The burden of the past

Exhibit A:

A question asked at a panel discussion on the future of classical music. I’m paraphrasing, but the questioner said we hadn’t been talking about our subject. We’d been talking about ways that classical music could change. But then we’re not talking about classical music. We’re talking about the future of something else. What about the future of all the old ways of doing classical music, the ways classical music has been presented for much of the last century?

Exhibit B:

A comment posted on this blog, from someone who identified himself just as “Doug”:

Want to quickly build resentment with the musicians and artistic staff? Just let the executive director “set out some changes in programming.” Works everytime. Simple question: if the standards of symphonic music cannot “root the orchestra more deeply in its community” here’s a suggestion: turn the hall into a Starbucks. That should even solve the financial situation.

Two statements, same thought. “Classical music” means, or ought to mean, the old standards. If we’re not talking about their future, then we’re not talking about — or maybe we’re even killing — the future of classical music.

presence past blogAnd of course there’s an assumption buried in both exhibits, an assumption that the old ways not only should be preserved, but can be. Which is exactly the problem we face, when we look at classical music’s future. The old ways don’t work. That’s why we’re having our problems. That’s why fewer people go to classical performances. That’s why the audience has been aging, not just recently, but for the past 50 years.

What we have here is major culture change. Our culture changes. Classical music doesn’t keep up with the change. And so it fades into the margins of our culture. The audience ages because, with each passing decade, starting in the late 1960s, people growing up find that classical music — as it’s long been presented — doesn’t speak to them. It doesn’t reflect the world they live in. They don’t see their lives enacted in it, or the lives and crises and triumphs evolving in the world around them.

For something very similar, look at the study of ancient languages. For centuries, many centuries, going back to the deep Middle Ages, educated people learned Latin and Ancient Greek. Their culture changed, but the role of antiquity in the culture stayed so much the same that the old languages and the classics written in them still spoke vividly.

But then in the 20th century that changed, and by 1950, if not earlier, Latin and Greek no longer seemed important. No longer were they taken for granted as a central part of culture. And so nobody had to learn them.

Classical music, I think, has gone through something similar. But the developments are newer, so it’s not as clear to everyone that they’re happening. Our world has been changing for many decades, evolving into what we see now, world dominated by popular culture and media, a world in which popular culture functions as art. Of course there’s more, but that’s one part of it.

But even as all this began to happen, still — at least until the 1960s — older classical classical pieces sounded current. Not many people rejected a musical diet largely built from them (which is what classical music traditionally offers). And younger people were drawn to them, which meant that the classical audience — an audience that came to performances to hear the standard works —  was quite a lot younger than it is now.

Why was that? This is a complex question, one I’d love to see someone explore. It would make a fine book, and an important one. What the book would likely show, I think, is that culture was changing, but even so — despite jazz, movies, radio, Broadway shows — it hadn’t changed enough to leave old-style classical music behind. I wrote a blog post (too brief) about this, back in 2007.

So the old classical repertoire could seem current, even though it was old, because the cultural memes in it, or many of them, anyway, still were alive.

But now they’re fading. That doesn’t mean the old masterworks are dead, any more than Dostoyevsky is, or Rembrandt, or Eugene O’Neill, or classic films. We love and use the past. We just don’t dine on it exclusively, or largely so, which is what the old classical music ways have taken for granted that we’ll do.

That no longer works. Classical music has to change. Without abandoning its past (any more than theater companies have abandoned Chekhov and Shakespeare), classical music has to start living in the present. It has to become a contemporary art, one that looks and feels like the world around it. Of course this means doing a lot more music by current composers, but it means more than that. Even the performances of the great masterworks have to sound current.

What that means is a long story, for many more posts. But the goal, as I see it, is simple enough. When I go to a classical music performance, done in the old ways, featuring the masterworks of the classical canon, I feel like I’ve retreated from the world. But if I go to a new Quentin Tarantino movie (always a red-letter day for me, when Tarantino releases a new film), or I read a new Anne Carson translation of an ancient Greek play, or I watch Scandal or House of Cards, or keep working through The Wire, or when I read a new novel by David Mitchell or Zadie Smith or any of the current novelists I follow — when I do any of those things, I feel like I’m living in…well, the world I live in. Dealing with what goes on in it, and how I live in it.

