Does classical music really need an acceptable face?
Speaking in defence of eye-watering salaries at top American orchestras a reader commented that star conductors earn that much because “someone is willing to pay”. Which is quite true, but begs the question of why orchestras are willing to pay such disproportionate and divisive remuneration levels when many other highly talented musicians face penury. The answer lies in classical music’s obsession with acceptable faces; which, in turn, is driven by the misconception that only celebrities can make classical music comprehensible to new audiences. This misconception is encapsulated, for example, in the industry’s obsession with a doubtless very talented but grossly over-exposed Gustavo Dudamel. As well as being viewed, wrongly, as open sesames to new audiences, acceptable faces are also seen as a way of winning favour with subscribers, sponsors and critics. And that explains why Levine, Tilson Thomas, Gilbert, Dutoit et al are paid small fortunes every year.
So far so good. However, as I said earlier, the premise that classical music needs lavishly remunerated acceptable faces is a misconception. There is no doubt that classical music needs great musicians, and it also needs talented animateurs. But it does not need lavishly remunerated celebrities, because it already has a very acceptable and persuasive face - the music itself. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere the natural order has been reversed and classical music has become the servant of highly paid celebrities. Which not only distorts the industry’s economics, but also puts a barrier between new listeners and the magic of the music. If classical music really wants to sort out its ongoing financial crisis and reach new audiences it needs to kick the celebrity habit – there are already case studies of how this can be done successfully. Let me end by re-writing a fable which appears in many mystical traditions, notably Sufism:
A young man leaves home to understand classical music, and he travels all over the world and sits at the feet of many celebrities. But somehow classical music eludes him: he’s never quite able to get a hold of it. When he’s an old man, he returns home and opens the door, and there it is. Classical music was there all the time; it was just waiting to be discovered.
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