Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I had a few follow-up thoughts to Monday's post and the related comments that I thought would be better to just write as a new blog post. So to address the comments posted, in order:

Anonymous #1 - I didn't forget about Wordless Music, which is a fantastic idea and now essential to the New York scene. But at this point it's so tied together with Le Poisson Rouge that I consider them basically as a single entity. Also, there is an important distinction between that model and the Yellow Lounge. Generally, Wordless programs focus on certain new music which appeals to the hipster/indie crowd because it ignores the boundaries between genres. Its recent and upcoming performances, for example--Tyondai Braxton, Caleb Burhans, Jonsi and company---are composers whose place rests in the middle of the classical/pop spectrum. What the Yellow Lounge does, though, is focus on capital-C Classical Music. Andreas Scholl, Albrecht Meyer, Helene Grimaud: this is clearly performer rather than composer-focused (there are a few exceptions, like a September performance of Matthew Herbert's Mahler Symphony X).

I was initially disappointed that this was the structure---it seemed like they would be able to appeal to a wider swath of young people by focusing on a Nico Muhly or a Jonny Greenwood. But that they attracted such a massive young audience is a testament to the fact that there is a giant demographic in Germany (and maybe in Europe; they've done it in Dublin as well) who does want to see Classical Music. And for an organization like Deutsche Grammophon that is more important. If you are a classically-illiterate hipster going to see a Wordless Music event, it will probably hook you on the indie-classical, Bedroom Community/New Amsterdam Records Scene, not on the Mahler/Bruckner/Ravel Symphony Orchestra Scene. And though that's important, to sustain an audience for our major orchestras we need to hook people on the classics as well as the new stuff.

Which brings me to the next point---addressing how preposterous this is:
"Why is it so hard for people to understand that classical music and opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity ? Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population." - Anonymous #2

I'm pretty sure everyone understands this. Appreciation and love of most great art is confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population--only a relatively narrow segment of the population even buys CDs anymore. I never suggested that any of these attempts at reaching a wider and broader audience were attempts to get classical music into the top ten Billboard charts. Not only are those charts no longer relevant to today's wonderfully fragmented musical landscape, but they are completely irrelevant to classical music. I am talking about trying to renew an audience which needs to be renewed.

Just because something is not popular doesn't mean it can't become more popular; and by essentially throwing up your hands and saying "Well, it never was really that popular, so it never will be, so I don't have to do anything," is dooming classical music (and is also historically inaccurate). Classical music will never die. But to play a Mahler symphony at the high standard of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra requires a massive amount of bureaucracy and a massive amount of money, and those things do not grow on trees. To sustain the major organizations which are able to put on the major symphonic and opera productions, you need to renew the audience.

And to address Anonymous #2's second point: "In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through EXPOSURE... That sensitivity to music is almost like an aptitude, you either have it or you don't and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure."

That's what I'm talking about! All of these are opportunities to give people exposure to this music. And given the right circumstances and the right performance, I would say that most people exposed to classical music will like it. I doubt that a single person came out of the Yellow Lounge disliking classical music more than when he went in. And classical music, which is the most ridiculous broad genre heading besides "Pop," encompasses so much that there is literally something for everyone.

And opera used to be of a very wide appeal, just not as much in America (I like the irony of a commenter calling themselves "Verdi" and claiming that opera is a niche market). We need to remember that a lot of these issues are essentially American issues. In nearly every park in Germany, there is a statue of Beethoven or Mozart or Bach; that is not the case here with Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. Without the built-in audience which Germany has for the symphony and Italy has for the opera house, it is even more important for American organizations to renew.


  1. Will,

    You wrote:

    "That's what I'm talking about! All of these are opportunities to give people exposure to this music. And given the right circumstances and the right performance..."

    When I began discovering opera and classical music on my own in my teens it was through recordings. I'd say 90 percent... Listening and studying the great masterpieces in the privacy of my home was for me the most thrilling activity. Of course I enjoyed going to Carnegie Hall and the MET on occasion and donated what I could, but that never compared to being able to get to know so many pieces in such detail at home. I cannot begin to describe how many times solitary listening lifts me to the heights of aesthetic experience.

    Why can't curious and sensitive young people today do the same thing? It's really the only way one can truly assimilate and come to know and love the great masterpieces -- through patient, careful and numerous listenings with one's heart.

    You wrote:

    "And opera used to be of a very wide appeal..."

    A lot of 19th Italian century opera yes, but what about the truly fine operas like 'Pelleas et Melisande' or 'Moses und Aron' or even 'Falstaff'.... Most operagoers still don't care for these masterpieces.

  2. As a former resident of Berlin, I am enjoying reading this blog, and I have found the last two posts particularly interesting. I grew up in Toronto where my rather non-musical parents introduced me to classical music when they added me to their opera subscription and I was enchanted by what I saw. I am most grateful for their priming of the pump but I learned to understand and appreciate the music through careful listening, often at the public library. I agree with your views about the younger audience for die Philharmoniker but during the baroque opera program offered at the Staatsoper there were many in the 35-55 demographic, black turtlenecks and chic square eyeglasses and all. I was told that baroque opera was seen in the same light as New Music and attracted an adventurous crowd. On the other hand, for traditional offerings, such as Madame Butterfly, there were either very old people or children. But the audience of every performance I saw in Berlin was far more diverse than what I ever saw in the US. At a concert once of the Baltimore Symphony, I think I was the only person under 60, and there was an entire row of people with oxygen tanks!

  3. Anonymous - I learned how to appreciate classical music the same way, spending hours with scores and CDs. But we can't expect an entire audience of aficionados. Yes, I hope that most people at the symphony know the repertoire inside and out, but it's impossible to actually maintain those high expectations and run a successful (and profitable!) arts organization. Young people can and do learn it the way we did, but people are busy! Maybe they're out there learning about 17th century art or teaching inner-city kids. They deserve good music too.

    And obviously something like Moses und Aron is not going to become a big hit anytime soon--it's an inherently inaccessible work (not that I don't love it). We can only hope that the high quality of operas like Pelleas and Moses, combined with smart marketing and great performances, can attract a large audience (I don't expect them to be "popular" n the sense that Lady Gaga is popular).

    Sprocketboy -- Thanks! And yep, even in the Staatsoper the audience was still younger-looking for the most part than those in America. Certain programs and certain works, as well as certain marketing techniques, can always draw out a different age group.