Peter Gelb, as many people already know, is going to be the next head of the Metropolitan Opera, succeeding Joseph Volpe. (I’m writing this before the official announcement, but the news has leaked onto opera websites.)

I trust this means the Met wants to make some changes, since Peter isn’t an old-fashioned classical music guy. I expect my colleagues in the press to get a little worried, since they’ve long assumed that Peter has no taste, blaming him for the decline of major-label classical recording, and especially for crossover releases like Michael Bolton’s and Billy Joel’s classical CDs. (Which, even if they they were Sony releases, and came out while Peter headed Sony Classical, weren’t his responsbility. They were Sony pop releases, from artists with long-time Sony pop recording contracts. Peter, as head of Sony Classical, had to help with marketing.)

What people don’t understand, I think, is that Peter didn’t create the problems. Major classical labels were put in an impossible position, from any business point of view, with demands from their corporate owners that they make more money than any classical label reasonably could. Peter tried to make the best of it, facing pressure most of us can’t imagine. That doesn’t mean everything he released was wonderful, or that all the decisions he made were correct. How could they be? Nobody knows how a major classical label (meaning a commercial operation, owned by a multinational entertainment conglomerate) can function in this current climate.

But Peter — whether or not you agree with everything he’s done — has a lot of imagination. Unlike many people, he’s willing to say what the problems are, and to take steps to meet them. One reason he gets bad press, in fact, is that in 1997 he boldly said that classical music couldn’t continue in the directions it was going, and particularly that contemporary composition couldn’t continue to be so inaccessible. For this he got attacked, and has been a target of the classical music press ever since.

I wish him all the best. I also like him quite a lot. I haven’t talked to him in a while, and won’t pretend to know what he thinks the Met should do. But he’s more serious about music than his detractors think. He’s a fascinating choice, and (no matter what purists think) a hopeful sign for classical music’s future.

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