The Playgoer: Fate of Classical?

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Fate of Classical?

Music, that is. As if in a conspiracy of anxiety, a slew of books are coming out this month offering post-mortems on classical music in America (if not the modern world, in general). Joseph Horowitz's generically titled Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall is reviewed in today's Times (unfavorably, but gives you the sense of it, at least). Mark Katz's Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music covers all genres of music, and even includes a CD of rare archival recordings! Robert Philip's unadorned title Performing Music in the Age of Recording also considers the technology impact, and the symbiotic relationship it has had with musicians. (Alex Ross in the New Yorker had a great overview of these last two books in the June 6 issue, no longer online, alas.)

A good prep for any of these books would be today's Times article by Anne Midgette on the business end of the problem for various symphony orchestras. Most telling, though--and unremarked upon--is the sheer size of concert halls. The lede of the article gloomily tells of the woes of the Chicago Symphony filling only 2,000 seats of its 3,000-seat summer venue. Hey, 2,000 seats! I'll take that in the theatre any day! Does no one consider the size of the "core" arts audience is just adjusting to smaller (but still sizeable and loyal) elite? And that maybe three thousand (!) seats is grotesquely too large for even a Wagner concert? (If you've been to one of these "festival" concerts and sat in the back listening to tinny amplification, you see the problems of attracting new listeners.)

Again, the profit-margin in non-profit will be the end of us...


Anonymous said...

My dear Playgoer,

If adjusting to a smaller core audience is necessary for large, expensive undertakings like keeping a symphony orchestra together, how does the orchestra support itself? Does it raise ticket prices, making classical music even more of an elitist affair? Should the musicians sell insurance on their days off? Should it wait 50 years for the zeitgeist to swing away from anti-intellectualism? Or, heaven forbid, ask for federal funding? Or should the orchestras try to broaden their appeal, and if so, how?

Hey, it's not like I have any answers. I'm just asking the questions around here.

Felix Ungel

Playgoer said...

Well as Felix Ungel himself (in the person of Tony Randall) once pointed out, the current National Endowment for the Arts is less than what the city of Vienna gives the Vienna State Opera alone. So heaven forbid federal funding indeed!
I agree that for an "elite" (I prefer "core audience") artform to persist, either the patrons have to be super rich (as with the contemporary visual arts) OR the state must deem it worthy of preservation. I dream of a day when the federal--or preferably local!--government would consider a symphony orchestra an important state institution. Why not? (We maintain military bands with taxpayer $, don't we?). NY Phil will probably keep doing alright on its own, but this will be the only solution for those struggling orchestras in smaller cities around the country. If you insist on classical concerts continuing to fill 3,000 seat halls then they'll die or you'll get night after night of "John Williams' Greatest Hits + Yanni!" (as you say "broadening appeal"...)
What's your opinion, "Anonymous". We'd like to know...