Saturday, February 6, 2010

(the death of) classical music

So, unless you have been living in a cave, you probably have already read Alex's article (subscribers only, but why wouldn't you be one?) and his two subsequent blog posts regarding issues of audience participation in classical music. I agree with him on his analysis of the League report (which I have, admittedly, only skimmed), and that something needs to be done by every single major (and minor) classical institution.

I would like to respond, though, to a response: Jay Gabler's blog post, which can be read here. Gabler argues that classical music is its own savior, that "great art takes care of itself," and that "the audience...will be there." This is not necessarily the problem. It's not the issue of classical music always having an audience, but it is the size of the audience and the size of their wallets. He makes the comparison to museums, which have always been popular by displaying the "classics," but music functions a bit differently: every performance, theoretically, should fill a significant part of the hall. Orchestras and opera companies lose money on pretty much every event they put on, and the more the audience shrinks the larger this problem grows.

But I think the real issue here, one which comes up a lot in the comments of Anne Midgette's blog, is that classical music is somehow "too sacred" to embrace new media (or, as Gabler calls it, "media-whoring"). There was a bit of uproar when the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled their marketing campaign for Gustavo Dudamel; people argued that he was over-exposed in the same way, that, say, Obama was over-exposed for going on Leno. This is not "media-whoring." Having a presence on Twitter, or an appearance on television, is not whoring. Embracing new technology is something that these institutions should have been doing for years, and I'm pretty sure a few TV spots and creative advertisements doesn't turn Dudamel into some kind of sell-out succubus. Hiring Alec Baldwin to be the NY Phil announcer isn't whoring, it's smart marketing. The Met, to an extent, understands this. When Satyagraha tickets were returned by their regular subscribers, they courted the hippie, downtown SoHo audience who knew Philip Glass and liked yoga---and it worked. Each institution needs to carefully target themselves to specific demographics for specific events, as well as generally market towards youngish audiences. Having people in charge who are smart at business doesn't mean you have to sacrifice any artistic integrity. I don't think Dudamel's supposed "over exposure" was in any way at the expense of his music making: the criticisms you may have of his conducting have nothing to do with whether or not he had an iPhone app.

And "not doing a damn thing" is what got us in this place to begin with. For the past twenty-odd years, the big institutions have assumed that subscribers and listeners are a given right. They held up classical music like some kind of field of dreams---if you build it, they will come. But the reality is, we cannot depend on arts education to shape listeners who are interested in seeing the Chicago Symphony or Metropolitan Opera. The big institutions need to seek out new audiences however possible. The Met and Carnegie Hall have been better about this in recent years, and I think the New York Phil is changing their ways now as well. The L.A. Phil, under Deborah Borda, is probably the model for how to attract new listeners, hype up the orchestra, and get everyone in Los Angeles excited that they have a symphony (the extraordinary Disney Hall certainly doesn't hurt, either)--as well as maintain a high standard of artistic excellence and creative, intelligent programming.

If the people in charge of symphony orchestras and operas do nothing, classical music will not die. But in thirty or forty years, it's difficult to imagine having, say, more than one opera company in New York. It's even hard to imagine that more than a handful of professional orchestras in America will exist. Orchestras and opera companies are too huge and cumbersome to survive without a large, wealthy, dedicated audience. What will take their place is smaller venues, chamber ensembles, and touring groups. (Le) Poisson Rouge, and other clubs that feature classical musicians, may end up being the future if the New York Philharmonic folds. In which case, conservatories should not hold learning orchestral excerpts as the paradigm for becoming a great classical musician. All of our institutions are gridlocked on training musicians to play in big orchestras; if they collapse, then the conservatory system itself becomes useless (it is already outdated enough as is).

So: there will be no classical music apocalypse, but the people in charge need to act soon, at the very least, to draw in a new generation of listeners.

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