Top ten changes in classical music

Here’s my top ten list for the past decade — the ten most important changes in the classical music world, the changes that had (and will have) the most impact on classical music’s future. A mildly arbitrary list, as all lists like this are. But useful, even so, for taking a look at how far we’ve come.

Here’s the list:

10. Improved customer service

This happened off the radar, far from the public eye. But it was crucial for classical music’s future. Buying tickets used to be more difficult than it should have been. Lincoln Center, for instance, used to have separate computer systems for the Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall box offices. So if you subscribed to their Great Performers series — which takes place in both spaces — you had to choose one hall or the other. And at one orchestra I know, subscribers who wanted to exchange their tickets — to switch from one concert to another — had to come to the administrative office. Not the much more convenient box office. And forget about exchanging tickets on the phone or online.

Classical music institutions worked long and hard behind the scenes to fix problems like these. If they hadn’t, they’d have had a strike or two against them as they struggled to keep their existing audience, and reach out to a new one.

9. The League of American Orchestras says the mainstream audience may well shrink

Read my blog post about this, for the full details. The League faced up to dire data from the National Endowment, data that showed a sharp decline in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical performances. The League commissioned its own study, confirmed the NEA report, and went public, overcoming (good for them) internal opposition from major figures in the orchestral world who wanted to hide the unpleasant truth. But they didn’t just admit that a smaller percentage of people now go toclassical concerts. They said that in the future, the mainstream audience would very likely shrink, thus confronting — though discreetly not saying so — an old myth,a myth that many important people in classical music believed, the myth that the audience would always renew itself.

We didn’t need them to do that. Classical music will change, no matter what mainstream institutions ever say. But by stating an unpleasant truth in public, the League surely smoothed the path of change.

8. Classical music goes online

I’ve ranked this low only because it was inevitable. Classical music had to go online. Even conservatives in the field knew that. But an online presence for classical music led to huge and helpful changes. More people downloaded classical music than ever bought it in stores. Now you could make a 99-cent classical impulse purchase on iTunes, something you never could do in a record store. Young opera singers, now listen to singers from past generations, much more than they used to, because old recordings have multiplied like rabbits on YouTube. And classical artists now can find their own audience online, bypassing all the usual gatekeepers. Even major classical music institutions now use social media to reach out to the world. They often do it badly, but they’ll learn.

Classical music is now a thousand times more accessible than it ever was before.

7. Peter Gelb takes over the Met

What would a big-time classical institution look like, if it moved into the contemporary world? In the US, at least, Peter took the lead in showing us.

Of course there are questions. Can his innovations sustain themselves financially? What’s the artistic quality? Will the new productions, focused on theatrical impact, hold up, as the years go by? Will the singing be as highly charged as the action on stage is meant to be? Will a new repertoire develop, to take its place next to the old, familiar operas?

But for now, if we want to know how big-time classical music might change, in the US we look toward the Met.

6, The BBC airs Maestro

I blogged about this classical music reality show, which aired in the UK in 2008, and I can’t praise it enough. Here was classical music brought completely into the present day, with style and fun, and scrupulous attention to musical values. Celebrities competed to become conductors. They were given training (which we watched), and a full-size professional orchestra. Among the four judges were two top pro conductors, Simone Young and Sir Roger Norrington. The winner got to lead a piece at the final concert of the BBC Proms.

The show was addictively watchable. It radiated a deep, excited love of classical music. And it taught more about conducting — including some of the fine points — than you’d learn if you spent a thousand hours watching sober performance telecasts, which traditionalists might think were more serious.

Too bad it never aired in the US.

5. René Jacobs records Don Giovanni

And Handel’s Rinaldo. And also other Mozart operas (Figaro, Cosi, La Clemenza di Tito), These were, on the whole, terrific performances. But it’s the Don Giovanni and Rinaldo recordings that really excited me. Here we saw an up to date approach to the old repertoire, combining period instruments with today’s style and sensibility, along with a loving understanding of the part of period performance practice that’s often forgotten — the wild freedom that musicians used to have.

So in Don Giovanni, Leporello sang along with the opera tunes that the stage band plays in the second act finale. No, that’s not written in the score. But at the opera’s premiere, both Leporello and Giovanni improvised their parts while the stage band was playing, apparently to Mozart’s delight. And in Rinaldo, singers sing along with orchestral passages, and the instrumentalists improvise, including one timpanist who plays as if he wants to overwhelm the entire orchestra.

These aren’t the only recordings that show a new approach to the standard repertoire. But certainly they show the kind of freedom classical musicians used to have, and — though it might take very different forms — need to have again.