I want that from classical music. I want to go (just for example) to the National Symphony here in Washington, and feel not the soothing presence of the past, but the bracing life of the present. When I/m able to do that, this is when we’ll see classical music come roaring back to the center of our culture as a contemporary art.


A corollary to all of this. Many people in the classical music world think we can bring classical music back — create a new audience — with music education. The assumption here is that people don’t listen to classical music because they’re unfamiliar with it, or because they can’t follow its complexities.

But if what I’ve been saying here is true, then music education — at least if it’s rooted in the old ways of classical music — won’t help. Because the problem isn’t unfamiliarity, or complexity. It’s that the music most strongly featured comes from another culture, and — at least as the classical mainstream performs it now — isn’t speaking to our world. 

No music education class, no instrument petting zoos, no community outreach programs can change that. They can expose people to the music, but the exposure (except of course in a few cases) won’t stick. The music still isn’t speaking to our culture. 

Footnote two:

Some people, I’m sure, will rebut me, or try to, by saying that the classical masterworks have timeless value. But timeless value is a meaningless abstraction. Do we ever say what that timeless value is? If you read the standard kind of classical music program note, it talks about the value the masterwork in question had in its own time. 

Timeless value can’t manifest itself timelessly. It has to come alive in the life of whatever time it’s speaking to. If something in our culture stays alive for decade after decade, that’s because its meaning can be reinvented, refocused to address the changing concerns of our evolving culture. 

Which is exactly what we’re not doing, if we keep presenting the same classical masterworks in the same ways, in the same past-focused context. 

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  1. says

    My main view of the young classical music audience is through the window of my (mostly classical music) YouTube channel. About 30% of its views come from the under-35 group, 50% from the 35-54, group, and 20% from 55-and-up. The channel has over 100,000 subscribers. I read all the comments, a lot of which are from young people. Some of them complain that their friends don’t like the same music they do, others report that their friends are surprised how much they like the music on my channel (having not been exposed to it previously). The people posting comments are self-selected, so what they say is not statistically useful, just anecdotal, but I wonder how to reconcile the mostly positive comments from young people with your assertion that classical music “doesn’t speak to them.” Are my young fans just anomalies? Are they being raised in some kind of alternative culture in which classical music is still relevant? Are they only enjoying the music because of my animated graphical scores? I know that the audience for classical music in traditional venues is aging, but my channel seems to have a decent-sized young demographic. What explains this? Is there something to be learned here?

    • says

      I think the answer is that through the futuristic looking animated graphics, they ARE connected to today’s world – much more than in grey concert halls with musicians in black&white suits that seem anachronistic to most, or which is just not the lifestyle most young people feel at ease in.

  2. JonJ says

    This post gives us a lot to think about. My quick thoughts:

    I’m glad to see that you don’t want to abandon the past of classical music, Greg. Too many classical music would-be revolutionaries insist that we must do just that: “Roll Over Beethoven,” for sure — he’s as outmoded as the medical treatments he was tormented with. There’s a piece in the current issue of “n+1” ( that starts out sounding as though it’s advocating that, though by the end of it I wasn’t sure just what point the writer was making.

    However, you say that classical music has to start “living in the present;” “it has to become a contemporary art, one that looks and feels like the world around it. … Even the performances of the great masterworks have to sound current.”

    That’s where I’m not quite sure what you’re suggesting (and I’ve been reading your posts for quite a while). If we aren’t going to abandon the 4 B’s (the traditional three plus Bruckner, whose 9th I heard done splendedly, and in the “old-fashioned way,” by the Philly Orchestra last night) and the 2 M’s (Mozart and Mahler), how exactly are we going to make them “sound current” without departing from the original scores? (I know that Mahler did that with Schumann and Shostakovich with Boris G.) Rearrange them for rock band or Chinese opera orchestra? I really hope not.

    Playing them in new, more contemporary venues? That’s fine, but there are limits to this method when you get beyond chamber pieces: Bruckner’s 9th is not going to work in a coffee shop. Dress down the orchestra members in more informal, relaxed duds? That might convince some classical music newbies to show up if they’re put off by the traditional formal uniforms, but I would vote for trying to convince them to try ignoring what the players are wearing and concentrate on the music. Throw in some light shows and Cirque-du-Soleil-style effects? That’s been done, even by the Philly band, but I really don’t think it’s appropriate for the Jupiter Symphony (maybe the Symphonie Phantastique). Perhaps this generation hates to sit still for a half hour or longer before politely applauding, in the “old-fashioned” concert style, but I don’t feel that screaming, dancing, and setting off fireworks all the way through is the way to listen to even the Sacre.

