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Lunch with Steven Moeckel, Phoenix Symphony concertmaster

As the classical-music critic for The Arizona Republic, I get to talk to all sorts of performers, some interesting, some boring, most hoping to sell tickets for their upcoming event. But once in a while, an opportunity presents itself for more.

A few months ago, I had lunch with Steve Moeckel, entering his fourth season as concertmaster for the Phoenix Symphony, in advance of a concert. We talked for two hours, dispensing with the obligatory interview early, but continuing on with a discussion about the future of classical music, culture in general and the city’s search for an identity.

It seemed unfair that I would have the pleasure of this conversation while readers would get only the sales portion of the meeting. So I let the tape recorder run, to see what might come of it.

We met downtown at Hanny’s, which plays classical music in the background at lunchtime, making conversation possible.

“Can I get you all something to drink?” asked the waitress.

I asked for iced tea.

“I would love a soda water,” Moeckel said, “and a cup of coffee.”

“Cream in that?”

“No, nothing.”

Bach’s “Air on a G-String” was playing in the background.

We talked about Moeckel’s then-upcoming concerts and about where the symphony is going. He had a salad; I ordered the pizza Margherita. We talked and ate, and when we finished eating, we talked some more.

About the German-born Moeckel’s love of British composer Edward Elgar. About the difference in intonation between playing with an orchestra and with a piano. About the difficulty of playing Beethoven for judgmental German audiences.

Most of all, we talked about the future of classical music and its audience.

“I sometimes see a younger face in the audience, but mostly it’s an older crowd,” I said. “It used to be when you got to be 40, you’d get a subscription to the newspaper and begin going to the symphony. But that seems to have changed. Our 40-year-olds now have grown up on rock and roll.”

“But that’s not all that changed,” said Moeckel, who’s just 33. “Now, you are 40 with a family, and both parents probably work, and maybe raising two kids. An evening at the symphony means a baby-sitter, and let’s say you buy two $40 tickets and dinner first. It turns into a $200 evening, which is OK once in a while, but you can’t do that every week.”

“That’s certainly true,” I said. “But I worry that the musical culture has changed so much, that what classical music has to offer, most people now are deaf to.

“They’ve grown up on music whose primary virtues are rhythm and melody, while the core of classical music is its harmonic structure.”

The waitress refilled our drinks. Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” played on the loudspeaker.

I continued, “You listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, and you can take those melodies and reharmonize them in any way you want. And they do – every time you hear it, it’s a different arrangement. You can’t do that with Schubert because the harmony is what the music is doing. The emotional content of a Schubert song comes through its harmonization.”

“That’s certainly true of Schubert,” Moeckel said. “But that doesn’t explain the older audiences. Surely, they didn’t grow up listening to Beethoven. They didn’t grow up with classical music, either.”

“No,” I replied, “but they did grow up on popular music that was based on the same harmonic underpinning as classical music. If you listen to ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ or ‘Stardust’ or Duke Ellington – or any big band, really – the harmonies are clear.

“But as popular music progresses to bebop, all of a sudden, they’re playing the upper partials, as they called them, and the harmonic drive becomes less important.”

“That’s true,” Moeckel said. “It makes me think about how long does popular music stay popular. Tastes change.”

Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G-minor started up behind us. Not all taste changes.

“I haven’t quite given up on youth yet,” he continued. “Nowadays, everything is very complacent and you’re bombarded, especially with your computer, bombarded with videos and Facebook. It all spreads so quickly that they don’t actually get to know whether they like it or not. Or is it just something they’re doing because it’s what you do?

“And I think as human beings we will end up having a craving for what’s interesting. And that’s what’s going to generate our future. So I’m hopeful when you go back to basics, you will rediscover some listening.”

“I share some of that optimism,” I said. “But for me, that doesn’t carry over to classical music. I wish there were a better word than ‘classical’ – in art music, there’s a sense of engaging with the human experience, with the experience of being alive. And pop music is pretty much about being entertained. And that’s fine. We all like to be entertained, but there comes a time when you want to have something deeper.”

“Yes,” he said. “For me, that was classical music. That really gets to the bottom of what I want.”

“But it doesn’t do that for most people,” I said. “I do think most young people will demand something better, deeper, but I don’t think they’ll demand it from violins and bassoons. I think they’re going to demand it out of something closer to a rock band, and somewhere along the line, some new Jimi Hendrix will be creating art music with the sounds they grew up with. After all, Mozart is not that much different from 18th-century popular music.”

