Saturday, July 16, 2011

some departing thoughts

So: today is my last day in Berlin. Here are some slightly random departing thoughts; I'll probably have some more.

What The Classical U.S. Can Learn From Germany:

I can't be sure how much of a difference it makes to have young, attractive ushers working at concert halls and opera houses. But it makes a difference; not being hounded by elderly volunteers, like in the States, is great. And it automatically makes the concert-going experience feel youthful and lively. Of course, when you have young people, you have to pay them; and Germany charges 2 Euro for a program, so I imagine that's where they make up the difference. I'm not sure this isn't a bad idea (though I think we would have a very tough time convincing Americans to suddenly start paying for program books)--it would encourage people to spend less of their concert-going time reading instead of listening.

What The Classical U.S. Probably Can't Learn From Germany:
*The Infrastructure

My mind is constantly boggled by the sheer amount of stuff devoted to classical music here. I would estimate that around a third of the many posters filling the U-Bahn and train stations advertise classical music—sometimes the sketchier “Prague Chamber Orchestra of the Republic of Prague”-type stuff, but often the radio orchestras, opera companies, and occasional new music festival. Several times I’ve actually found out about a concert from seeing a poster and gone to it (something which never happens in the U.S.). And at every concert I go to at the Philharmonie or Konzerthaus, there are at least five or six people handing out fliers or brochures for other venues and concert series. Who are these people? Who pays for this? It’s a bit stupefying (and useful, too: one of the things handed out free, a small magazine whose name escapes me, lists all the concerts in Berlin in a given month and actually has interesting interviews and criticism).

I really don’t know anything about how funding works here, how much of each orchestra or organization’s budget comes from the state, so I have no idea how much of this startling infrastructure is because of a government commitment to the arts. But it all seems to guarantee that even the more outlandish concerts are close to sold-out. I’ve yet to see a Berlin Phil concert with the hall less than 5/6 or 7/8 full; every single concert with their music director sells out far ahead of time, even when he’s conducting Boulez. New music festivals draw a large and diverse audience; chamber concerts filled with mostly Schoenberg works, the kind of evenings that, if attended, would be coughed out of existence in New York, often sell out (and are filled with the older people who hate this kind of thing in America). Nothing really seems to get the crazy marketing push that the New York Phil will do when they’re programming Lindberg or Ligeti. People show up for world premieres and seem to genuinely enjoy them.

So I’m not sure if there’s a “lesson” to be gained from all that. You can’t shift a musical culture to that degree. The sense to which Germans feel that Germany is the home of classical music—the omnipresent statues of composers, the monolithic concert halls integrated into Berlin’s cityscape, the common knowledge of random tidbits of new music trivia—is something totally unique. I’m not sure if the interest in the new exists outside of a progressive city like Berlin, but it does seem that Germany does not have as much of a high culture crisis (or an invented high culture crisis) as the U.S. Yes, the German media occasionally laments the lack of youth interest in classical music, but it’s mostly hot wind in comparison to the much more tangible problems in America (they also lament the incapacities of a government much more functional than ours).

I’ve talked about it before, but I think the key demographic which we lost in the U.S. was the 30-to-45 crowd. We can now market the New York Phil to young people hip to Ligeti; it might be too late to attract subscribers from the generation who grew up listening to ACDC, with The Beatles as high culture (the oldest generation, who still swear by classical music and make up that graying audience, grew up listening to jazz, with Toscanini as high culture; and I’m not attempting to make a highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy here, I’m just riffing on listening habits). I get the feeling that young, wealthy American parents—the people who would be the subscriber and donor base in the future—don’t see classical music as an essential part of their cultural diet.

Germany, or Berlin at least, doesn’t really seem to have this problem. There is a full gradient of ages, from the students to the young-wealthy-and-hip to the not-quite-middle-aged up through the very, very old (who do a very impressive job of not coughing); no demographic really seems missing. Again, I think this is an age-old infrastructure thing: the audience will renew itself.


  1. Your piece about presentability is bigotry plain and simple. It depends on personality. It doesn't matter about age. I can't wait until you are in your 60's, 70's etc ... you'll see how comments like that will piss you off.

  2. I prefer to think of you as just a callow youth. I've never been hounded by older ushers; they've given courteous help which is often not the case with younger people. I'm removing my link to your blog.

  3. Yikes. I think I'll try to avoid the ageism debate...

    I think the atmosphere at the Philharmonie is one where a blind eye is turned to music students and enthusiastic audience members, young and old, who move into that empty seat in section A or B to get a better view than they would in the cheap seat printed on their ticket. Or perhaps said audience member doesn't even have a ticket - the ease with which one can sneak into the phil, or go back stage and drink a cheap beer in the midst of orchestra members, adds much vitality to the hall and the whole Berlin Phil experience.

    I wish I could comment on German government arts funding with more solid facts. But I can tell you - orchestras, theatres, concert houses all over Germany, not just in Berlin, get loads of government funds. I recently read an article which broke down how much each concert, opera, theatre ticket is subsidised by government funds. For example, the government might cough up around €20 for that cheap €6 ticket you used to see the Konzerthausorchester.

    And there is tons of new music going on all over Germany, in Frankfurt of course, in Cologne (the Phil there programs quite a bit of contemporary music), in Munich (Musica Viva), and even in small towns like Bad Reichenhall and Edenkoben where there was a whole weekend of concerts devoted to the Arditti Quartet. Berlin is big, but it's comparatively poor to the rest of Germany, which can be a hindrance despite those big government subsidies. Germans have an appetite for this music, as you noted, and they will travel to see it with this country's well connected trains or on that smooth sailing autobahn.

    And the magazine is called concerti! You can even read those nice interviews online, from the other side of the world.

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