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.
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.