Apology, and another question answered

I’m sorry that I haven’t posted all the recent comments yet. There were so many that I haven’t been able to keep up with them. Many asked the questions I answered in my last post.

And here’s another question that people ask. Isn’t the classical music audience larger than the concert audience? Don’t many people buy recordings, and hasn’t there been a surge lately of younger people downloading classical music?

Yes to all of that. But none of it generates much revenue for classical music. Or, very crucially, much pay for classical musicians. It’s still concerts — and, let’s note, large mainstream classical concerts — that float the classical music business financially. They’re what’s threatened in the current climate, and if there are many fewer of them in the future, classical musicians will have trouble making a living. I’ve yet to see a financial model that would show how classical musicians can make a living playing chamber music or new music for small audiences.

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  1. gary panetta says

    I think it’s worthwhile to place your diagnosis of the classical music world into a larger cultural context — one supplied by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz in his book “The Double Flame.” Paz argues that the real spirit of 20th century art and literature flourished in about the first 40 years of the 1900s. Everything afterwards has simply been a “revival,” not a true awakening of the original spirit. So, for instance, in philosophy, Sartre’s existentialism is simply a variation on Heidegger’s “Being and Time”; the beat poets are simply a reprise of the spirit of dada and surrealism. Paz, obviously, isn’t arguing that there has been no significant art created since 1950; but he believes (or believed, since he is, alas, dead) that the real, paradigm- setting art occurred much earlier, and we’ve simply been in the process of working within the old paradigm. Maybe it’s time for something new?

    Paz doesn’t talk about music, but I think his comments apply equally well to the on-going classical crisis.

    Also, it’s worth mentioning that Paz saw problems confronting the arts in political terms. He genuinely believed, before he died, that technology and globalism would threaten fundamental human values in the 21st century. If classical music is in trouble, it may be a canary in coal mine.

    interesting. I tend to be more hopeful about the evolution of culture. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the 1950s. I’d much rather be living now, even with all our drastic problems. The growth in what Adorno called “enlightenment” has been staggering.

    I haven’t read Paz, but the beats as a remake of surrealism? I’m not sure I see that. I’ve been listening to an audiobook of “On the Road” during some long drives (terrific job by Matt Dillon reading the book), and I don’t see anything surrealistic about it. Seems much more connected to Bob Dylan and even Bruce Springsteen (“Incident on 57th Street”) than to anything earlier. My two cents…

  2. orchestra player says

    I thought you might enjoy this story. I play in a full time orchestra in the western US. A few months ago we played a staged version of an opera known primarily as a children’s story. We even sold it that way even though it is over two hours long and in german. In one of the principal string solos the player added a single grace note in one of three performances. The note was not in his part but it occured other times the tune was heard. The solo was played beautifully and if I understand your tastes I think you would agree. The player received a formal reprimand in the mail. This comes a year after our own marketing department placed an ad calling us as “the once stodgy ??????? Symphony.”

    Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it.

    And so sad. Here there was a musician truly taking part in the music. I wonder what your orchestra’s artistic staff would think of stories from the 18th century, of whole string sections improvising together in performances?

    Something else this story shows is how incoherent orchestras can be. They often don’t know how to plan a strategy, and then implement it. Whatever they meant by not being stodgy, they probably never consulted their artistic department.

  3. J. says

    I’ve read all of your recent posts, the comments, and responses. Here are a few random thoughts:

    (A) Classical ensembles are mostly unwavering in their adherence to the status quo. Repertoire essentially stagnated more than 50 years ago. Most of the works performed are from the standard canon, with very little new music being offered. Many classically trained orchestral performers I have known (chamber and solo performers are much more open to contemporary music, in my experience) claim that new music is “unapproachable”–either too difficult or distasteful to an “unschooled” audience. This attitude greatly underestimates our society at large and, in my opinion, simply serves as cover for the true motivation behind excluding new works: it requires much less rehearsal to (re)perform Beethoven’s Fifth than wrestle a new piece by the horns. If so few are willing to take musical risks, do they even deserve audience interest?

    (B) In public school music education, there is a growing movement to prepare students as “consumers of media,” rather than develop an arts-literate population who would be open to the challenges of classical music experiences. To this group of educators, a knowledge of classical music is an unrealistic ideal; having a “star” pupil who appeared as a finalist on American Idol would be a great accomplishment. (Now, I enjoy quality pop music as much as the next person, but let’s set aside the postmodernism for a moment and open our eyes to the fact that Brittany Spears and Yo-Yo Ma aren’t precisely on the same level.) As I mentioned, this mentality is growing. Can there be any hope for classical music when our music educators don’t even seem to hold it in high esteem?

    (C) An increase in offerings must also be having an impact. In my “flyover” town, many of those who would consider themselves the cultural elite (i.e., the tenured faculty of the local Research 1 flagship university and wealthy businesspeople) pat themselves on the back for seeing “CATS,” STOMP, and Blue Man Group. I don’t mean to disparage such shows or groups, but there is only so much time and money to go ’round. If I’ve spent all my cash and available evenings on tickets for these touring company performances, doesn’t this reduce the likelihood that I will attend a concert by the local symphony? We are living in an age of media saturation, and this spills over into live music. Your analysis must certainly be correct: we can’t economically sustain all the options available, so when the smoke has cleared, which options remain? Won’t it be those with the deepest pockets (i.e., those with corporate backing)?

    (D) The most interesting questions raised by all of this, in my opinion, are the “why” questions. Why is this cultural shift taking place? Why are today’s youth disinterested (or unable) to support the performing arts?

    My two cents (all anecdotal, so feel free to dismiss): Most young people I know (as an educator, I know hundreds of high school students, college students, and recent graduates) are essentially self-interested. I know many will view this as a disparaging remark, though I don’t intend it as such. Not precisely, anyway. These young people are extremely busy preparing themselves for later success. The most open-minded (to my way of thinking, the group also most likely to serve as a potential audience) immerse themselves in coursework or their new careers. Many maintain part-time jobs to pay student loans and for the increased standard of living to which they are accustomed. Those still in school engage in an unmanageable number of clubs and activities which (allegedly) serve as resume/application “boosters.” As a general rule, they don’t have hobbies, unless one considers an occasional night drinking with friends, weekly gatherings to watch “Grey’s Anatomy,” or time online with Myspace/Facebook (social networking sites) hobbies. When these people finally have a few moments to spare on recreation, they are disinterested in yet another formal event. Honestly, who could blame them?