“All right, I’ll take that,” Moeckel said. “But when that person comes along, he’s going to be going back to the Schuberts, to the sense of chord progression, which is where the depth is. It’s going to change, because the reason art exists is there is still a sense of needing to make an impact, to address what is the purpose of life, and I don’t think those core questions will ever change, and art is the closest you can get to resolving that. Not yet another iPod.

“My goal is to play a concert, whether it is Mozart or the theme from ‘Schindler’s List,’ and make it so people feel something. If I can do that, even if it’s for only two bars, then I’ve done my job.”

“Interesting to hear you put it that way,” I said, “because sometimes it seems like – not just two bars – but some moment at a concert, there is something transcendent. And that’s what you go for. The rest of the concert you can enjoy, but it is that incandescent moment that you are here for.”

“I can tell you the very bar in the Beethoven concerto that has to be a glimpse into heaven,” he said.

“I know what bar it is,” I said.

“If it comes across,” he said, “even if you don’t normally listen to Beethoven, it’s, ‘What was that?’ And if that remains our purpose, then we’re making a difference, and classical music will survive.”

“I hope so, too, but I’m not as sanguine,” I said.

“It’s just like the way people will get tired of reading newspapers online,” he said.

“You think so?”

“Yes. There’s going to be a time when people say, ‘I’d like to pick up a pen and do the crossword puzzle on a table.’ I really don’t think this whole being-constantly-bombarded-with-everything-at-once is going to continue. It’s not sustainable.”

“I’m certain it’s not sustainable,” I added, “but there is another possibility, that it just ends.”

“You mean total decadence?”

“Well, I’m in the middle of reading Gibbons right now . . . “

“Wow! It just ends. ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’?”

“We’re traveling far afield, here,” I said. “But as the art critic, it’s always interesting to see the classical forms of sculpture as they become decadent in the second and third centuries. You see it in the loss of ability to create convincing drapery in a statue.

“The Greeks saw drapery as revealing the form underneath, so, when you see a classical Greek statue wearing a peplos or a tunic, it drapes in such a way as to be realistic, as if someone paid attention to the world.

“As you get into the second century, the drapery becomes just a decorative motif. It can be very graceful, but it no longer relates to the human being underneath it. You also see the heads get bigger and the arms get shorter, and it becomes more like ‘I know how to draw, say, a horse, so I don’t have to look at a horse.’ It becomes stereotyped, and each version moves a little further from reality, and your care for your interaction with the world becomes more attenuated.”

“Again, OK,” Moeckel said. “However, is that because the artist feels there is less attention, less appreciation for the extra work he would do to pay attention, or because the artist can ‘get away with it,’ or is it that the artist says it is no longer necessary?”

“Mostly for the last,” I said. “But it is necessary.”

“There’s a moment in any art form, though, when it just changes,” he said. “And it becomes less important to create carefully observed horses.”

“But what’s gone is the sense of importance that the horse, or the drapery, has more than one meaning.”


“Just as in so much music, what is lost is that sense of harmonic rhythm, or that structure has any meaning. If you find a popular musician and ask them if they have ever considered the Neapolitan sixth chord, they most likely won’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But that’s a problem that can be remedied,” he said.

“But my expectation,” I said, “is that it will not be remedied by Neapolitan sixth chords, but by going in some other direction, and I’m fine with that, but I lament that it also probably means the death of symphony orchestras and string quartets. Not immediately, but in the not-too-distant future, and maybe not in Vienna or Berlin, but in Dayton, probably, and maybe Phoenix, too.”

“Well, it will be interesting to see,” he said. “We’ll touch base in 10 years and see how it’s going.

“But look what Phoenix has gone through. The city is trying to find an identity, and a newspaper, an orchestra, an art scene, is part of that identity. It’s part of defining what a city is. And I believe that that can’t be lost, because it’s part of our heritage, and I feel more and more people nowadays are looking to that, because everything else is crumbling.

“With the reset of the market, it has made people think differently. Now, if people buy a home, it’s because they want to live in it, not flip it two years later.

“That’s the argument I use for things in society. They push the limits till it gets absolutely ridiculous, and then something happens and a lot of people get hurt, sadly, but then the mentality changes. You approach things differently. You value the things you have more. And those things include the cultural aspect of a community.

“Those resets happen every so often, they just do.”

The waitress approached. “Who gets the check?”

I put up my hand. “The Republic has an ethics policy,” I said. “We buy lunch.”

We also left the tip.

“You’ve lived in some places that have a sense of themselves,” I said. “You lived in Tucson, which certainly has that. And Salzburg, which is beyond that. It’s actually full of itself. I lived in Seattle. When you live there, you know it means something. If you live in New York, it means something. What does it mean to live in Phoenix?”

“We have to figure it out,” he said. “And we have to figure it out fast.”


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