    My point is that I think there are some limits on how the “old ways” of doing the classics can be altered, if we’re not going to toss them out completely. I’m afraid that, at a certain point, we will have to bite the bullet and accept that the younger, hip audience we want to attract will just have to do a little work on its own to meet the classics half-way.

    Which leads to the dreaded, fearful terms “music appreciation” and “music education.” I have to confess that I never experienced those excruciating forms of torture myself, since I started listening to classical music on my mother’s 78s and was taken by her to concerts more decades ago than I want to confess. (I also listened to the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts on an ancient AM radio faithfully week after week.) I took piano and trumpet lessons and learned to read music not long after I started learning to read, period. So I never needed to be “educated.”

    What has to be done, I think, is to somehow short-circuit that process of becoming familiar with the classics that filled years of my childhood, since most of the current generation obviously has never had the benefit of such an experience, despite the enormously advanced technologies for delivering music we have now (those 78s and AM radios were really awful). In the end, I don’t think we will be able to develop a faithful audience except by the old-fashioned method: starting folks listening to a few bits and pieces of classical music that appeal to them and letting them gradually familiarize themselves with more and more. But that takes an awfully long time, and it presupposes that they will have enough interest in the project to keep with it for as long as it takes. Rather like getting used to exercising several days a week every week, or getting used to broccoli. What a tall order!

    One other point: you say, “When I go to a classical music performance, done in the old ways … I feel like I’ve retreated from the world.” Personally, I rather like retreating from the world now and then. But I don’t feel as though listening to Bach or Bruckner is retreating from the world, even the contemporary world around me; quite the contrary. Perhaps I’m touching on what you call “timeless value.” That’s not a “meaningless abstraction” for me, but perhaps it’s because I’ve lived with this music all my life. It’s not “another culture” that “isn’t speaking to my world.” It’s my culture.

    Perhaps we need to radically speed up or short-circuit that familiarization process, somehow, but I admit I’m fresh out of ideas about how to do that. I guess, as a favorite T-shirt of mine says, I’m just an “old school player.”

    • says

      Jonj. I think that if you listen to classical performances from before World War II, you’ll hear much more individuality and engagement than you hear from performances now. My Juilliard students are routinely surprised by what they hear, when I ask them to listen to these performances. Sometimes they object that the performances aren’t as precise as performances now, or aren’t as refined, but in the best of the old performances expression just goes through the roof. Especially in opera, but also in instrumental music. One reason for this, I think, was that the music had a living relation to the culture around it.

      I think there are many ways to make classical music sound contemporary, without doing something radically new to it. I’d suggest (though this is a _long_ discussion) two approaches. One is through the emotions in the music, which can be given a contemporary tone. And the second would be through the markings in the score, which can be taken far more literally than current performances often take them. How often have you heard the forte and piano passages in classical-period orchestral music sound strikingly different? Simply making the contrasts and climaxes truly vivid in any piece from the standard repertoire would be a way to renew the music.

      There’s so much more, but I don’t have time to go into it right now. Fodder for another blog post. (Just think of Glenn Gould, and how radical — and how much of its time — his first recording of the Goldbergs was…)

      • says

        Well, I certainly hope that musicians, whether professional or amateur, follow the dynamic markings in the score faithfully, and in the early pieces that have no dynamics from the composer, that they make up their own intelligent dynamics. Otherwise, they’re just phoning the performances in. In some cases, no doubt, the pros are doing the same works for the hundredth time, so perhaps the passion is not there any more. But, to toot the Philly O’s horns (and cellos) again, I don’t hear them doing that; they always have plenty of passion.

        What I would like to see them doing, but they seem unfortunately quite reluctant to do, for whatever reason, is freshen up their repertoire more. It’s fine to hear yet another Brahms symphony run-through by great musicians, but when will they do a Pettersson, I wonder? Or a Nørgård? Those wild Scandinavians would wake everyone up! Has any major American orchestra ever played those guys? Stokowski used to pull stunts like that, but I’m afraid most of the core patrons today really wouldn’t care to be woken up that way. Much too dangerous!

