Classical music's next big thing is Karajan 2.0
Anybody who has been around the classical music industry for some time will be struck by the remarkable similarity between the portrait of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla on the cover of her first release for Deutsche Grammophon and Siegfried Lauterwasser's brooding photo of Herbert von Karajan used on Deutsche Grammophon's 1979 vinyl release of the Beethoven Symphonies seen below.
I tread on very dangerous ground here as expressing anything other than effusive praise for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla simply prompts the usual social media tongue lashing. So let me make it clear right now that this release of symphonies by the neglected Mieczysław Weinberg is very laudable. Moreover, let me also make it clear that there has never been a single artistic or personal criticism of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla on this blog. But what I have expressed several times are reservations about the way that classical music's next big things are marketed.
That Beethoven cycle by Karajan was released forty years ago. Just compare archive TV footage from that period with the latest Netflix output. Visual styles and visual expectations have changed dramatically. Classical music lusts for a big, new, young audience, yet the visual style of album artwork has not changed at all. At which the falsehood that sleeve artwork no longer matters because streaming is the dominant classical format will undoubtedly be trotted out. So let's lay that one to rest: UK market figures for last year show that almost 60% - a clear majority - of album sales were in CD format, and classical CD sales actually increased. In the same year streaming accounted for just 25% of classical consumption - less than half that of physical CD sales. By contrast 64% of total UK recorded music sales came from streaming. So the preeminence of classical streaming is a myth propagated by rock-indoctrinated major label executives to finally strangle the pesky classical CD which is a pain to produce and distribute.
That Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla portrait also raises the important question of whether it makes sense to relaunch classical music with the added ingredient of women and musicians of colour by forcing those new ingredients into the same straightjacket of cultural orthodoxy that has strangled the art form for years. And is Karajan an appropriate marketing role model for the 21st century? In the Independent cultural commentator and social media influencer Norman Lebrecht denounced "The clapped-out legacy of Karajan that impoverished classical music" and described him as "to all effects the Nazi poster boy". Norman is never wrong, is he? So if Karajan really was a Nazi poster boy, does paying visual homage to him in 2019 make sense?
I really hope DG sells shed loads of Weinberg's symphonies. But in conclusion, to anyone who still thinks misguided hyping of the next big thing is the way forward for classical music, I will just say two words - Gustavo Dudamel.
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