4. Entrepreneurship taught at music schools

“Entrepreneurship” — that’s a buzzword at music schools today, as the schools realize that classical music careers are changing, and that musicians (see “Classical music goes online,” above) may need to book their own concerts, and find their own audience. The schools, of course, are learning this in part from their students, who’ve been doing these things on their own. Not every school is doing this, of course. But some are talking about making this the center of their curriculum.

And look for other changes, coming soon enough. Schools might stream their students’ concerts (which would help the students find an audience). Or they might put their teachers online, with videos of sample lessons, which would help prospective students decide where they want to go.

And when students trained in these new ways go out into the professional world, the professional world will change even faster.

3. A new attitude toward classical music

Mainstream classical music institutions have tried many innovations — new, informal ways of giving concerts, musicians talking to the audience, large videoscreens, and much, much more.

Some of these innovations have been smart, some have been silly, and many of them haven’t been well thought out. Rarely have mainstream classical institutions developed real strategic plans for change. More often (as I’ve observed firsthand), they’ve tried things out impulsively, only to discover, a year or two down the road, that their innovations don’t make much difference. In particular, they don’t attract a large new audience.

That’s because a single innovation isn’t enough. But all of them, taken as a whole, have changed the mood of classical music, bringing it closer to contemporary life.

Now add the TV commercials that popped up in the last year or two, in which classical music dances happily on the soundtrack, used, apparently, simply because it sounds so good. This, too, brings classical music alive for our current age.

Which makes me think a new wind is blowing. Classical music sheds its pomp — and of course any sense that it’s elitist — and breathes some fresh new air.

2. Alt-classical

Or call it something else. But there’s a whole new classical music world out there, taking shape far outside the concert hall. Classical musicians play in clubs, play shows with indie bands, and — as I’ve seen more than once in New York — might sometimes attract an audience of thousands of younger people, especially to concerts where new music is played.

Le Poisson Rouge, a New York club, has even become a top classical music venue, a place where even major artists now might play, and where major record labels showcase new releases.

What we see here is the future of classical music — something brand new, something completely contemporary, something never dreamed of before — taking shape right before our eyes. If we figure out how to make it viable financially, so musicians can make a living from it, then the future will really have arrived.

1. A movement for classical music change

No, this isn’t tangible. There isn’t a Classical Music Rebirth League, which anyone could join, and which would publicly proclaim the bright new world.

But the movement exists. It’s made up of many kinds of people, ranging from explosive music students to top classical music administrators, who in public can’t say everything they think, but who are working in their own way for major change.

I hear from these people. I know they’re out there. They comment on this blog. They email me. They tell me all the changes that they’ve made. Some of them may think — and maybe rightly — that they’re the only person at their school, or in their town, or in their orchestra, who thinks in these new ways. So they take comfort in what others do, some of which they read about right here. They learn they’re not alone.

This movement is a major reason why I think that change is now unstoppable. But this Top Ten list — along with so many other developments that there wasn’t room to mention — ought to show that change is popping up everywhere, at the BBC, whenever René Jacobs conducts, at clubs, and, not least, at standard concert halls.

So the next step might be to draw this movement together. Maybe we do need an organization. I’m available to help to build it. Or maybe we just need some new but more informal ways to meet each other, and connect. I’m available to help make that happen, too.

But that might be our new year’s resolution. Let’s make our movement stronger. Let’s connect, and make some noise.

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  1. says

    I think that the single greatest enhancement to the life of classical musicians and their audiences during the first decade of the 21st century is the contributions made possible by way of YouTube.

    Now all kinds of traditional music that would otherwise NEVER be heard outside of its local audience has become widely and instantly available to classical composers interesting in expanding their compositional horizons in a really global way. Rare Audio and video performances from great musicians of the past are available instantly, and can be shared with friends and students to listen to and watch at their leisure.

    The other great enhancement to musical life in the 21st century is the ability to share scores and parts for both new music and old music, particularly the scores and parts made available by way of the Werner Icking Music Archive and the Petrucci Library (IMDB).

    All the rest, as far as I’m concerned, is just commentary.

  2. Janis says

    This might be in the “new attitude” section, but I’d have to add in one BIGGIE for me: IMPROVISATION! The fact that classical music no longer consists of just getting someone else’s stuff “right” and the involvement of some nontraditional instruments (well, really old ones, at least, even if they are still acoustic and a bit obscure) has created a sea change for me personally.