        Gould is certainly a good example of what we could use more of; it’s hard to find anyone as individualistic and intriguing as he.

        One point I

  3. says

    I completely agree, Greg. In my mind, it is the presentation and program formats that need to be looked at and tweaked. The concerts that are embracing new technologies and foward thinking formats are proving to be successful. It is not the music that is in question. If it was the music, we wouldn’t be hearing classical music soundtracks for movies, television and commercials.

    The classics are classic because they still mean a great deal to us. I also agree though that the art form needs to be a living and breathing art form again, something I have posted about on my blog in the past and have revisited with John Steinmetz. New music is the way to breathe new life into our artform! The good news, new music is new for everyone and establishes a balanced playing field for all attendees. There is no past to know about in these cases. We can all experience something new together. Despite a percentage of audiences that want the tried and true, many of us want these new experiences and would go more often if programmed. The new can slowly get us back into “cool” territory too. Discovery is an elixer for youth.

    I also want to point out that audience development, making sure you relate, are relevant and allow your audiences to become more involved will help kick the elitism elephant to another room. Less ego and more connection, collaboration, community and caring will go a long way to help solve this ongoing challenge.

    We have been talking about this same issue for decades, yet I have hope that with a few pioneers that are bold enough to go above and beyond the past and help to lead us into the future, classical music will not only survive, but can thrive in today’s culture.

    Cheers to happy and loyal audiences and a new future for classical music!

  4. says

    [ I wrote the comment below before I had read Peter Sachon’s post on millennial expectations – I don’t know that Peter’s observations hold true here in Australia and the different emphasis I give in comparison to Peters post is interesting. Its often said that Australia is the US 10 years behind and maybe my comments reflect this. I would say however that Peter’s assumption that millenials are as politically aware as he says is open to question, if that where so where is it reflected in the media? But change is at hand so we will see.]

    Greg I agree with your points, I think you might be advocating for the kind of thing Kronos and others have attempted but I’m not sure how far this extends but I’ll come back to this. Frankly I’m pretty despairing of our age. We live in a time when people are actively ignorant and suspicious of anything outside of their familiar frame of reference. You many not know of the asylum seeker issue in Australia but my countries navy are now towing refugees who try to come to Australia by boat out into international waters. At other times they put them, men women and children in indefinite detention on pacific islands. Despite the fact that the number of people who try to get to Australia by boat are comparatively small and that time and time again it has been shown that we will not be overrun with a flood of asians from our north our politicians and a complicit media have for over a decade stirred xenophobia because it makes good headlines and because the right can use it to get elected. I hardly recognise my once proud and tolerant country.

    This issue, like climate change, has been tackled with a range of awareness raising campaigns but the polling on these issues put those want to change our society in the distinct minority.
    Our media treat those who pursue cultured lives of the kind once described as intellectuals, with derision and suspicion. They make it clear that “you are not one of us”, “us” being european middle class people who own a suv and appear on reality tv shows. I’m pretty confident that the majority of our population hold these suspicions also.

    All of us in the west and increasingly the east, have been brought up on a diet of media that tells us that we are the centre of the universe and our mundane experience of life is all that realistically matters. The corporate dominated world we live in has corrupted culture to serve the needs of marketing and not the needs of a humane society. Its a giant sociopathic machine that has turned us all into hungry narcissists so it can sell us more and more stuff. Its economic and cultural control has been so dominant that real democracy is perverted to the point where it looks and feels very much like a feudal age we are living in.

    Nothing much new in what I’ve said but my main point here is that classical music (both old and new) is actually a radical art form in our current cultural framework. Often its the opposite to narcissistic entertainment. It asks us to work to appreciate it because it offers visions of life outside of ourselves that are worth working and struggling for. It claims the moral authority to say art and by extension an individuals role within it, serve a higher and universal cause, perspective, impulse (whatever you want to call it). The great energy we see in the youth orchestras of Venezuela is a good case in point. The orchestras embody a collective experience of art combined with a humane philosophy of society. As I see it, its “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” vs “Since my baby left me”.

    Maybe orchestras, ensembles and soloists should actively engage in political struggle. What if orchestras had taken part in the occupy movement? Of course the over lords who supply the money for orchestras may not like that but some of them are changing now. Not all corporations want business as usual and maybe a bold, radical critique of our current socio-political culture would be supported by some brave souls who have the money to support culture.

