Straws in the wind

Some things I’ve run across recently, not necessarily in Aspen (see my last post). All of them show something that’s going on, something all of us should know about.

So first, something really nice from St. Louis. At some point this season, the St. Louis Symphony played a piece by Steve Reich. The orchestra had to be seated in an unusual way, so after the piece was over, stagehands had to rearrange the stage. That always takes a while, and leaves (or so it seems to me) a dead spot in the concert.

But not this time. David Robertson, who was conducting (and who of course will be the Symphony’s music director starting next season), asked the musicians to go out into the audience while the stage was reset, and talk to people about the Reich. What a fabulous idea! And it worked out beautifully, or so I was told, independently, by both David Robertson and David Halen, the orchestra’s very thoughtful concertmaster. People in the audience were thrilled to talk to the musicians, and very happy to give their opinion of the piece, pro or con. The musicians loved it, too.

This is something any orchestra could do. I’d love to see more of it.

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And now something not so good—another sign that classical music is losing ground in our cultural mainstream.

Foundations, I’ve heard, have given up on classical music. They think it’s a dying art. I heard this from quite a commanding figure in the field, someone who has a lot of direct contact with foundations, though I haven’t tried to verify what he said. Of course, some foundations (the Mellon Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust) still do fund classical music projects, but most won’t.

To illustrate how bad things are, this commanding person said he’d gone with a colleague to a gathering of foundations, where the number of foundation representatives who come to your presentation shows how interested (or not interested) foundation people are in your proposal. The idea here was to give them reasons to fund classical music. (Or, maybe, some area of classical performance; I’m not quite sure.) A proposal the foundations liked might get 50 people; a proposal they didn’t like would draw five. This one, presented twice, drew three the first time, four the second.

The foundation representatives, I’d guess, are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t bad people, or uncultured. They’re simply representatives of their generations—generations classical music has lost touch with (and it’s our own fault, but more on that another time).

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And finally something I should be discreet about. I’ve sometimes mentioned here that classical music professionals can be more pessimistic about the future of the field—assuming changes aren’t made—than they are in public. Once I asked, hypothetically, what classical music people should do if the private news inside the field was really seriously bad. Should they disclose it, or keep it secret? The advantage of secrecy is simple—you won’t scare your funders away. The advantage of disclosure is a little more speculative, since I don’t think anybody’s tried it yet. You’d keep your funders from concluding—once the bad news finally surfaces—that you’d lied to them. And you’d pretty much force yourself to say in public what you’re doing to overcome your problems.

So with all that turning over in my mind for quite a while, imagine how hard I listened when I heard two notable people in the field having precisely this dispute. Though the  person who favored at least modest disclosure didn’t have any fancy arguments. He simply said, “We really do have problems, and we can’t very well lie.”

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