Reading Andrew Tommasini’s essay, “The Concert Hall as Refuge in a Restless, Web-driven Era” (The Arts, New York Times, Monday, September 14, 2015, C1+), I was struck by his musical reflection on Michael Harris’s argument in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, that the Internet may be eroding our attention spans. Thommasini suggests that the concert hall with its demands on long attention spans not only relies on our memories but it also provides opportunities to disconnect from the web and the constant distractions that it brings. In so doing, it offers us spiritual reprieve and solace. Reading him generously, I suppose we might think of the concert hall figuratively, including all of the places where live music making happens, or even more broadly, where the arts happen and we turn off our electronic devices and focus on whatever is before us, be it dance, drama, film, or visual art.
Yet there is an irony here. This summer, I was able to “attend” the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Verbier Festival, and the Salzburg Festival courtesy of my subscription to Medici TV that I streamed from smart phone to TV. I watched complete performances replete with applause and encores in high definition close-up videos of singers and instrumentalists and I heard them in wonderful fidelity. I was caught up in the sometimes live events that were occurring. Whether it be the young Mongolian singer, Ganbaatar Ariunbaatar, who won the Grand Prize at the 15th Tchaikovsky Festival, the youthful Daniil Trifonov who has burst onto the world scene as a superb pianist and chamber musician, or the 90 year old Menahem Pressler who played a piano recital in his inimitable way at Verbier, although I could not go to Moscow, Verbier, or Salzburg this summer, I could witness these performers from afar. Seeing and hearing these concerts, I had a sense of what was going on but I wanted to be there! Nevertheless, in the comfort of our music room, there was an intimacy that my seat in the concert hall could not have given me.
Much hangs on the use that is made of the inventions of our age. As a matter of public policy, it is imperative to educate people to use them wisely. In music, as the other arts, new technologies offer a remarkable opportunity to widen audiences and offer virtual experiences of performances through live streaming and archiving of performances. These virtual experiences bridge to live face-to-face music making and taking, and afford opportunities for audiences to closely attend to the music. They also constitute a refuge in today’s world.