So here’s more, from a piece in the Washington Post on Wolf Trap, by my wife, Anne Midgette. Wolf Trap, of course, is the national park outside Washington which has been presenting arts events for 40 years. And I should stress that Anne wasn’t looking for evidence, pro or con, for classical music’s decline. She was just writing the kind of piece that journalists write, when a leading local institution has an important anniversary. Wolf Trap is 40. How’s it doing?
And the answer is, it’s doing fine. But not, these days, by presenting many classical concerts. Wolf Trap has been criticized for stressing entertainment over art, but Anne suggests another way of looking at that choice. Wolf Trap has always presented what it and its audience thought was entertainment. But what “entertainment” means has changed. It used to mean classical music. Or, anyway, certain classical concerts, like all-Tchaikovsky programs. These used to sell out Wolf Trap’s 7000-seat Filene Center, in the 1980s, but don’t anymore:
“We used to sell out two nights of Tchaikovsky,” says [Wolf Trap president Terrence Jones], referring to the early days when the NSO often offered the same program at Wolf Trap over two or more evenings. “Now we’re not even selling one.”
So that’s one piece of unexpected data Anne’s reporting led to. Wolf Trap used to sell many more tickets to classical performances than it does now. And that seems to be true elsewhere, as well. Anne also talked to Welz Kauffman, president of the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago. Same story there. I’m sure someone will blame the managements at both places, saying they’d sell more tickets if they marketed the concerts better, and maybe that’s true.
But I’m sure they market more than they did in the ’80s, simply because everyone in the arts markets more these days. And what can’t be denied is that, in the ’80s, with (at the very least) no more marketing than these institutions do now, they sold many more classical tickets than they currently do. So the size of the classical audience has clearly declined.
The other piece of data? That in the ’80s there were 20 or more classical stars who could sell out a large house, and now there are hardly any. Ann McKee, Wolf Trap’s senior vice president for performing arts and education, names three: Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and Itzhak Perlman. Welz Kauffman adds two more, Reneé Fleming and Lang Lang. “When I do presentations for my board,” Anne quotes him as saying, “I always show them that list of 1985 stars and then [the current] five, and people gasp.”
It’s sad, really. The old ways, in classical music, appear to be fading away. But new things are coming! See my next post. It’s an exciting time.