Catherine Meurisse
Why we all need the live performing arts

Catherine Meurisse
Lawrence Goldman *69 *76, president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, received Princeton’s Madison Medal at Alumni Day this year. This essay is an excerpt from his Alumni Day talk about the way the arts can change individuals, cities, and society.

How many of you out there have laptop computers? How many have BlackBerrys? How many text message? How many check your BlackBerrys at meetings? While you’re pretending to listen? At dinner? At concerts? At bedtime?

It would be absurd to argue that these huge technological innovations have not, in some ways, made life easier for us. But don’t you think that these devices of instant communications also can be isolating, dehumanizing? That they represent the antithesis of living in the moment?

To me, e-mail is often not real human communication. It is a veneer of information exchange posing as human communication. Just ask somebody who’s met his or her date through the Internet whether the electronic foreplay was an authentic representation of the actual person. Text messaging may be worse — faux communications, like prehistoric grunts communicated through the Ethernet.

iPods: Someone listening to music through an iPod not only cuts himself or herself off from the world and retreats to an inner, isolated sanctum, but the quality of what they’re hearing is not even very good. Digital compression has seen to that. So what the home stereo does to diminish the live concert experience, the iPod does to the home stereo.

What is happening, in my view, is that convenience is defeating quality. We see it all over. Next time you’re pleading, “Do you hear me now?” and “You’re breaking up,” think of the good old AT&T phones of the 1950s and how clear everything sounded.

But worse than the compromise of quality is the diminution of the communal experience. Imagine the fanciest, most expensive home-entertainment center: surround sound. Plasma screen. Big speakers. Remotes that seem to reproduce like amoebas, all over the place. TiVo to program mainly what is comfortable, familiar. You sit alone, or with one or two others, and soak it all in.

Now think about the obverse of this experience, attendance at the live performing arts. The progression is important. You dress to suit the occasion. A rock concert: jeans. Classical music: maybe a tie, maybe slacks and a blazer (it should still be jeans if you want). You arrive at the theater or concert hall. Now you’re increasingly in a crowd, it’s probably dark or getting dark, the marquee is lit, there’s a buzz. The crowd thickens — you squeeze into the lobby. You see the line at the box office, you check out who else is there, you begin to feel a heightened expectation. An usher welcomes you. You pass from the congestion of the lobby through a series of sound and light locks and emerge into a vaulting, majestic, breathtaking space. A public space, a space for the public, a gathering space for a communal, civic activity. You take your seat. You look around, your voice lowers, finally the lights go down, and now you may — for a moment — feel alone. Just you and what is beginning to happen on the stage.

But then that changes. There is laughter, applause, possibly tears, groans, audible gasps of excitement and surprise. There is, in short, a collective energy, a common shared public experience. It’s as if audience members have agreed to rip out the earbuds of their iPods and assert that they are not disconnected, isolated individuals with hand-held electronic devices, but living, breathing human beings — part of a polity, sharing their feelings, their emotions with their fellow audience members, with the performers on the stage, in what is one of the few remaining collective experiences in modern life — the town square of the performing arts.

What has happened, if the performance is good and the audience is right, is that we have allowed the performing arts to interrupt the rhythm of our preprogrammed days and weeks and to stimulate, as Aristotle said, emotions like joy and pity and fear and sympathy — emotions that lie just below the surface of routine lives, but that sometimes need a little nudge to get out in the open where these emotions can be aired and shared.

Why, if this is such a great and possibly cathartic experience, don’t more people take advantage of it? Why do fewer than 10 percent of the American population regularly attend the professional performing arts? The answers are many. The arts are expensive. They are not convenient. There is a reduced amount of leisure time in our lives, and an even more radical reduction in the perception of leisure time. It’s been said that in 1973 the average American had 26 hours of leisure time per week. By 1997, that leisure shrank to 17 hours. A Ringling Brothers marketing executive reported that in 2005, after subtracting time spent on sleeping, working, child care, chores, commuting, and exercising, only nine hours of weekly leisure time remained.