    Hollywood of course has tackled socio-political critiques extensively but it is done using a kind of experiential third person narrative. The experience of “us” is one step removed from the audience, so critiques of society are more implied than obviously confrontational. This kind of critique isn’t available in classical music performance. The experience of the music is direct and shared with the rest of the audience and the performers (although I realise the extent to which metaphor can exist within music is a pretty big topic which would be too much of a side track to get into here). So if you want to build in an experience of the music functioning today I think you have to be confrontational. Or at least its one approach that I’m suggesting might be worth a try.

    Would people go to a concert by a major orchestra called “The machine has lied to you and turned you into a narcissist” (advertising done via graffiti)? Or “Millions in the future don’t have to die because you want a bigger telly”, or “Stop hiding from the truth”, or “This music cures mind control”? Theres tons of repertoire that could be selected for concerts like this. Maybe you could pick an issue that everyone in the orchestra feels passionate about and present the audience with statements by the players as to why they will put heart and soul into the performance tonight. The issue could be “we want a world where everyone is able to afford to come and hear orchestras”.

    I’m just riffing but I can see how it might work. Anyway thats my two bobs worth. Thanks for a stimulating blog.

    • says

      The Chicago Symphony has just announced a concert they’re calling “Speak Truth to Power.” But I didn’t get my hopes up, and wasn’t surprised that the pieces being played were all from the past. Britten and Shostakovich. If the orchestra wanted to present music that speaks truth to power NOW, that would really be revolutionary!

      I can’t speak for Australia, but I think what you’re saying is more pessimistic than the situation in the US would warrant. These cultural/political issues have always been war zones, and the good people are often in the minority. Nothing new there. But still we’ve seen pretty steady progress in many areas. To cite one of the latest, in the US, we’ve seen support for gay marriage zoom upwards in the last few years. And classical music certainly isn’t the only music that brings people outside themselves to something larger. What has Bruce Springsteen done, if not that? A lot of hiphop has done the same thing. I often compare hiphop to El Sistema. El Sistema is a lovely examples of high-culture outsiders going into poor communities and doing genuine good. Hiphop (which had its origins far from any kind of corporate power) showed us people from the poor communities inventing new art for themselves. Read the history of hiphop book by Dan Charnas to see how true that is. And if you then want to decry how happened to some hiphop (not all) when it got mixed up with high corporate money, you might be equally wary of what happens to El Sistema musicians when they get involved in the big-time classical world, and find themselves in a field that for practical purposes supports the status quo, and is lightyears removed from any consciousness of the lives these musicians originally lived.

  5. Doug says

    Excellent post. Agree that the problem isn’t unfamiliarity or complexity, but rather that the programming isn’t speaking to broader, younger audiences. Scratch that; it *is* speaking. The programs and the trappings of their presentation exalt the power/supremacy of older, wealthy-donor haves, to whom so many serious music orgs in the U.S. are deeply beholden, and rub the have-lesses’ noses in it. This is an issue worldwide but, from frequent travel and attendance of many performances in Europe, U.K., and Australia, seems far less problematic in countries where politics less regressive than U.S.’s enables reasonably generous public sector finance of music and other arts. This decouples programming from plutocracy, which in turn yields fresher, edgier, more diverse, more current-context-aware experiences that appear to speak to draw in younger, broader audience.

    • Jim C. says

      Those broader, younger people aren’t reading books any more, either. So what’s the solution to that?

      Big print and pictures?

      Dumbing down isn’t the solution.

      • says

        You’re so wrong about that, Jim. So completely wrong. You’ll find many younger people reading books, very serious books. One paradigm of the problem we face would be a graduate student in literature who can read Proust and Derrida without a hiccup, and whose musical taste is very smart indie bands. I’m not saying this to put down her musical taste, but rather to stress how much classical music has fallen off the cultural wagon.

        You might find it interesting to read the profiles of rising people in the tech industry that run under the title “How I Work” on the much-read Lifehacker blog. The people featured are in their 20s and 30s, for the most part. They’re all asked what books they’re reading and what music they listen to while they work. You’d find your dismissive worldview much corrected by the books these people cite. The latest person featured was reading Seneca, just for instance. And listening to indie rock. Par for the course.

