Youth - not a time of life but a state of mind

If you are gay, black or female the good news is your chances of making it big in classical music are definitely improving. But the bad news is if you are the wrong side of 40 your chances of hitting the big time are not looking so good.

Institutionalised age discrimination in classical music has been around for a long time. One of the most famous examples was the forced retirement of Sir Adrian Boult from the position of Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra when he reached the BBC's mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1949.

But more insidious is the underground age discrimination that is now starting to appear. To get a buzz going about new classical talent they must be under 40, sport an iPhone and be on Facebook, play uptown venues without seats, and have hip-hop remixes on YouTube.

The problem is all due to classical music's obsession with attracting younger audiences. (I wonder if rock musicians spend their time obsessing over how to attract older audiences?) The marketing men now say that unless the elusive youngsters can relate to the performers they won't come to the concert, or buy the CD. So, if there is a choice between a good young musician and a great older musician, the danger is the younger performer will get the nod.

This mindset appeared in a recent Newsweek interview with Christopher Roberts, chairman of Decca Label Group.

Newsweek - Have young, good-looking artists like pianist Lang Lang and opera singer Nicole Cabell helped create new audiences for classical?

Christopher Roberts - Younger artists like Nicole Cabell, Lang Lang and others move a consumer on the edges of classical music toward purchasing, especially given how easy it is to do online, with the close proximity of these artists to those from other, more traditionally mainstream genres.

We also see the mindset in statements like 'middle-aged wankers in dinner suits', in cartoon-style sleeve artwork that tries to give classical music a younger image, in young director's introducing telly talent shows into Wagner's operas, not to mention penises, and in the hyping of symphonies by 15 year olds.

When Alan Gilbert was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic there was more media coverage of his age than of his outstanding musical credentials. The Washington Post headline summed it all up - New York Philharmonic Picks Young New Leader. If they had appointed Kurt Masur to the post again would the headline have read - New York Philharmonic Picks Old New Leader?

Now there are many very good young musicians around, and they have featured regularly On An Overgrown Path over the years. But there are only two conductors today who I will travel a long way to hear in concert. One is Sir Colin Davis, age 79, and the other Bernard Haitink, age 80. My header photo shows another truly great conductor, Otto Klemperer, celebrating his 86th birthday in 1971. On Sunday we marked Mikis Theodorakis' 82nd birthday here, and on internet radio. Only yesterday I wrote about the superb recordings of his own works made by Igor Stravinsky when he was in his 80s. Pierre Boulez is now 82, and last year London welcomed the 97 year old Elliott Carter, and György Kurtág celebrated his 80th birthday.

Age is also a real asset in the jazz world. Back in 2005 I wrote a profile of jazz pianist Jack Reilly when he was a youthful 73. Two years later Jack has notched up his three-quarters of a century, and his music sounds even younger. Jack's forthcoming Bill Evans inspired double CD Innocence - Green Spring Suite is some of the best jazz piano I've heard from anyone, of any age, for a long time.

Meanwhile London is bracing itself for the tidal wave of hyperbole that Deutsche Grammophon and the BBC will unleash when the young Gustavo Dudamel, and the even younger Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venzuela, storm into town for their August Promenade Concert. I am one of the few people on the planet who didn't receive a free advance copy of their new Mahler 5 CD. But the underground buzz is that it's musical dynamite, and I'm delighted for the youngsters from Venezuela.

Personally, I have been getting a very satisfying buzz from two other Mahler recordings. Bruno Maderna's interpretation of Mahler's 9th Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also dynamite. But Maderna made two marketing mistakes. First, he was 51 when he made the recording. Secondly he died two years later. I bet that if Maestro Maderna was under contract to a major record company today, their marketing department would never allow him to make those two elementary mistakes.

While writing this post I listened, on vinyl LPs, to another Mahler recording that really celebrates the joy of age. Otto Klemperer's recording of Mahler's Second Symphony, made in the Kingsway Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is one of the classics of the gramophone. Klemperer was 78 when he made it, but it simply sweeps aside the rival recordings from young bloods such as Simon Rattle. (Rattle was 31 when he recorded Mahler 2, he is now well over the hill at 52). Klemperer's Mahler Second has never been out of the catalogue since its LP release in 1963. I wonder how many Mahler symphonies released in 2007 will still be in the catalogue in 2051?

The choice between the young and old audience is a no-brainer. Classical music needs both. But we are increasingly defining youth as a time of life, and this opens the door to age discrimination. Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind, as Robert Kennedy so eloquently explained:

"There is discrimination in this world, and slavery, and slaughter and starvation. The answer is to rely upon youth - not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity."

What better examples of that youthful state of mind than our many living musicians who have passed 40? Let's celebrate them, as well as those fortunate enough to be at the right time of life.

Now read about the perfect mix of youth and experience
Photo credit Godfrey MacDominic. 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


Pliable said…
Jack Reilly writes:

Thanks for that!

Age (old that is) seems to be a selling point here in the USA; George Russell is going strong at 85. Joe Maneri is 82, Lee Konitz is 80. not to forget Marian MacPartland at 87!; and Dave Brubeck at 86(?)!!!
Drew80 said…
A most beautiful and eloquent post, Pliable.

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