But there is another reason for shrinking audiences, and, in my view, it is the fault of the arts. The performing arts have sometimes — too often — placed themselves on a pedestal. Too often, the performing arts are something to be approached only in black tie. Too often, they are positioned to be consumed only by the elite. To be genuflected to.

This should not be. In music, the “arts for the elite” restriction was challenged successfully in the 18th century when Mozart took symphonies and operas from the palaces on the hill and put them in the music halls on the streets.

Somehow, we have reverted. When I worked at Carnegie Hall in the 1980s, I learned that in the 20th century, an 11th commandment was added to the tablets: Thou shalt not applaud between movements. May lightning strike you.

Let me tell you a story. During the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s (NJPAC) first season, a quartet composed of Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Jamie Laredo appeared on our stage for the first time. I was beyond nervous. Here was Isaac Stern, my boss for almost a decade at Carnegie Hall, coming to play for the first time in an arts center that I had helped to design and build. The lights were lowered, the music started. To me it sounded glorious. And then, this audience — this audience of whom perhaps 50 percent were new to classical music but wanted to see what this big new performing arts center in Newark was all about — broke into spontaneous and heartfelt applause after the first movement of the first piece. I didn’t know what to think. And I considered going home.

Instead, I screwed up my courage and rushed backstage at intermission. There, outside his dressing room, was Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the nicest celebrity on the planet. I said, “Yo-Yo, I hope it didn’t upset you when the audience applauded after the first movement.” I shall never forget his words in return. “Larry,” he said looking me dead in the eye, “what I’m about to tell you I really mean. The next time I play here, you can put in the program, in capital letters, that it’s OK for people to applaud during movements.”

This notion of secular music being revered like holy prayer was not always the case. When Beethoven premiered his only violin concerto in 1806, the three movements weren’t even played in succession. The violinist Franz Clement, for whom the concerto was written, inserted a violin sonata of his own composition between the first and second movements. That’s not all. He played this piece on one string with the violin held upside down. While it wasn’t documented, I’d bet my last stuffed shirt that there was applause — plenty of applause — between movements that night.

Howard Gardner of Harvard has written extensively about multiple intelligences. What he means by this, I think, is simply that people — children — learn in different ways. Some learn in highly analytical and cognitive processes. Others learn empirically. Some learn through the arts. And it’s not just learning — it’s also the development of identity, discipline, self-esteem, and the capacity to enjoy the world.

Not every child is an A student who can go to graduate school at Princeton. Not every kid excels at soccer and gets recruited by college coaches. Some kids are good at dance or theater or can play jazz trumpet really well. This is how they connect and evolve. Some children may have no talent for the arts, but still find that their worlds are rocked — and changed — by live performance.

I see this almost every day at NJPAC. When I watch 500 children at a live performance of Tom Chapin and Friends or the Paper Bag Players, when I see them on the edges of their seats, the expressions on their faces, the laughter, the cheers — when I compare this to watching kids, including my own, with that lobotomous blank stare as they watch the DVD of Legally Blonde for the fourth time — I know that the argument for live performance and what it does to nourish the human soul is not an empty one.

Whether it’s experiencing 80 musicians backed by a chorus of 100 doing Beethoven’s Ninth, seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company performing its signature piece, Revelations, or hearing Mick Jagger and the Stones in a 20,000-seat arena and feeling your heart thump to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” live performance surely is like nothing else. In fact, the Rolling Stones may be Exhibit A: the Stones, who define rock ’n’ roll for at least two generations. The Stones, who personify agelessness, sexual permissiveness, and adolescent rebellion — even if you’re 62. The Stones, who in three bars of “Brown Sugar” can turn this year’s James Madison medalist into a dancing fool. Live performance shapes the human developmental experience in a way that is unique — it’s an argument that almost makes itself.