        And of course I’m not talking about dumbing classical music down. Mainstream classical concerts have already done that. One problem, in fact, with the younger audience is that classical concerts aren’t smart enough. We have to make them far smarter, far more engaging and challenging than they are, before we get smart people engaged with current culture to go to them.

  6. Nicholas Bartulovic says

    You seem to have the mindset that most Progressives do, and that is, that human nature is malleable. That over time, something about being human is different than it was two centuries ago. You are the same kind of person who would disregard the greats in not just classical music, but all the arts. You would be the first to say that the Founding Fathers are not relevant today because the world we live in is not the 1700’s and that we need a “living Constitution”. You would be the first to disregard Shakespeare, saying not that he “Invented the Man”, but that he “Invented the Man of Elizabethan England”. And finally you would be the first to disregard the ancients, saying that they knew nothing about the modern world so what is the point in reading them.

    Classical Music does not need to change. The composers and academics need to. You mention in your piece that the audience began to age around the 1960’s. This is not surprising because that is precisely when atonality became the “preferable” style of music among academics and composers. Tonality and form were replaced by atonality and anarchy. Classical music of the past became “out-dated”. Up until the 1960’s you still had neo-classical composers such as Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Ravel, who all made their stamp and brought NEW ideas to classical music. It’s very funny that I was sitting in my Western Civilization class where my professor likes to give us a parallel history of Western music. When we got to the 1920’s, he showed us an example from Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 23, and the Sacrificial Dance from Le Sacre. Not one person said they felt any connection to Schoenberg, but seemed to understand what Stravinsky was trying to say, EVEN though it was weird and quirky. Now mind you, these are not Music Theory PhD’s, or contemporary musicians, but just average people, taking a core curriculum class, kind of “getting” Stravinsky.

    You also mentioned the vile and insipid music education for those lay peasants who, “God why won’t they just understand like us music folk”, as you sit on your pedestal, judging the rest of us. I have been fortunate enough to play violin for the last eleven years of my life, I have listened to the “classical cannon” as you call it, many times, and I have been composing my own music for the last three years now. Every time I encounter someone like Michael Tilson Thomas in his “Keeping Score” series, I gain so much knowledge that I did not have prior. You even saw Leonard Bernstien do this with his Young People’s Concerts in the late 50’s, BEFORE the audience began to age as you say. And why can we not educated everyone on music? I hope you go to lectures or watch TED talks by other knowledgeable people, is that not the same thing?

    While you say the average concert goer is aging I provide the example of Cleveland Orchestra, the orchestra which I attend since I am based in Cleveland. Ever since the student advantage program was introduced, attendance of young people skyrocketed. here is the article


    Young people will come if the orchestra is accessible to them. Another thing you mentioned was that popular music becoming an art. Classical Music has always been up against other popular music, its just been classical! You look at Handel with the Beggar’s Opera. You look at Gershwin’s popularity with jazz, (although I would argue he was a much more serious composer than we take him to be), Johann Strauss II with his waltzes. Classical Music has always seemed to embrace the kitsch art of the day and turn it into new music. People called Le Sacre, “primitive Jazz”. So do not blame the advent of new types of music, for we can see those dying slowly as well. There is a section of Rock called “Classic” Rock. And Jazz is not as popular as it once was. Blame the real demise of classical music, unstructured and unconstrained atonality.

    • says

      Nicolas, thanks for your passion. And I’m glad you know so much about what I think, especially about topics I’ve expressed myself about, and said the opposite of what you surmise. In past centuries, classical music expressed the life of its time, which is exactly why its masterworks have survived to the present day. We need classical music to do this again. And, happily, that’s exactly what’s happening, as changes sweep through the field.

      Your Cleveland example is very sweet. I’ve worked with the Cleveland Orchestra, and I know they’re attracting students to concerts with heavily discounted tickets. But this is a very small thing, compared to what’s happening elsewhere, where the branding and presentation and content of classical concerts has changed. There you see not just a small audience of younger people, but a large, sustainable one. Three quick examples might be the New World Symphony, in Miami, which has an enthusiastic young audience for special concerts. And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London, which by rebranding itself as The Night Shift draws fills a 1000-seat hall with younger people for late-night concerts. And finally an example from Cleveland itself, the now-defunct group called Red, An Orchestra, which had a loyal young audience of around 1000 people for very adventurous classical concerts. Its demise had to do with bad financial management, not any lack of success in drawing an audience. And, you know, I’ve never said that younger people won’t like classical music. They usually do, when they hear it. You should have heard the whoops and screams when Wordless Music in New York presented Bach along with edgy alternative bands. Younger people just aren’t very attracted to classical music in its traditional presentation. You can always get some younger people to go when you lower the price, as the Cleveland Orchestra has done. But to draw a really large, sustainable younger audience is a very different thing.

