Some questions

Here’s a piece I wrote this summer for the Aspen Festival program book. Comments welcome!


We hear that there’s a crisis in classical music, that the audience might disappear and that in fact it’s getting smaller. We hear that classical music institutions, even some of the major ones, might be in trouble, and that they aren’t selling enough tickets, or raising enough money.


But here I don’t want to look at the complex facts and figures of the apparent decline, nor the innovations in performance (video screens at orchestral concerts, conductors talking to the audience, musicians in informal dress, and so much more) that have been tried, to turn things around.


Instead, I want to look at some very basic things about the classical music world, things that aren’t often questioned but might in fact be a part of why classical music is having so much trouble.


I’ll do this by asking questions, starting with this one:

We hear that there’s a crisis in classical music, that the audience might disappear and that in fact it’s getting smaller.


Why isn’t the audience more active in the classical music world?


Now that might seem odd to ask, because of course the audience really can participate in many ways, by donating money, joining boards of directors, attending pre-concert lectures, and volunteering to do all sorts of useful things.


But that’s not what I mean. Instead, I want to ask why people in the audience don’t get more deeply involved with music itself. Someone, very likely (and of course understandably), might reply, “But we can’t do this—we’re not musicians!”


But I think the audience really isn’t given a chance. Here’s a small but telling example. Once, at the New York Philharmonic, I read program notes for some large-scale piece—I think it was a Bruckner symphony—that among much else told me that the work was scored for four horns. But right up there on the stage, in plain sight, were five! Any musician could tell you why that was. The horn is a difficult instrument, and the principal player has a sovereign privilege, to not play everything in his or her part. Thus a fifth horn sits in reserve, to fill in when needed.


But do people in the audience know this? Not likely, and the Philharmonic—along with just about every other orchestra—wouldn’t think to explain, even when they face a stark contradiction between their program notes and what they put on the stage.


The audience, in other words, is almost never brought behind the scenes; rarely is it told what’s really going on in a performance. And there’s more to that than merely counting horns. Not long ago, the music director of a small-city orchestra told me that—at least in his opinion—the people in his audience had no idea of what he wanted to accomplish in the music he conducted, and never would.


But had he ever told his audience what they ought to be listening for? Why shouldn’t he share his goals with the audience? “In Beethoven’s Fifth,” he might say, “I worry a lot about the transition into the last movement. There’s a huge, dramatic crescendo, and then the last movement starts like a burst of sunlight. But I can’t let this transition overpower everything that comes afterwards!”


I’m making that up, by the way; I don’t know what that conductor thinks about Beethoven’s Fifth. But here’s something I really did hear from a musician, the principal bassoon of one of the country’s largest orchestras. He was telling me about his solo at the start of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps. “It’s easy to play,” he said (and isn’t that alone worth knowing?). “We all learn it in music school. But I don’t think Stravinsky wanted it to sound easy. When he wrote it, bassoons didn’t usually play so high, and it probably sounded rough and raw. I’d like to do it roughly, but I worry that the conductor and the audience would think I don’t know how to play.”


So why not share these thoughts with the people in the audience? Why not ask them if they’d really be shocked to hear a raw bassoon? The opera world, we should note, has websites where fans debate performances. The American Composers Orchestra—which plays mostly new and recent American works—has a website where members of its audience offer uncensored opinions about everything they’ve heard.


Why don’t we see more of this?



Why don’t people inside classical music institutions talk about music more?


This winter, I was invited to give a keynote speech at an orchestra’s retreat. On the Internet, I’d noticed a review in the orchestra’s local paper, saying that their handling of ornamentation in Baroque music didn’t seem quite right. “Did you all agree?” I asked the orchestra’s staff, board, and musicians. “Did any of you talk about that issue?”


I wasn’t surprised to learn that they hadn’t. The staff and board surely thought that proper ornamentation—a constant concern for anyone who plays Baroque music—was something they couldn’t understand. And the musicians, typically, would have thought it was the conductor’s responsibility, for better or worse. So even if they thought the conductor did things wrong, they’d never discuss it openly.


But then won’t the staff and board—and even the musicians—feel only passively involved in orchestral performances? How can an orchestra fix its musical problems, or even identify them? I know an arts consultant, a man who’s smart and sensitive, and works with both orchestras and theater companies. And he’s told me he’s amazed that orchestra staffs don’t talk about music more. When a theater company debuts a new production, he says, the staff can’t stop talking about it—talking about the acting, the directing, the sets, and the concept and meaning of the play.


Some orchestras are beginning to think about postmortem sessions, where musicians and conductor could talk how a concert went. Staffs and boards could have these, too. And why not the audience?


Why do we advertise classical music so badly?


The average classical music press release—not to hold back my opinion here—is disastrous. Either it gushes about how wonderful the music is going to be, or else it offers blank and empty facts about the musicians involved, about their training, and all the fabulous (or even sometimes not so fabulous) places where they’ve performed.


What you’ll almost never read is anything that might make an intelligent person want to go to a concert—something about how the music is going to be played, what it will feel like to hear the music, or why this concert might be different from any other.


The musicians’ biographies we read in program books have the same problem; they’re almost always empty, blank, unreadable. Of one famous name, we might read (to quote a real example), that he’s “widely regarded as one of the most talented virtuoso pianists performing today.” Yes, and if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be playing at the major concert hall that printed this weak and empty prose in its program book. The entire biography was dull, blank, unreadable blather. We almost never hear how anyone plays, what they think about music, what they try to accomplish when they perform.


