After spending the evening at Wigmore Hall with an enraptured audience who’d come to worship at the altar of Alex Ross, I went to bed last night with a curiously deflated feeling. It wasn’t unlike the vague disappointment of having your meal turn up in the posh restaurant you’d booked into months in advance, and discovering it was exactly what you’d ordered but not actually that good. All of this was confirmed by our new best friend Twitter which was immediately zinging with 140-character put-downs that can be summed up in a mere eight: ‘so what?’

Not that Ross wasn’t ‘good’ per se. Anyone who’s been following his New Yorker columns for years or found him through his blog The Rest is Noise or later the book by the same name will be familiar with Ross’s broad themes, and they were well-represented last night. He is an astonishingly nuanced writer with an acute sensitivity to both the aesthetics of music and its social and political context. He was most moved and most moving when he talked about Shostakovich and Mahler. Sure a more cynical soul might suspect some sort of tie up with Le Poisson Rouge, the groovier-than-thou classical club in New York’s Greenwich Village, which was name-checked half a dozen times in the 45-minute lecture. I’m not that cynical, though, so I’d guess that for Ross LPR represents a flicker of hope about what might become a new model, rather too obsessively nursed.

It must be said that the writer is not a particularly charismatic speaker and I suspect that a more comfortable performer might have navigated more smoothly the failure of his sound and light show to come off as planned. Ross’s cause was unaided by the Hall’s sound technician who apparently joined the rest of us in thinking a mic failure was a John Cage track, and didn’t fix it till we were all squirming in our seats (just as we might have been during a John Cage track).

Still, it struck me that in some ways Ross’s views are actually rather ‘unfashionable’ in their refusal to embrace whatever clothes the emperor yanked on that morning. Not for Ross concert programmes served up on iPhone apps, or symphonic tweet ups. But not for him noses stuck in paper concert programmes or the blanket proscription against clapping either. And there’s the rub: he just thinks we should shut up and listen, and trust instinct to guide our response.

So we got Alex Ross – but was it Ross we wanted? I was chatting with a friend at the drinks party afterward who commented that most of the people who asked questions during the Q&A session seemed to be looking to Ross to ‘tell us what to do’. To clap or not to clap? To tweet or not to tweet? Carnegie Hall or Le Poisson Rouge? It struck me that these anxious queries were stand-ins for a more dangerous, existential question about what the future holds for classical music in the face of declining concert attendance and music sales. And quite naturally, perhaps, we wanted a rabble-rousing speech before Ross pulled back the curtain on a silver bullet, et voila. Instead we got what Ross does best in print: supporting the genre he’s clearly infatuated with by turning our attention to its most compelling features and then urging us to listen.

(This piece originally appeared on Dilettante Music on 9 March 2010)

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