Written in fire

Over the years, I’ve heard prominent people in classical music talk privately about the trouble classical music is in. I’ve sometimes heard things that go beyond — even far beyond — what these people would say in public. 

But now I’ve seen something presented in public that matches things I’ve heard privately. It’s a blog post that Tony Woodcock wrote last week. Tony used to run the Minnesota Orchestra, and now runs the New England Conservatory. So his credentials — and his inside knowledge of the classical music field — are impeccable. He starts with the horrors happening in Detroit, and goes on from there to talk about a much larger issue — which is (in his view) that classical music, as an enterprise, needs to change drastically. 

He’s doing something about that, with the new Entrepreneurial Musicianship program he so fiercely launched at NEC. But that’s a story for another post. For now, look at some excerpts from what he’s just written: 

I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestral world…Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras – the constant demands, the needs, the on-going and unresolved problems.  They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s  philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce. 

[S]ociety has changed….Societal changes present huge challenges to our conservatively held views of what constitutes an orchestra.  We can blame society and national leaders and the media but that’s not going to get us very far.  We are where we are and everything is moving forward with or without us.   


We are forever talking about the issue of relevance.  Clearly, the performing arts’ relevance has declined as measured by the sheer drop in attendance figures as well as the arts’ ever more superficial penetration in the community.  But I want to change the term from relevance to legitimacy which presents a much bigger issue. I use “legitimacy” here almost in the political sense of an organization deriving the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people.

Tony and I have been in occasional contact ever since he took over at NEC. But I couldn’t write anything like this blog post. Tony has worked all his professional life inside the classical music world, far more deeply inside it than I’ve ever gone. He can be grounded, talking about large issues, in ways that I can’t be. And because these things are so central to his life, his words are written in fire. 

Please read what he wrote. It’s important. 

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  1. says

    As usual Greg I really appreciate you comments on the classical music world.

    My views on classical music in Britain (and I cannot really comment on the scene in America in the way you can), are simple – the funding bodies and music managers are obsessed with the idea that if classical music is popular, then it is not relevant. Most people like melodic or tonal music and just about all living composers who are supported write music most people (rightly or wrongly) find unattractive. These funding bodies second guess what will be popular in fifty years time, and support that. The British music written in the 1960s (fifty years ago) that was predicted to be popular, is now either still unpopular or completely forgotten. The funding bodies and concert promoters can chant “innovative”, “dangerous”, “cutting-edge” and the various other cliches as much as they want. What they can’t do is make people attend concerts.

    I have had discussions and written about the taboo on writing melodic music that people enjoy, yet no one will discuss this with me – they complain I am silly, don’t understand, my views are irrelevant and various other non-answers. The real answer is I believe, they want classical music to be esoteric.

    Unless I have missed something, I have listened to every genre and sub-genre of classical music written in the last fifty years or so, sometimes studying it in great detail. My conclusion is simple: despite the doctorates, the complex systems, political agendas, the majority of contemporary composers have missed the point. The final straw for me was when a work, that lasted 20 minutes, required a 25 minute preceding explanation!

    The classical music audience is generally intelligent. My suggestion is compose music the audience want to hear, the composer will then build trust. A trustful audience will then most likely follow the composer through more way-out music – after all it happened in rock music with the Beatles!

    A work of mine was performed a few months ago, it consisted of a melody over a drone, with other instruments occasionally entering in unison, in simple triadic harmony or phased. A successful classical musician in the audience said afterwards that it was very brave to compose such a simple melodic piece, and I really appreciate his compliment. However it is strange that at a time when classical music can have obscene language, nudity, simulated sex on stage and extreme political messages, I am brave because I wrote a melody! With what appears to be a deliberate antagonism towards the audience it is now avant-garde to want to communicate with the audience.

    Invariably when rock music gets too esoteric and self-indulgent, a new generation comes along and takes it back to its roots. If only classical musicians and composers would do the same. The classical music managers and funders have driven classical music to the outskirts of musical life, and the exceptional classical orchestras and performers are now paying the price for something over which they had no control.

    It is not too late, but developing an audience should have started a generation ago, before the funding cuts and calling in of loans.

  2. says

    Egads, Greg–was just skimming Tony’s blog (thanks so much for posting the link) and saw his post about the Memphis Symphony Opus One. I had forgotten Susanna was Concertmaster–I met and played with her at the IU String Academy way too many years ago. That sounds like a really intriguing project and I’m glad to see it working.

    You might also take a look at what the Louisville Orchestra has been up to lately–I think it’s on the cusp of some big changes itself!



  3. Peter Flint says

    Interestingly, the situation in the US seems to be distinctly different than in the UK, as described by Ian. While there are certainly old-school modernists around still, they don’t seem to hold the all-powerful sway over composing culture that they did 30-40 years ago. If anything, US composing culture is moving boldly forward and has exploded into wide eclectic array of musical styles. The old guard that used to control the universities and the funding are retiring and are being replaced by a younger (35-55 year old) generation that grew up on rock and roll and a wide variety of popular music. This new generation is open to many different styles and actively encourage their students to move in whatever direction seems best to them.