  7. Jim C. says

    “But if what I’ve been saying here is true, then music education — at least if it’s rooted in the old ways of classical music — won’t help. Because the problem isn’t unfamiliarity, or complexity. It’s that the music most strongly featured comes from another culture, and — at least as the classical mainstream performs it now — isn’t speaking to our world. ”

    No, if people are exposed to it again it will again become a part of our culture.

    Plus, I don’t think it ever left.

    Everything heavier than soap operas and video games btw is being “pushed to the margins” by the corporate state., because thinking too much or having something outside of yourself to rely upon besides consumer goods is bad for business. People are no longer being exposed to classical music and that’s the problem.

    • says

      That’s ridiculous, Jim. My politics are very left, but I’m not going wave words like “corporate state” around and think I’ve made any great points by doing it. What you say here doesn’t correspond in the least with reality. It might do you good to immerse yourself for a bit in current pop music culture, not the mass market kind, but the alternative kind, which has been a huge factor in the pop music market since the late 1980s. If you read Pitchfork, or look at the NPR music website, what do you find, except people thinking — vociferously — for themselves? If you’re going to have opinions about these crucial issues, the first thing to do is inform yourself about what’s really going on.

  8. Nicolas says

    That’s a very inspiring post, thank you for talking about the performance issue as a way of connecting with modern audiences.

    Thank you for this very inspiring post. I believe we are not using the correct tools at our disposal to reach these audiences, especially with new technologies now such a part of people’s lives. We must use it to show them it is still part of their world, of their culture and to help them interact with it as well (which is why I have been involved in the creation of a new website called Classical Diary). But only if musicians are capable themselves of understanding that making music is about delivering a message to the audience, telling a story, a catharsis which script has been written by the composer.

    It is quite funny JonJ is mentioning Bruckner and, moreover, by Yannick Nezet-Seguin as I did listen to his CDs of Bruckner symphonies not two days ago. And whilst I don’t want to incriminate him in particular, his Bruckner was to me typical of the problem highlighted in this post. Many friends tell me they attended a concert with some Bruckner and invariably they say: “Well, it doesn’t really work with me”. I admit Bruckner can be tricky and most of all is absolutely exhilarating to conduct. But what about the tempi? What about the phrase? What about the dynamic and direction of the whole piece? When playing Bruckner, it is absolutely impossible to capture the audience’s attention without changing many habits, and I believe it is quite a good illustration of : “Even the performances of the great masterworks have to sound current.” Let’s remember a time when Bach was being played by very large orchestras just like it were Wagner. Performances also have to be fashionable, as long as they respect the composer’s will and deep intentions.

    Footnote: plus, we should consider that our society has changed a lot recently, in particular in our relationship to time. What if the most famous composers had composed their masterworks now? Would the tempi still be the same or would they be faster because they would feel it would suit the rhetoric and the emotions better? Just something to think about I guess… Or maybe a chapter of the book, Greg?

    • says

      Very many good thoughts, there, Nicolas. I’m grateful to you for sharing them. To reply quickly on your Bruckner point, bravo for that. And generally I think we need to bring performances alive. Does each phrase have the meaning it should have? The feeling, the flow, the thrust? In a way that’s clear to anyone, whether or not they know classical music?

      My own favorite example is performances of classical-period orchestral works. They’re full of forte/piano contrasts. But do these contrasts really register in most current performances? Not to me. The fortes don’t sound loud, the pianos don’t sound soft. Or, even more crucially, we don’t _feel_ loud and soft. There needs to be an unmistakable difference!

      And climaxes need to sound like climaxes. Again in a way that’s unmistakable, even if someone doesn’t know classical music. We’ve accumulated too many rules, too many concepts of classical music decorum. And as a result the music doesn’t really come alive.

