflé Requiem respectively–credits here). The performances were superb, with the ensemble of the enormous double chorus in the Poulenc especialy impressive for an amateur group, much less four of them, but that’s not what made the concert such a winner.
This was an example of a kind of art experience that used to be much more important in people’s lives than it is now: that is, a serious extended effort by talented non-professionals to enrich their neighbors’ lives with something that took some work by listeners, and that paid it back amply. Probably more than half the audience were friends and relatives of the performers, and the rest were part of the Berkeley community, so the listening experience was greatly informed by a web of personal relationships and local pride. You could feel the net of social capital being woven and reinforced with every note.
Wagner, for all his other meshugais, was much concerned that music be a collective enterprise of a community in exactly this way (Die Meistersinger is a template for this idea). The ‘program’ comprises expert, erudite, semi-pros giving real concerts, along with amateurs playing chamber music and jamming at home, and fans singing popular songs and the odd opera opera aria in the street or the shower. The point of this model is that the performers at formal events are doing their stuff in the name of, and for the well-being of, a larger community that has other groups and bands of talented folks doing other things very well and with similar pride and affection (in the opera, the bakers, tailors, and shoemakers model this diversity). You may not be literally singing at the annual concert of the local masters, but you are part of the performance, maybe because you spent the fall hearing your next-door neighbor endlessly practicing the second alto part, maybe because you paid for the music lessons of your son the first trumpet, maybe just because you’re enjoying the discovery of how high your friends can reach.
A chorus is an especially good organization for this kind of art life, because the enterprise itself requires that people get together in person and because a fairly wide range of voice excellence can be accomodated. Berkeley, I am proud to say, also rejoices in a community chorus that has no auditions and every year rehearses and performs a really demanding work at a very high level.
It’s harder to use plastic arts in this community-building, attention-intensifying way because painting, photography, and sculpture are intrinsically solitary. But it’s not impossible and worth imaginative efforts to pull it off; after all, some of of us are tone-deaf and/or tin-eared.
Will local groups ever reach the technical and insight levels of world-class professional groups? Of course not. So doesn’t the artistic experience of loading up the immortal von Karajan Brahms Requiem in a CD player and listening to it on a really good stereo system eclipse hearing your friends and neighbors do it pretty well after a lot of hard work? Nope, not a bit. I have lots of really top-class CDs of lots of different kinds of music, and there’s nothing wrong with any of it, but I wouldn’t trade Sunday’s concert for fifty hours of listening to any recorded music; in fact there are probably not a dozen professional concerts I’ve ever heard that I got more out of. One reason for this is the sociology of the experience, but another is that we just listen much more intensely and engage more completely when we’re tied to an artistic presentation by personal links. The art experience (leave aside its social aspects) inside my head is more complicated, more completely heard, and better understood in a community performance. This improved listening can more than make up for the better chops (and I don’t mean in any way to disrespect the importance of excellence in the arts as conventionally understood) of the stars I pay big bucks to hear in professional venues.
Public policy towards the arts almost completely ignores amateur participation of all kinds, and partly as a result (other influences are at work) we spend too little time making art and enjoying our friends doing it. I conjecture that because the experience of the best professionals, especially in recordings and reproductions, subconsciously disappoints us by lacking the snap vouchsafed by personal engagement, we wind up not engaging with art enough overall.