    And I mean that personally. After a few months of saving money (I don’t spend a dime if I don’t already have it), I’m finally driving out to the dealer this weekend to look at Clavinovas, and about 60% of that is Gabriela Montero’s doing. (The rest of it is split between Gregg Rolie and maybe Haendel, and a bunch of other people in smaller and smaller proportions.)

    I speak as someone for whom the idea of personal music-making completely changed character and compelled me to buy an instrument again after nearly twenty years without because of the change in the way classical music is being shown and perceived. It’s alive. It’s not a closed, dead canon anymore for me, and it never, ever will be again. This is not a change that one can move backward from.

    Christ, I still remember being in graduate school at the time when I could still rip my way through the testier Chopin pieces with only reasonable effort. I was getting a Ph. D. in physics, and as is always the case in most math/science departments, most of the people there played an instrument and there were always enough musicians in each year for there to be a decent rock/pop band.

    One of the guys was the keyboardist for the informal band that popped up the year after mine. At one of the department parties, they were playing, and I goddamned still remember watching him just doodling around on an electric keyboard without sheet music and accompanying the guitars and drummer without a pre-set list of notes to play, and being gobsmacked at how the hell he could do that. I literally gaped at the idea of him just improvising, and very consciously thought to myself that there was no way I could ever be able to do that. My technique and the complexity of what I played could have sunk him like the Lusitania, but he blew me out of the water. How the fuck was he doing that?!

    And I’ve finally been able to link that to classical music, my first love. It’s been brought into the world in which I felt most at-home, and it’s been connected to something I love. The sudden appearance of improv and nontraditional instruments has completely changed how I see classical music. Like I said, it’s gone from dead to alive and breathing to me, which is a BIG part of why I think that unless average amateur musicians are messing around with this stuff at home and that velvet rope vanishes, there will be no revolution. No more “hands off the music.”

    So I’d have to say the welcoming of improvisation, its rediscovery as part of classical music, is a HUGE change.

  3. Richard says


    I loved to improvise when I made a living playing jazz and funk, but is improvisation the only way to make music?

  4. says


    that’s a fair argument but it’s really becoming a lost art in classical music…and i think it has a lot to do with music education. in the schools the kids are not to play around with melody X or Y when they are being taught to play an instrument. They are taught to play the notes on the page through their instrument. I think that’s limited creativity in some aspects, and (if “revived”) it has the potential to bring the excitement of live jazz back to the classical stage.

    …still think to do that it’s going to take the music educators to step up.

  5. says

    Great list, Greg, and at the risk of parochialism, let me add two I see every day, and that I’d place well up your list. First, the emergence of El Sistema, the youth orchestra system in Venezuela, as an international model for infusing the joy of performance and listening throughout a society, beginning at the economic bottom. And related: the growing embrace of education and community engagement within our major cultural institutions. Institutional missions are coming to be seen not as simply upholding the concert ritual, but as making music part of the life of one’s community. It’s one of those sea changes that’s so gradual one could miss it, but it is part of the whole new attitude you describe.

  6. says

    But there’s a whole new classical music world out there, taking shape far outside the concert hall. Classical musicians play in clubs, play shows with indie bands, and — as I’ve seen more than once in New York — might sometimes attract an audience of thousands of younger people, especially to concerts where new music is played.

    I’m at risk of harping on this, but by this definition, Rene Jacobs is not in any way “alt-classical.”

    Nevertheless, a good list. One thing that I think underlies a few of the entries, and that I hope will be on the list of big changes in 2020, is a move to make performances more vivid. I think “vivid” is the best word, but one could use “lively” or “present” as well. You need to do this to sustain a new attitude about classical music, to play outside concert halls, as part of improvisation.

    Along this dimension, the repertoire doesn’t matter so much (see the Chiara Quartet’s “Beethoven in Bars”) as the conviction with which that repertoire is presented. That conviction may involve bringing the artists into the music more, to make their performances more personal statements, or it may simply mean a refusal to bow to the tyranny of the recorded consensus and a willingness to blast away cobwebs, think about why tihngs are being done, present ideas about the music as well as the music to audiences.

    I guess that’s part of item #1 on the list too!

  7. says

    What a wonderful article! Excellent survey of new winds for classical music. Yes, Peter Gelb has been good for the Met, but in one area he is woefully fighting a rear-guard, and in my opinion misguided, battle against the trend for operas coming out on Blu-Ray. Not a single one of the many excellent Met productions filmed (and shown in theaters)in HD has made it to Blu-Ray. The Met has issued all new titles on SD DVDs. With so many people installing home theaters capable of surround sound and large, high-def screens in their living spaces, the Met is wasting a great opportunity to distribute their product in the form it was meant to be seen and heard, Blu-ray, with both better visuals AND better sound than standard DVDs.

