Spectator Sports, Good and Bad
To see Eric Johnson's fingers flying over his Fender Stratocaster as he hits "Cliffs of Dover" out of the park one more time is to enjoy something that is every bit as much an athletic performance and a spectator sport as baseball is. There is a thrill to watching people do difficult things exceptionally well, things that most of us can only take random sidelong swipes at.
I think this phenomenon extends across most musical traditions and genres. "Holy Cow, look at that!" has been a feature of classical music ever since the Renaissanceand perhaps even before. People might not understand what a modulation is or why it is important, but everyone knows that creating that many sounds at the same time and/or that fast is really hard, and most people think it exciting to watchregardless of whether the sounds come from a guitar, a piano, or a violin. Opera and vocal music in general have, of course, long depended on peoples' instinctive appreciation of rare and special and superbly trained people doing supremely well something that most of us can do but poorly.
The 19th century was a golden age of concert music as spectator sport; Paganini and Liszt drove audiences into frenzies with their electrifying technical skills. But even today, thrilling athleticism in musical performance remains a huge drawing card.
I have a modest little YouTube channel. Do a Google search on cremonaguy (which refers to the home town of Antonio Stradivari) and you'll get a link to the channel's webpage. In the column of Uploads, click on "Kristof Barati plays the 1741 Giuseppe [Guarneri (del Gesù), exHenri Vieuxtemps violin]" (only the first six words appear in the Uploads list). The video, live and unedited, shows the young Hungarian violinist playing a paraphrase (by the 19th-century Moravian virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst) of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig." The piece is fiendishly difficult: The solo violinist must suggest not only the song's ominous, complex piano accompaniment with its rippling bass line, but also, at the same time, personalize the drama of this lied. All that, plus left-hand pizzicato.
While most of the videos I have uploaded to Cremonaguy's channel have had fewer than 1000 views (and many fewer than 500), Baráti's "Erlkönig" video has had more than 18,000 views as of this writing. That total pales a bit in comparison to Edgar Cruz's video about how to play Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the classical guitar (11 million views), but 13,500 isn't shabby. For some reason, the Baráti video has gone viral in a way my other videos have not. I'm sure that that reason is the spectator-sport aspect. Which is okay.
It is also a little frustrating. After you watch the Baráti video, please also watch the video I shot (and synced up to 24-bit/96kHz-derived high-resolution sound) of Arturo Delmoni and Steve Martorella playing Nathan Milstein's arrangement of Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor. In its own way, it is every bit as much a lesson in how the violin should be played as is the Baráti video. Watch the finesse with which Delmoni plays the second scale run, starting at 3:27. That, too, is athleticism, and engrossing to watch, especially if you've ever played the violin, or even tried to. But the Delmoni video has had only 1000 views to date.
The spectator-sport side of classical music seems to be a self-limiting phenomenon. For years, violinist Gene Fodor was a favorite of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson's. Fodor would appear, play some fiendishly difficult piece, the audience would ooh and aah, and classical music would continue its downward slide in market share. That's because brief but exciting, technically difficult pieces are the empty calories at the classical-music smorgasbord. A diet consisting of nothing but such works is tedious and not nourishing.
May I be so bold as to suggest that there is a possible parallel with audio journalism? Reading the postings on some audio bulletin boards and some of the letters we receive, I conclude that a subset of audio enthusiasts regard equipment reviewing as a spectator sport more akin to TV wrestling than to Olympic wrestling. Some readers seem to want to read reviews that are little more than takedowns and smackdowns. A negative review is praised on these boards simply for being negative. Some people claim that we at Stereophile don't write enough negative reviews. Therefore, the magazine's reviewers must be on the take.
What I find curious about these complainers is that they don't seem to be in the market for equipment. They don't seem to be looking for actionable intelligence about how to wisely spend their money. They are spectators and nothing else. I think they just want the vicarious thrill of seeing some designer they think haughty, or some company they think piratical, getting their supposed just desserts. What is tragicomic is the illogic of their default position: that a negative review is by definition courageous and honest, while a positive review is automatically suspect.
Spectator-sporting can be good or not so good. It's pretty obvious that it has been a mixed blessing for classical musicyou reach more people, but they care a lot less. My real point is that wanting reviews of audio equipment to be a spectator sportto be entertainment in and of themselves, instead of ways to make prudent buying decisionsis shortsighted and unfair.