The Meaning of the Moment


On November 16, The New York Times published an essay by its music critic Anthony Tommasini reflecting on several of his favorite moments in classical and operatic repertoire. “I’m not talking about big climactic blasts or soaring melodies,” he writes, “but about some fleeting passage, an unexpected twist in a melodic line, a series of pungent chords, a short theme that reappears briefly in a new musical guise. Often these moments are subtle and quiet, almost stealthy.” He describes such moments as magical, fleeting, transcendent. Be it listening to a piece of music, sitting in a theater, watching a dance, or gazing at a piece of art, lovers of every art form surely know the sensation of which he writes—those split seconds where time seems to stand still and we are immersed in a realm beyond ourselves. As part of the project, Tommasini asked readers to share their own experiences of musical treasure. Overwhelmed by the response (to date, the query has received 875 replies and counting), what followed is a nine-part video and blog series in which Tommasini takes off the hat of critic and dons the role of teacher. Each video dissects one particular musical moment. Seated at his piano, Tommasini plays through the passage in question, simultaneously discussing its musical narrative and highlighting the particular nuances that cause it to grab the listener just so.

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Like any fine instructor, Tommasini presents the subject matter with enthusiasm and knowledge. But unlike a lecture from an expert, the relevance of the session is derived as much from the audience as the teacher. Essentially the project asks devotees of an art form to reflect on their devotion. The subject is important not because an expert declares it so, but because the listener does. Tommasini comments in a follow-up essay on December 9 of the passion, intelligence, and clarity with which readers replied. Of the end of Debussy's Clair de Lune, one writer comments on the change of a single note, resulting in a "subtle change of harmony, like the instant of recognizing first love on a moonlit night." These moments, though brief, are deeply felt and moreover, personal.

As an engagement tactic, it’s a strikingly simple concept. Ask your current audience what moves them. Nudge them to remind themselves of their passion for what you do. In the process, create a forum for lively conversations to occur and then listen to what is shared. Tommasini’s “Musical Moments” project, of course, is able to utilize the human, financial, and technological resources contained at The New York Times. But with such a fundamental question driving it, we wonder if any arts organizations have taken on similar endeavors. To current arts managers who follow our blog, how does your organization garner feedback from the audience about their motivations for the art form you present? To arts patrons, have you participated in anything along the lines of the “Musical Moments” project? Would you want to?

Image Credit: Jillian Tamaki, Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company.