A quiet thought

faciliitate blogLast week I was in Norway for three days, as a guest of the Bergen International Festival. I had two official duties. One was to speak for about an hour to a lovely group of people, mostly older, with a deep and serious love of classical music. Some that I talked to were amateur choral singers. (And I must say I loved talking to some of them, after my official talk, at a dinner, about subjects other than classical music. Let’s never forget that we’re full=fledged human beings, with more on our minds, let’s hope, than the classical music crisis.)

My other duty was to debate the future of classical music for an audience of perhaps 60 people. My two debate partners were unusually smart and lively, as was the moderator, so the time flew by, we focused on serious issues, and I think we all had fun.

Nothing wrong with any of this. I wasn’t a major participant in the festival, wasn’t meant to be, and didn’t expect to be. From what the moderator said at the start of the debate, I think what might have happened is that festival staff members wanted to address the classical music crisis, Googled that phrase, and found me. No surprise; it’s happened before.

So I was content with my minor role. I visited a country I’d never been to, met good people. (And, on Icelandair, watched an Icelandic film and Icelandic TV shows, noticing — was this coincidence, or a cultural trope? — a notable focus on fish.)

Still, I’d love to do something more. The classical music crisis is serious. It’s widely talked about, but needs to be even more widely discussed. In particular, I’d think that classical music institutions should be discussing it as part of their normal operation, institutions ranging from orchestras to conservatories. Their future is at stake! So they should be figuring out what how they’re going to adapt.

I do know two smaller institutions who’ve instituted a full-scale internal discussion. The CEO of one of them told me he feels free to do this, because his shop isn’t a major brand in what it does, and so doesn’t have all that much to lose if it launches something radically new. While the brand-name institutions mostly tread very softly, not wanting to upset their apple carts, even if they worry that both apples and carts will soon be obsolete.

So here’s my thought. I’d like to see more institutions, of whatever size, embark on this conversation very seriously. And I’d like to take part, and not just by talking for an hour or two to a few nice people. I’d like to be part of ongoing, private discussions, aimed first at understanding what’s going on, then secondly at generating ideas, and finally at taking some action, even if it’s modest. A festival, for instance, might engage me not just to talk to the public, but also to facilitate conversations among its musicians. And its staff. And its sponsors. And members of the community around it.

I’d love to do that, and wouldn’t think of it simply as a forum for my own ideas. I’d be much more interested to see what the people I’m talking to think, and to hear what ideas they come up with. (Some of my best ideas, in any case, come from others.)

So that’s my quiet thought for today, and for the future. Who wants to discuss these things at longer length, and in more depth? I’m ready to help. (And I’m not the only one who could do it. I might also recommend Richard Kessler, the Dean of Mannes College The New School of Music (who by the way isn’t the CEO I discreetly mentioned earlier). or Rachel Roberts, director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship department at the New England Conservatory.

There are others, too. Those were just the first names that came to my mind, thinking not just of terrific people who want change, and understand it, but of people whom I know would be good facilitators.

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  1. says

    This reply is too long, I know, but it’s important to separate components of the ‘classical music crisis’ so we can see which aspects can be addressed, if possible, and by whom. Some facets have always been in play – others are new.

    Oldies but goodies:

    Concert audiences and, since the invention of electronically reproduced sound, home and mobile listeners:

    What has historically been the actual percentage of the population that regularly sets aside time to listen to – not just hear as a background – classical music? Has this percentage changed over time?

    Professional music schools:

    To badly mangle Churchill’s comment on the RAF during the Battle of Britain, never before have there been ‘so many’ highly trained individuals produced to seek ‘so few’ actual – perhaps even imaginary employment opportunities. When I was in music school in the sixties, even then it seemed to me that very few of us would likely be able to support ourselves as professional classical musicians.

    Newer kids on the block:

    Severely financially challenged professional classical music entities:

    The classical music ‘business model’ – a term I use almost humorously were it not for the severity of the crisis – is imploding. It’s not a difficult equation. Ticket and other ‘earned income’ + contributions = how much can be spent. Does the amount of annual contributed income fill the gap left after ‘earned income’ in the evolved annual budget…be that contributed ‘nut’ half a million or forty million dollars? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the organization can continue as it is, at least for now. But if the answer is ‘no,’ as the songs says: “Something’s got to give.” And that ‘something’ may be wages, the number of personnel on the roster, artistic integrity or the entire orchestra. RIP Gainesville Symphony Orchestra, or the current wholesale artistic destruction of the Minnesota Orchestra to cite recent examples.

    Technological change:

    We just found out that our emails and cell phone calls are being vacuumed up in some super cloud…and that’s only the beginning. But those of ‘in the classical music business’ have known for years that, because it’s now technologically possible, easy and inexpensive, more than a few classical music lovers would just as soon listen electronically – that is to say, privately – to their favorite repertoire rather than face bored coughers, talkers, texters, cell phone callers, and ticket prices they feel they can no longer afford at the concert hall – not to mention long automobile commutes, tolls and parking fees. However, whatever impact decreases in live attendees may be having on ‘earned income’ for professional classical music, it pales in comparison to the desperate annual struggle for contributions facing these organizations in 2013.

    The most painful aspect of this for me personally, having formerly been a violist with the Louisville Orchestra, is the fate awaiting professional classical music ensembles. Many organizations may be forced to close their doors before a new classical music-oriented philanthropic generation decides they want these organizations to exist – if such a new generation of classical music donors actually emerges.

    So overwhelming is the crisis that most of us can only deal with one aspect of it at a time. The Discovery Orchestra, a small institution albeit with 26 years of life in the bank, focuses 100% of its resources and energy on increasing that percentage of the population that regularly takes the time to listen to classical music. We do it for the affect we know it will have on the personal lives of those individuals we can reach. It’s a lonely, frequently stressful mission. But when we receive emails like this one from a 50-something viewer in Portland, Oregon who last month happened to catch our latest show in distribution by American Public Television, we feel it’s all worth it: “Amazing – I never cared for classical music until tonight! I’m looking forward to Part 2 next week!”

    We may be destined to watch all of the challenges unfold, but we don’t have to stand by silently. Thank goodness, Greg, you keep focusing and refocusing the conversation – which is why our office tweets links to your blog. We, too, want to be part of the conversation.

    George Marriner Maull
    Artistic Director
    The Discovery Orchestra

  2. Andy Buelow says

    Greg, at the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, we’re having this conversation, frequently stimulated by your blog and others. We are in a music director search and are grilling our candidates on the topic as well. Thanks for continuing to energize and lead the conversation.