And when we advertise our concerts to the public, these problems get worse. Mostly we brag that we offer “acclaimed” musicians, predictably playing—no surprise here!—“great” music. I’m so tired of hearing about “great music” that I start wishing someone would play something violent, vulgar, or crazy. Every concert, if you believe our advertising, seems more or less the same—uniformly “great” and uplifting. Why should anybody care?


What do we ourselves get from all these concerts?


I teach a course at Juilliard on the future of classical music. Often I’ve asked my students to tell me what classical pieces mean to them—what messages they convey, and how they make the students feel, not just as musicians, but as people. In response, they tell me how valuable classical music is as part of western culture, and how it carries powerful emotion. I don’t disagree. But how does one piece in the classical repertoire differ from another?


“Well,” one musician once told me, “I like Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet because it’s Schubert’s only quartet in a minor key.” Which might be fascinating if you knew all of Schubert’s quartets, but how many people do? Doesn’t this musician have any stronger, more personal, more individual feeling about the piece?


So it’s not just our advertising that makes problems. Even in passionate, personal conversation, I’m not sure that many of us could say exactly what we get from hearing (or even playing) Debussy tonight, and Brahms tomorrow. And if we can’t explain it to ourselves, how can we explain it to a new audience? What, exactly, are we offering at our performances?


The Boston Philharmonic—Boston’s second orchestra, with a strongly devoted following—put this on its website, describing an upcoming concert:


Of all Mahler’s works, it may well be the astonishingly “modern” Seventh Symphony that most fully expresses the mayhem of living in the contemporary world. It lays out the conflicts and contrasts, then offers a kind of alternative refuge—dream-like, entrancing “night music.” In the end, though, it is in this world, not some remote afterlife, that this symphony finds its true victory. It seems to say: “This is life. It’s rough—but I am going to look it square in the face, and win.”


That’s not just a description of a piece; it’s an artistic credo, a reason for caring, a reason for being alive. Why don’t more of us talk this way?


Why doesn’t classical music get closer to pop?


Yes, some pop is cheap and commercial. But some of it is deeply serious.


And if we don’t understand that, we don’t understand the modern world, and we especially don’t understand the new audience we’re trying to attract. Smart, serious, educated younger people listen to serious pop, and we won’t impress them if we insist we’re the only artistic music around.


Besides, in past centuries, classical music always embraced the outside world. Why not now? What do we gain from living in a protected palace of distant, irrelevant art?


And in any case, our competition is way ahead of us. Rock criticism has always done what the classical music world can’t seem to do, which is to say what music means. They say what they think life is about, and what view of life each kind of music might represent. They describe, in other words, a world their readers can recognize, in which music takes an recognizable place.


Classical critics, by contrast, tell us that the tempo of the Brahms was too slow. Is that really what the concert was about?


Why don’t we play more new music?


Yes, we’ve had a new music crisis. A lot of new music written in the past few decades hasn’t pleased the classical music audience—or, conversely, the audience hasn’t caught up with what composers want to do. And it’s also clear that new works can have trouble competing with established masterpieces.


But then shouldn’t composers and the audience talk? Can’t both change? And, if new music has trouble competing, shouldn’t we play more of it, so it sets a tone that doesn’t need to compete with anything else?


And wouldn’t new music help us understand what music means, and how it connects to the world outside? New pieces come from the contemporary world, and are composed by people who are right there to tell us what they had in mind. New works might even help explain what the older repertoire means, by setting it in sharp relief.


And, best of all, mew music be marvelous to hear. It’s time, in fact, for the classical music world—and especially its most refined sophisticates—to stop pushing new music as something we need to hear on principle. Which, let me quickly say, is not at all what I’m doing. I think we should play more new music, and then react without inhibitions, cheering the pieces we like, and ignoring (or even booing) the ones we don’t.


I’ve been inspired by new music—by hearing Steve Reich, for instance, when he was first getting famous, with hundreds of people absolutely transfixed by his work. Or by hearing a piece by Glenn Branca for 100 electric guitars, echoing outdoors at a dramatic site in New York. And of course I know that Reich and Branca stand just a little outside the normal classical experience, but that’s part of my point. Some of the best new music doesn’t fit classical models, and the concert hall ought to expand to welcome it. Though I’ve also seen a Friday afternoon crowd at the Boston Symphony warmly applaud a purely classical (and very touching and delicate) piece by Henri Dutilleux, bringing him back for bow after bow.


Someday (as Miles Davis remarked many years ago, about the classical music world) we’re going to have to stop playing the same music over and over again. Why not now?


Why aren’t we part of contemporary life?


Some people, of course, say that the classical music world don’t need to be contemporary, that it could function mainly as a great museum. But performing music—for musicians and listeners alike—requires more focus and emotion than hanging paintings, or walking around a gallery looking at them.


And museums, too, have to attract an audience. If you look around, they do it better than we do. They show new art, and they’ve found new ways to make the old art interesting. So if the classical music world decides to be a museum, won’t that lead us right back to contemporary life?


So one last question:


Why are we in crisis? Why haven’t we attracted a new audience?


By now, you know part of my answer. But it’s only my answer. What do you think?

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