  9. says

    I agree music education is not the answer. Music education is like having to explain a joke’s punch line. If you have to explain your joke then you really need to reconsider the content. No amount of education will make that joke funny. If your joke is based on the humor of the old days (i.e. corny jokes that used to be funny when Bob Hope told them), then you are not speaking to contemporary culture. OR having to explain a joke in a Shakespeare play means your jokes don’t work anymore at all. Making your jokes contemporary so that today’s audiences will laugh doesn’t necessarily mean your dumbing down your jokes. It just means you are becoming aware of contemporary humor and idioms. Saying today’s audience is too dumb to understand your ineffective jokes is just hiding your head in the sand.

  10. says

    I attended an Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday, April 26; sold-out, mid-30’s and younger, screaming like they were at a rock concert, egged on by the conductor and producer of that particular program – Arnie Roth, who in addition NEVER stopped genuinely thanking us (the audience) for making this tour possible! I am starting to think that classical music may not be dead, it just ain’t in the places we expect to find it, or want it to go stylistically/academically, dragging a huge popular following along. It is in the video game genre we have largely ignored which has drawn composers like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu right up through Trent Reznor and Jack Wall and Michael Giacchino. Having done just enough research to be dangerous – homework for writing a preview of this concert for Oregon ArtsWatch – I am stunned by the numbers. 55 million “Final Fantasy” games sold. This concert celebrated the music from Final Fantasy. At the concert, the person on my left was bopping along to the “Mission Theme”. The person on my date’s right was humming along with one of the love themes. This is not pop music, though many classical listeners might call it pops. It has much in common with film scores although its parameters are much stricter. As Daniel Kahneman espouses, it’s a numbers game and according to the numbers, gamers are listening to far more classical music far more often than pop, rock, folk, jazz or . . .

    Tarantino flippin’ rules!

  11. Kenneth Greenwood says

    Greg in your reply to Nicholas Bartulovic you really didn’t deal with his point on atonality “Blame the real demise of classical music, unstructured and unconstrained atonality.” Have you addressed this point elsewhere as I would like to read your thoughts on Nicholas point. Up front I will say that I think Nicholas is right. Looking forward to your response.

    • says

      I don’t agree that atonality is a problem. It certainly isn’t for listeners outside the standard classical music audience. I remember years ago taking a date with no classical music experience to an Emerson Quartet concert, where Berg’s Op. 3 was on the program. I spent some time trying to explain what she was going to hear, to prepare her for the atonality of the piece. Afterward, she was annoyed with me for doing that. Treating her, as she saw it, as an idiot. She didn’t remotely have a problem with a piece.

      And that experience has been repeated many times, by myself and others. In fact, to reject atonality is, in my opinion — and with respect — to reinforce classical music’s biggest problem, which is that it’s been removed from our cultural mainstream. Atonality was part of a great evolution in all the arts, including most obviously abstraction in visual arts. Certainly there’s no problem with abstract painting. I’ve seen lines around the block for a big Jackson Pollock show. So atonality should have taken its place in that larger evolution, controversial at first, but then settling down to occupy a place in the larger landscape.

      Though there is one problem with atonality in classical music, as we’ve experienced it. And that’s the insistence from many prestigious, influential people that only atonal new music can be respectable. That was harmful — deeply anti-historical and anti-artistic, and of course also leaving the last few decades’ change in all the arts out of any serious consideration. Painting saw the return of realism, and classical music saw the return of tonality, though in truth (and the equivalent is true in painting) it never left.

      The worst aspect of this atonal tyranny has been the way atonal pieces were forced on concert audiences that didn’t want to hear them. As in, let’s say, a major US orchestra programming a big Elliott Carter piece on a subscription program. To me, that’s deeply objectionable. It makes no artistic sense. Why play important music for people who won’t like it? How will that help build support for it, find the audience that _will_ want to hear it? It makes no business sense. Why antagonize your audience? (Both the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra discovered during the past decade that they’d repelled their subscribers by programming modernist works.)

      And it’s bad on a human level. Why force people who love music and love your concerts to endure music that they hate? Would you do that to people you really cared for? This in the end is yet another way that classical music departed from the real world. Thinking that art could be enforced, could be forced on those who didn’t want it. Does the movie industry force people who want to see action blockbusters to also see art house films? Of course not. It understands that the blockbuster audience and the art house audience are different, which is only common sense. Common sense that, in many places and for many years, doesn’t seem to have existed in classical music, leading to (among many other things) a rebellion against the very idea of atonality, which should have been accepted as one important part of art and of history, but not the only part.