Killing classical music in the US .....

The following comment was posted by the irrepresible Henry Holland on my recent A shuttle maestro for the IPod audience, but it is well worth a post to itself:

<< "Playing the same old 19th century rep over and over is part of what is killing classical music in the US (that and no music education anymore)"
- Oh, that again. *sigh* Where's the PROOF --I mean, actual rigorous stats, not wishful thinking-- for that view? I guarantee the bean counters on Grand Avenue rejoiced when Sariaaho's Passion of Simone got cancelled recently because of Dawn Upshaw's unfortunate breast cancer situation and was replaced by the Mahler 2nd. I was bummed, I love her music, but then I'm a distinct minority.

Having been to more concerts than I care to remember of concerts featuring contemporary fare that drew 1/2 full, heavily papered houses in the old Dot, I don't think your claim is true at all. I've been saying for years that orchestras should market themselves to people in their 50's and above, people whose kids have left home, which means they'd now have the time and money to explore classical music. But, no, that's not "cutting edge" or "pop culture friendly" or "reaching out to the youth of today".

Everyone went nuts over the Minmalist Jukebox last year but I couldn't see the relevance of a one-shot festival to the ongoing programming of the orchestra. Fans of minimalism do NOT automatically equal fans of the orchestral rep, though, of course, there's overlap. I'm a maximalist, I loathe minimalism, I love Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, Boulez, Murail type stuff, you'd have had to have paid me thousands of dollars to go to one of those concerts. And Salonen dropped out of the Shostakovich symphony cycle early on because he discovered after, what, 3 concerts in the first year of the five (4 symphonies in total) what me and my friends have been saying for years: his music isn't very good.

Look at concerts the LA Phil has done with contemporary pieces. They are almost always surrounded by crowd pleasers from....wait for it...the 19th century rep because it's been shown time and time and time again that that's the only way to keep people from fleeing in droves. In cities like Philadelphia, they don't even really bother with new stuff. Eschenbach is leaving partly because they don't like his conducting, but also because of complaints that he programs too much modern stuff (see: Boulez, Pierre; New York Philharmonic). Their audience has made it crystal clear what they want: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Wagner bleeding chunks, orchestral showpieces by Rimsky and Holst and maybe, just maybe some pretty Debussy or Ravel.

From what I understand, orchestra attendance is steady or even slightly up in the US, as it is for opera. If you're talking about "relevance to the wider culture" and "speaking to our times" all that Greg Sandowian stuff, I couldn't possibly care less, it would be impossible. People seem to forget that there's always going to be people for whom the Beethoven 5th or La Boheme is a brand new experience. >>

Now, for more on reaching new audiences with new music sample the New music lunch box

The header photo is not of classical music in the US, it is my own shot of the first night of the 2006 BBC Proms season, see
BBC Proms - summer in the city. The lovely Boulez photo is by Murdo MacLeod via an interesting Guardian article. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Anonymous said…
I agree with HH on the basic principle that programming more modern work - be it minimalism, modernism, abstract expressionism, fill-in-the-blank-ism - isn't going to help any. But on the more fundamental issue - whether or not orchestras need help to begin with - dude has his freakin' head in the sand.

While it's true, there will always be "people for whom the Beethoven 5th or La Boheme is a brand new experience" - what's not true is that any of those people will actually give a crap. I mean, eating raw pig intestines would be a "brand new experience" for me, but I'm not gonna do it. Let alone spend my hard-earned dough on it.

The thirtysomethings and twentysomethings of today aren't going to care about orchestras when they're fiftysomething. What, suddenly, magically, people get interested in classical music when they hit the mid-century mark? Relying on the over-50 crowd isn't gonna cut it.

Hell, doesn't even cut it now - the mere fact that orchestras are incapable of sustaining themselves financially without a handout is all the proof one needs. Even in the sixties, when orchestral music was more popular, ticket sales still accounted for less than half of an orchestra's budget.

With national, state, and local debts spiraling out of control, eventually the NEA is going to find itself on the chopping block. Maybe not this year, not next year, but eventually it's going to be one of the nickels or dimes that gets crossed off the list. Unless orchestras can become "relevant to the wider culture" - and all that Sandowian stuff - there's gonna be a lot of Juilliard grads working at McDonalds. I mean, that's about all they're qualified to do, really.