    Where American musical culture is failing and reaching a crisis point is in two connected areas – its larger musical institutions (symphonies, operas, ballets) and in music education. In the budget crises of the 70’s American public education slashed their music education programs, in many cases completely getting rid of them. As a result we have several generations now that are largely musically illiterate and have had virtually no exposure to classical music or even playing a musical instrument. It’s no surprise then that audiences for the traditional institutions are evaporating as the previous generations die off. Even amateur music making has largely disappeared from public life. My great uncle, a corporate CEO, used play string quartets with four friends during his lunch hour in the 1940’s. He may have been unusual even at that time, but when was the last time anyone met a instrument playing corporate executive?

    And by and large, these venerable music institutions have done little help themselves in this storm; clinging and catering to their aging audience members and programming very little in the way of new music of any sort that might appeal to a younger demographic. The vast majority of Americans have no idea that there even are still living composers writing new music out of the classical tradition.

    It’s interesting too that Tony Woodcock at NEC is trying to lead the charge into the future here. When I was at NEC as a grad student a decade ago, it was a pretty conservative place, focused largely on interpreting the existing repertoire. The students were great; the faculty were all great but it was place that put the conservative in conservatory. This was before Tony’s time there so it is heartening to know that he has a forward-thinking approach.

    In any event, the solution to all these problems of the classical music world is simple, if completely unattainable. Reinstitute mandatory music education classes (instrumental-group and individual, choral, theory, music appreciation) at all levels of all education. Not everyone needs to do everything, but everyone should be doing something musical as part of their regular education in the same way that math, english, and sports are.

    It would take a generation but I predict it would cause a sea-change in American society, and not just in the musical world. It’s not hard to imagine the dividends it would pay in our achievements in math and the sciences where the links are well know. But also in our general level of creativity and our ability to creatively approach whatever tasks and problems face us individually and as a society.

    I have no illusions it will ever happen and not just because of the monetary cost (though one has to wonder what even 10 percent of what we’ve spent on recent wars would have achieved if it was put into education instead). But also because of the political and societal will needed for it. The ones who would have to implement such a program are the same ones who’ve grown up without much in the way of music education. They’re doing ok without it so why spend money on it now?

    Even when something is implemented chances are good it wouldn’t come to fruition. NY State actually has requirements in its laws for music and arts education, but many schools still have little or virtually no classes available and no one is holding them to it.

    There are areas of hope. Our bigger cities have seen a growth of young ensembles with great musicians playing hip interesting new music to hip interested young audiences in non-traditional venues as well as increasingly in traditional ones. The New World Symphony in Florida has a bold new performance space that looks like it will help blaze a new path forward. But just playing string quartets in bars is not going to solve the problem or attract new crowds. For that we need more participation at all levels – people playing music for fun as children and as adults; not just as professionals but as amateurs. More players = more audience = more musical institutions and outlets.

    I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Bill Brice says

    Sure, Ian. But every form of music has had its “esoteric” wing. And many of those found their audience niche.

    I believe, when bebop came onto the scene in the late 1940s, the old guard complained that it had no melody. Of course, what they meant was that the nature of bebop melody was more instrumental and more chord-based — i.e. “not singable” (well, except for those awesome scat singers!). I’d say bebop was ultimately one of those “esoteric” strains insofar as it never got mass audience appeal comparable to that of big bands and crooners of the previous decade. Nevertheless, it remains today an inventive, expressive medium, with its own history and offshoots and its own audience.

    I understand your sense that musical academe tends to be dismissive of styles that are easily accessible. I can remember many times hearing the expression “movie music” used as a derisive epithet. But, after all, when was academic music ever been truly mainstream?

    I guess I only question your feeling that simple melodic music isn’t regarded as highly as difficult, complex music. Quite a lot of the movies I see have scores that are tonal and melodic, written by composers who obviously have skill and sophistication. They’ve chosen to go for the Big Audience (and the Big Career!) — and why not? It’s a big world.

  5. says

    A comment in Tony Woodcock’s blog got my attention, about the passivity of orchestra members. It seems to me that any passivity must be a result of the way the institutions are organized. Orchestras are strangely old-fashioned, even feudal, in their structure. Musicians rarely participate in decision making about the orchestra’s artistic work; their passivity is institutionalized. It’s the flip side of the extraordinary authority given to the conductor-hero (and, more recently, the manager-hero).

    Perhaps among the many things that need to change is this form of organization, which breeds mistrust and abuse, ignores most of the knowledge and talents of the players, and usually falls short of inspiring everybody to do their best. It gives too much power to one person, with too little oversight and transparency. Is it any wonder that this kind of structure is failing?

    I like the idea that orchestras need to think how best to serve their communities. But just who will do that thinking? Will players be involved? Will community members be consulted? Or will orchestras follow their usual pattern of having leaders decide what’s best for everyone else? Wouldn’t it make sense for the players (who are, after all, community members) to help figure out how to serve the community in the most valuable, lively, and inspiring way possible? Wouldn’t it be fruitful to work in partnership with the players instead of regarding them as adversaries, employees, or children?

    I was inspired (there’s that word again) by your recent post about Blanche Moyse, who sounds like a very rare sort of conductor: not a star, but a servant of the music and of her colleagues. Communities don’t need lone-hero star conductors, but boy could they be helped by conductors with such a self-effacing ethic of service.