By Kenneth Huber

“Culture costs, but a lack of culture—Un-Kultur—costs much, much more.” These were the words of Maria Fekter, Austria’s Minister of Finance—not a cultural minister or artist—at the April 11, 2013, opening of the new Landestheater in Linz.  Perhaps the commonly held assumption that Europe views Art as more important to society than does the United States may still ring true, given the fact that so many of our beloved top tier American orchestras are beleaguered with economic woes.

Why do we not see preserving and nurturing our great arts institutions as essential rather than another agenda item to negotiate? Instead of determining their worth with economic pie-charts or balance sheets, let us consider for a moment some of the so-called intangibles that are often dismissed with a simple, “oh, yes, we all know that.”

The arts hold in crystalline suspension our hopes, our unspoken emotions, our yearning for something better, and our belief that indeed something beyond everyday routine exists. Great art acts as a unique prism allowing us to peer into our souls and spirits. In contrast to the therapist who seldom offers advice but simply plants questions stimulating self-reflection, art actually asks those questions…….AND answers them.

This nurturing and affirming force is fundamentally inherent in every great work of art. Why wouldn’t we simply want to call it quits after reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet or listening to Mahler’s First Symphony? Often times the central message (such as the trajectory from struggle to triumph embodied in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) is so clear that these works become almost pop metaphors. It is probable that Beethoven’s famous “fate knocking at the door” theme is more widely recognized than any other musical fragment. Somehow in early childhood we become acquainted with that ta-ta-ta-DAH motto. Adults seize every opportunity to quote it as a sign of musical literacy and cultural discernment! And why not? It is dramatic, memorable, thrilling, and occasionally autobiographical.

Maynard Solomon in his biography of Beethoven stated this most eloquently.

If we lose our awareness of the transcendent realms of play, beauty, and brotherhood which are portrayed in the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the dream of the Ninth Symphony, there remains no counterpoise against the engulfing terrors of civilization, nothing to set against Auschwitz and Vietnam as a paradigm of humanity’s potentialities. Masterpieces of art are instilled with a surplus of constantly renewable energy—an energy that provides a motive force for changes in the relations between human beings—because they contain projections of human desires and goals which have not yet been achieved (which indeed may be unrealizable.)

Is there a more powerful experience than listening to a world-class symphony orchestra performing in an acoustically superb concert hall? For decades school children have looked forward to being bused to that concert hall (while escaping the rigors of math and science) to be swept away hearing great music played live. Most any other aural experience pales by comparison, not to mention the intense and immediate interaction between audience and performer. In fact when that iconic Beethoven drama (or any other classic such as Handel’s Messiah) is advertised, we adults flock to experience anew the emotional and aesthetic high we remember from our youth.

A symphony concert is a social happening in which we gather together to share an ephemeral moment of consciousness raising us above mere existence. A kind of communal euphoria can unfold at a concert taking us far beyond the commonplace, elevating our thoughts and feelings to contemplate the aesthetically sublime. It becomes perfectly acceptable to confront our internal emotional life experienced en masse rather than in isolation. We allow ourselves to become vulnerable and to interact in ways that may not be “politically correct”—under other circumstances. We may flirt with the heavenly, inspired to press onward with challenges hitherto abandoned. Sometimes we reconnect with meaning that eluded us or lay dormant while waiting for the Muse to propel us to a higher calling. Concerts have historically brought us together in a way that nothing else can.

Concert going also allows cultures to merge in ways that no amount of shuttle diplomacy can—witness the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Daniel Barenboim which brought together young Arab and Israeli musicians as well as representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions to make music in Palestine’s Ramallah.  Or Sir Georg Solti’s World Orchestra for Peace in concert all over the world including New York City’s Carnegie Hall. These initiatives did not effect world peace, but they set the stage and led by example how those with vastly differing beliefs and values can come together in harmony to achieve something greater than the simple sum of the parts. The conditions necessary to make live music and to speak with one voice are more powerful than the fractious politics and religious ideologies that divide us.

Furthermore, the level of sophisticated talent needed to perform magnificent orchestral music beckons us to aim higher and aspire to seemingly impossible achievement. How many of us have returned from an inspiring concert by professional musicians, resolved to pick up an instrument that hasn’t been dusted off in months? It gives hope to anyone taking music lessons that we can indeed be “that good.”

There is no substitute for the live concert performance. Nothing can replace the glorious sonic experience of ninety-plus musicians all intent on delivering a heart-rending account of a Tchaikovsky symphony. We learn to listen inwardly and respond actively with our hearts. We must not allow the anticipation, excitement, and desire to hear live, acoustic music making be supplanted by the ease of clicking on an icon on our electronic listening device. If it does, then we lose part of our essential humanity and the capacity to soar and evolve as a civilized society.

Truths revealed in the great works of musical art bring us face to face with our core values—our fundamental human dignity that we naïvely glimpsed as children. Truth keeps us from straying too far from a higher calling and inspires us to keep faith with a Divine spark that lies buried deep in our psyche. As Victor Hugo reminded us, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Ultimately, when any great arts institution is threatened, our collective humanity is at stake.

—Kenneth Huber, ©2013
Lecturer in Piano, Carleton College