Classical music and the paid-for media

Norman Lebrecht recently roared “Until bloggers deliver hard facts and estate agents turn into credible critics, paid-for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town”. So on Friday it was good to see a paid-for newspaper setting the standard and covering the wonderful music education programme in Venezuela. In a major article that made the front page of the influential Film & Music supplement (above) Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins visits both Venzuela and Rome, and sings the praises of what she calls ‘The System’, or to give the Venzuelan education programme its full title Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela.

Also championing Venezuelan music education is Simon Rattle, who gushes euphorically in the article about wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and declares "If anyone asks me where is something really important going on for the future of classical music, I say here." Rattle and Dudamel are just two of the big names that appear in the article, the others are Claudio Abbado, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony, and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras.

Now I am a huge advocate of music education, and have written about it on these pages, and I am also a great admirer of what is happening in Venezuela. But there are some hard facts that didn't make it into Charlotte Higgins' article. Music education in Europe and North America has been the victim of another system, known as the free market. This balances supply and demand, and, whether we like it or not, this has put a greater value on training computer programmers than orchestral musicians. But some in classical music have benefitted from this system, particularly the artists agents who have found a lucrative niche matching musical supply to demand.

The Guardian article prominently namechecked Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras. Now follow this link to the website of leading artists agent Askonas Holt, and you will see that the artists represented by them include Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestras. Uncanny isn't it? - particularly as the footnote to the article is also rich in namechecks - "The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela's recording of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, is out now on Deutsche Grammophon".

The practice of music critics being supplied with free concert tickets and CDs is long established. But in the brave new global world of classical music the stakes are much higher. Follow this link and you will find that there are major international tours in 2007 by the Gothenburg Symphony and Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra organised by Askonas Holt and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and some global exposure in the Guardian isn't going to harm ticket and CD sales for that is it?

This is not just an isolated example of global promotion. Several music critics, including Norman Lebrecht, have recently written reviews of the Vienna premiere of John Adams new opera The Flowering Tree. The orchestra for that premiere was another band from South America, the Orchestra Joven Camerata de Venezuela, and in December the opera is in the repertoire of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, who are of course in the Askonas Holt stable, before being performed by the San Francisco Symphony, who are co-commissioners and also Askonas Holt artists. The opera is also coming to London, so some exposure there in the Evening Standard doesn't go amiss either. And back with Venezuelan musicians the Guardian article won't hurt the 2007 Edinburgh Festival appearance of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is promoted by Askonas Holt, as is the major US tour that follows.

I am the first to agree that classical music needs all the exposure it can get, and also that our children need all the music education they can get. But, equally, don't readers of the paid-for newspapers need all the hard facts they can get on The System behind these glowing articles?

For more on The System follow An Overgrown Path to No such thing as an unknown Venezuelan conductor.

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Pliable said…
And this story makes a leading political blog which really tells it like it is.

For non-UK readers I should explain that The Groan is The Guardian.
Anonymous said…
Great eye opening article.
Excellent article; still, we may be just observing an intensification of a trend, by which music production is now in the hands of the agencies themselves, who can join authentic musical talent and extensive marketing resources to the institutions represented by said artists to generate their own projects. They take advantage of a synergy already in place. Two things come to mind. Does this mean that--given the powerful marketing tools at their disposal-- the public will be led to perceive these artists as the only ones worth admiring? It is clear that with such resources, the artists of Askonas Holt, beyond their widely recognized gifts, also have access to the best opportunities to use them. Is there an alternative in a more democratic, internet-based or community driven appreciation of a wider circle or musicians? Either way, the critics need to be more independent than ever--not only in terms of source of payment but also from marketing persuasions-- and music education must reach all, because in the end, it is the musical quality that counts, no matter who produces the event.

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