Not that I'm overly concerned with the eventual disappearance of the orchestra from our national landscape. Whatever. The world got by just fine without the wooly mammoth, the dodo bird, native Latin speakers, and Cop Rock. We'll pull through.

- Seth Gordon
jodru said…
I've got actual stats for you on this very issue. From the 05-06 season of six orchestras surveyed (NY, Cleveland, Chicago, Philly, Boston, San Francisco):

Most performed composer: Mozart (Only two orchestras had Beethoven as their most performed composer)

Top 5 Composer Nationalities: Germany, Austria, USA, Russia, France

Average Date of Composition: 1885

There's a lot more where those came from. But the basic thrust of HH's assertion remains true, no matter how tired a truism it may seem.
Anonymous said…
No one is trying to argue that Mozart or other common parts of the repertoire aren’t the most frequently played pieces of music by these organizations or that they don’t sell the most tickets. They do, and in fact that is exactly my point. The question is whether or not this is the best long(er) term strategy for the welfare of these organizations or for classical music as a whole.

Mr. Holland asked about proof that playing the standard repertoire over and over is hurting US classical music organizations. While I don’t have numbers, I am a student of behavior which suggests a number of things. Given the rising attendance he reports and all this data about the frequency of performance of the old masters and the resulting higher ticket sales, why is virtually every large American music organization working so hard to come up with ways to bring in new bodies? Podcasts, iTunes recordings, family–friendly matinees, opera performances in English, Sirius radio, movie theater simulcasts, cell-phone concertos, hip-hop operas – none of these seem particularly targeted at an over 50 crowd now do they. Why bother at all if you could just do another performance of Butterfly and be laughing all the way to the bank? In fact it would appear that someone is worried about something.

How about the data that the average age of subscribers and ticket buyers to performance and theater events in the US has steadily gotten older over the last several years? Even the tobacco companies have figured out that an aging and eventually dying clientele will force them to recruit new consumers to stay in business. Perhaps programming more modern music is not the answer. Certainly some of the initiatives mentioned abover are not the most logical or productive. Still, many of these large US classical music organizations seem dissatisfied with a system where the average date of composition for the works they perform is 1885.

No matter the cause, listening to the click of oxygen tanks and cries for urgent toileting in the loge of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during Verdi or Mozart suggests somebody might want to think about it now as opposed to later.

But perhaps Mr. Gordon is right, maybe the orchestra isn't worth saving.
Anonymous said…
All God's children got their troubles methinks. The music industry in the US in general is in trouble. Pop junkies seem in accord that what they are hearing pales to what their parents heard. (And to prove it, they go listen to concerts given by bands that played for their parents.) The business is in a state of confusion not just over distribution but what kind of music the young want. In the San Francisco area where I hang my hat the number of clubs has declined drastically in the past decade, so live rock is on the block too.
And, too make things sweet, the country is aging. So any attempts to compare the relative health of orchestras in US with those of the 1960s puts one up against some very tricky demographics. (In my second home town, the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras appear to be doing quite nicely. I believe Scandinavia is a hot spot for orchestra music in Europe: maybe the big bands sooth the Nordic blood.)
I suspect that many of the young will pick up an undeveloped taste for classical music the way I did - through the movies and television. In point of fact, serious musical education was never very elaborate in the US. However, anyone growing up in the 50's was bombarded by the classics being used as the musical scores for B grade Western movies, Disney cartoons and early television shows. (Wonder how many Mozart fans were created by the horrible movie Elvira Madigan? Maybe 20 years from now we'll see some Boccherini fans thanks to Master and Commander.)
I have nothing against expanding the offerings made to the public. It might, however, to explore ways of generating interest by moving backward instead of commissioning concertos for door bells. Cal Performances at Berkeley imported the new British cross-breed of ballet and baroque music based on Purcell's King Arthur and it did very well indeed. One of the obvious advantages of exploring more deeply baroque and classical periods is that they require smaller ensembles, smaller halls and can find a good niche with smaller audiences.
Perhaps fewer cities will fund full time orchestras over time, especially as musicians seem to think they deserve to live in the upper middle class. That said, I don't expect to see the orchestra to disappear from the US scene any more than I expect people to quit going to Shakespeare.
Eric Bergerud

Recent popular posts

A tale of two new audiences

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music

You are looking at the future of classical music journalism

A Philippa Schuyler moment

If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these .....

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

I read the fake news today, oh boy