What I said in Amsterdam

…for what I said in the Netherlands. Or at least the reception seemed very warm for me.

What I said, in my keynote talk at Amsterdam’s Classical Music Day. was essentially what I said in Australia in my keynote talk at the classical music summit in Sydney. Our culture has changed; classical music hasn’t kept up with the changes; that’s why classical music is in trouble, why people aren’t going to concerts, why the audience has aged.

Plus, of course, all the signs of hope, all the changes being made in so many places, in so many ways, in response to the crisis. I’ve put my Australia speech into a PDF file, which you’re warmly invited to download. In Amsterdam, I added a couple of things. First, and I think very important, the thought that the movement for classical music change needs to be more focused. The spontaneity we’ve seen so far has been wonderful, and in fact any kind of centralized organization could have killed things, by damping experimentation. How could we know in advance what initiatives would work?

But on the flip side, too many experiments were tried, appeared to succeed, and then were abandoned. Too many changes were tried without any overall strategy, or any goal whose success could be accurately judged. “Getting the audience more involved,” for instance — the goal of one project I did with a major institution — doesn’t really mean anything. “Getting 70 people from the audience to come to discussions after a concert” is an initial success, and can make you feel flushed with success.

But then what? Does the goal then become “Have more sessions with those 70 people, even though you’re not getting anyone else involved?” Or is it “Move outward from the 70 people, get more involved, and think of new forms of audience involvement?” The second is clearly better than the first, but involves lots of thought and hard work. And possibly, discouragement when snags appear, and the first flush of success wears off.

The first choice, though, was what was actually made, more or less by default, because no one had planned any further. And that meant the program would be abandoned, because, nice as it was, it didn’t lead to any larger change.

Not that I said all that in Amsterdam. My other change from the Australia talk was to hit harder on the meaning of the aging audience. The cause of the aging, I’ve long said, is the failure of classical music to keep up with our wider culture. But some people won’t buy that, and in fact won’t buy that classical music is in any serious trouble at all.

So I suggested that if we weren’t talking about classical music, we’d have no trouble understanding what was going on. I offered the example of model railroading. The age of people who enjoy that hobby has been rising rapidly. So no one in the model railroad world doubts what that means — model railroading has become a hobby of the past, and is likely to disappear. Nobody denies that. But with classical music, all kinds of emotions come into play, so some people may not want to face the facts.

But beyond these raw facts, the model railroad example of course is misleading. Classical music can change, can adapt to contemporary culture. And there lies its salvation.

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  1. says

    I am wondering if you feel the same about opera as an art form. Do you feel classical music and opera are both equally in trouble? Do you think they should be categorized them the same way?