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June 15, 2007

On the proper identification of meteors

by Robert Levine

I believe, as a general rule, that the past is not so different from the present. No doubt that could be seen as a defensive posture on the part of someone entrenched in the orchestra industry. It may also be a by-product of spending most of my working hours with guys that have been dead for 200 years. If a transporter glitch were to materialize me into the viola section of Mozart's "Magic Flute" orchestra in 1791 at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, I'd be back to work in no time. Not many workers in any field could make a statement like that. Living in that kind of tradition has definitely colored my thinking about many things.

I also tend to the contrarian, so that the above belief is likely also a reaction to the tendency of "big thinkers" (and we have several in our midst) to emphasize change over continuity. Change is far more interesting to think about than is continuity, it's impossible to deny that there's a lot of it going on, and refusal to deal with change is a very poor survival strategy. But our job as analysts is not to think only about change, but to figure out what's really happening. That means, in part, making sure that what looks like change really is change, and not simply old phenomena in new clothing.

Few institutions in our society have the longevity of our major orchestras. That doesn't make them invulnerable. But when people call orchestras "dinosaurs," I remember that dinosaurs had a pretty good run - a few hundred million years or so (or maybe longer; some scientists believe that what you had for lunch was Kentucky Fried T. Rex Junior).

Some specific quibbles with what Greg Sandow wrote:

... Opera, we've long assumed, is important. Steampunk is curious,weird. And probably won't stick around as long as opera did, right? So opera is worth more, right? (Not that I'm posing those rhetorical questions in my own voice.)..First corrective to this: look at Billboard, the trade paper of the recording industry. Look at their charts and commentary for innumerable musical genres. See how classical music shows up as one of these -- as one of the lesser ones, in fact, a genre they don't feel they need to touch base with every week.
However, on iTunes, classical has done very well - much better than it's doing in CD format. And conventional wisdom is that the iTunes audience is younger and more hip than the CD audience. So put a hold on those assumptions about how badly our canon is doing with Gens X and Y.
And then Robert Levine: there's still a place, he says, for the canonical arts. I agree. But that place, in the future, will demand (at least as I see it) that they get stripped of their canonical status.

That's what I get for using a term without defining what I mean by it. Our canon is music that has not only stood the test of time but is the basis for our musical culture, both high and low. It's no accident that John Williams writes film scores for huge blockbusters that sound an awful lot like Elgar and Holst and Vaughn Williams, or that commercials still use music from the canon or derived from it.

That doesn't mean we devalue them. Mahler, who's been with us a long time, deserves some deference. But only because of what's actually in his work, and what it actually means (and has meant) in our culture..

Again, that's not news. Mahler has had his ups and downs, depending on how audiences perceive him, based on what's actually in the music. Music that consistently doesn't speak to audiences is not going to get programmed by an orchestra concerned with selling tickets.

. ..Some people, of course, will find that horrifying. These artworks are special. ... They need to be nurtured, funded, protected...But why? How does anyone argue for that? How do we justify, to our fellow citizens, all the money that goes for high art? These aren't academic questions...

High art has always required subsidy in a way that popular culture doesn't. But I don't think that Beethoven per se has ever needed protection. There's a reason why there are, say, revivals of 19th century popular art, but not of Beethoven. Beethoven never went away and never needed to be "revived."

I've seen some figures on the proportion of the population of certain major cities that the orchestras in those cities reach on a regular basis. ... I can't quote these figures, because they were told to me in confidence. But I can tell you that they're shockingly low.

But weren't they always pretty low? They might be somewhat lower now, but that doesn't mean the numbers have fallen off a cliff in the last decade or so.

As Mark Twain might have said, there are lies, damned lies, statistics.. and historical audience data about orchestras.

Posted by rlevine at June 15, 2007 3:13 PM


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