Musical CliffsNotes

ANN EGERTON

May 14, 1992|By ANN EGERTON

Symphony orchestras around the country have been trying different tactics to attract a younger crowd as the old reliable gray heads die off. Baltimore's symphony has been experimenting with a shortened casual concert on Saturday mornings and has just introduced an evening format in which the conductor chats with guest performers about pieces to be played and even accepts written questions from the audience.

It's a little hokey, and borrows from the ''Tonight'' show perhaps, but it's really musical CliffsNotes, an accommodation to attract and instruct the younger curious concert-goer who was raised on the Beatles and the Who. With this user-friendly arrangement, the concert-goer can be quickly edified as to what a concerto or etude is about, and how the various instruments are played to express a story or mood.

This orientation is necessary, it is said, because schools haven't been able to provide musical education for students for some time, thereby creating a generation of classical-music illiterates. (This may be true, but I remember being exposed to classical music in my school in the Fifties, and using the listening time to write boys' names in cloud-script on my saddle-shoes with my Esterbrook pen. So much for Carpe Diem.)

I use the term CliffsNotes as short-hand for both short cut and substitute. As any lazy (or desperate or disorganized or overloaded) student knows, CliffsNotes is the brand-name of booklets that contain shortened versions of literary classics with accompanying paragraphs on plot, character, theme, even a bit of criticism.

The little books may be nothing more than a cheat sheet to an English teacher who has assigned the originals to be read, but there is something, in part, almost touching about their existence and about the efforts of symphonies to jolly their audiences along. Both represent a gallant attempt to retain some of what has been high-minded and rigorous in our culture and which is being replaced by the more accessible components of today's folkways such as the quick, slick anonymity of shopping malls or MTV, indeed, just about any program on commercial television.

Perhaps this decline is the beginning of a trend as crime-fighting allocations of city budgets swell and cultural allocations diminish. Perhaps as schools, both public and independent, are forced to spend more of their money and energy on keeping students safe, drug-free and childless, many will settle for their charges reading a CliffsNotes version of a literary work as an acceptable completion of an assignment.

A recent trend in Hollywood is for studios to hire citizens to select from a few possible endings of movies and thereby guide products to make the most satisfying (and profitable) films. This isn't CliffsNotes exactly, but it's another sign that as real life becomes more dangerous and brutal, our intellectual life is becoming safer and softer, a kind of mush.

Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.

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