  8. Cathy Barbash says

    Check out Indiana University Jacobs School of Music’s online activities–they’ve been webcasting many of their student performances for over a year now, and in general use the internet and various other tech capabilities to great effect.

  9. says

    I’m all for change in the classical music world. Everything else changes, why not classical music. The reality is that performers and thus our ears have been stuck in the 19th century. Personally, I don’t feel that old.

    I am also concerned about the direction of classical music from a very personal perspective and that is the classical saxophone. I am a member of professional saxophone quartet and our efforts are going to be focused on finding a new direction for classical saxophone playing. I have also started a blog to help look for new ideas. It is the only instrument taught in colleges and conservatories that has such a limited future, yet students to are asked to meet the same standards as other instrumental players. The saxophone quartet is the answer! This is a chamber ensemble that deserves a better place. Ah! to be as ubiquitous as the string quartet.

    Apologies for such a narrowly focused comment.

  10. Fred Lomenzo says

    There are alternatives to traditional presentation of serious music. It is no longer necessary to bow to the whim, prejudice and arrogance of traditional music organizations. Now with the help of modern technology it is possible to give a performance without their involvement.I soon will be giving such a perfomance of two new major works (a piece with Orchestra and Concert Choir and a Piano Concerto )to several hundred people who are familiar with my work and are looking forward to the event.

  11. says

    I’m in, Greg!

    I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your work and dedication to the revitalization and reinvention of classical music. It was little more than a year and a half ago that I discovered your blog, and I have been hooked ever since. I am one of those you speak of – a young arts administrator, still fostering my talents and opinions. Your blog has provided me both insight and inspiration in my own studies and thinking on the subject matter. Thank you!

    Here’s to making this next decade a time of significant transformation and rebirth!

  12. Janis says

    Small thing of some note: “conductor” is becoming less and less synonymous with “capricious tyrant prone to humiliating tantrums.” There’s still a couple throwbacks around, but things are moving away from that direction.

  13. says

    Alternative-Classical is the genre I

    created over 10 years ago for the music

    I create and perform…

    In the way you describe it has been what i’ve been doing to break down the walls

    to the lay people who are afraid of what

    classical music is.

  14. Alicia says

    I have just been introduced to your blog, and am thankful for this post in particular. Instant Encore is another cost free venue through which people have access to live performances, and there are some really memorable concerts posted on line there.

    Undertakings such as the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, while they may be somewhat imperfect in conception, have ignited interest among my students. The time has come to think way outside the box, if we “classical” musicians hope to be anything more that fossils.

    I think this list is a great beginning to those of us who are thinking seriously about keeping the art alive, relevant, and thriving. those of us who are involved in the training of the next generation of young musicians are especially in need of finding ways to come before the public, present recitals and reach out to our respective communities.

  15. opus88 says

    I’ve never understood why society seems to dictate that you can only be a classical musician or a jazzer or a rocker, etc. Why is it assumed that we must choose a genre and stick just to that? And why is it so surprising when someone does blur the lines? That’s been part of the problem, and I’m glad to see mention of a new cross-over freedom in this blog. Classical music FUN? A non-scripted note? Laughter during performance? Yet still performed with mastery? Thank you, Andre Rieu, for proving to the masses how successful that combination is. I get so tired of hearing musicians in heated arguments over how Palestrina or Beethoven or Brubeck would have treated the 3rd beat of measure 73. Who cares? Isn’t music about freely expressing sounds according to our individual perspective of the world, and on whatever instruments we choose, old or new? How dull if everyone played the same piece the same way as the next guy. Classical music is just as freeing as any other musical style. We just need to let it be so.

  16. says

    Change needs to happen, but part of that change needs to take place in the way we educate – from a very early age. Encourage concert halls to encourage young children – and then allow those young children to actually respond to the concert they way they want, rather than force them to stifle any sense of engagement in the music.

    Teach our young musicians that performance of classical music can be just as engaging as performing at a rock concert, or a jazz club and that performance is just as much of playing the music as the notes are. Too often we think of classical music as something in a box, to be looked at quietly.

    Teach our young composers that classical music can (and should) included elements of popular music. Popular music IS our current folk music and use of folk music has been included as a basis for lots of classical compositions. Modern “folk” music can do the same thing – and probably be a lot more popular.

    All of these ideas and more have been discussed on my blog Interchanging Idioms….