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GREG SANDOW on the future of classical music


Friday, April 29, 2005

    Terrific ideas

    All week I've been part of a blog on the future of orchestras. This hasn't been public; it's for people taking part in the Mellon Foundation's Orchestra Forum, a long-term funding project involving 14 orchestras, which is about to half its semi-annual retreat. The blog (moderated, and wonderfully, by ArtsJournal's own Doug McClennan) was meant to focus everyone on the subjects to be discussed at the retreat, and I'm sure it did that.

    Generalities aside, this means I had a week of blogging with orchestra administrators, board members, and musicians, along with some sympathetic outsiders. And the discussion was wonderful -- stimulating, thoughtful, full of excitement and ideas.

    Here are two posts from this blog, quoted here with permission of the Mellon Foundation and the people who wrote the posts. If orchestras really did what these two posts propose, we'd be in a fabulous place.

    First, something from John Shibley, a long-time management consultant and expert on systems theory, who now works for an energy company, and serves as a fellow of the Orchestra Forum (along with me, Liz Lerman -- a choreographer, though it's misleading to pin any label on anyone as thoughtful and full of feeling as Liz -- and Paul DiMaggio, a very smart and sensitive sociologist at Princeton. And please, don't think I'm quoting this because John keeps mentioning my name. It's his idea that counts:

    Weekly podcasts about the Orchestra’s programming. Here’s how:

    Arrange deal with Apple, if possible, to have iPod-minis Retail - $199) branded with your orchestra symbol. Unlikely, but worth a call.

    When they say no, ask for a volume discount.

    Hire Greg Sandow to compose and "perform" a weekly 30 minute preview of the pieces being played this week at your orchestra: half music, half talk. You're welcome Greg.

    Sell the iPods at cost to season subscribers, and load them with classical music.

    Sell the iPods at a little more than cost to others, loaded with classical music. Have them available at concerts.

    Use subscriber emails to mail instructions and software to season subscribers.

    When iPod users sync with their computers they will automatically be sent the latest version of the podcast.

    Make available for download recordings of symphony performance in mp3 format within a week of the broadcast, and have Greg mention this in each podcast.

    Send me an iPod-mini as thanks if you do this. The lime ones are pretty. 

    And then this, from Hugh Long, Board Chair of the Louisiana Philharmonic:

    Do no more than half-a-dozen concerts a year for people who can’t stand applause between movements and think no one who’s not in formal wear could possibly play "real" music.

    For the other 99% of the world, never play more than a forty-minute set (max of two sets), never play complete works but always include both older and newer stuff, rarely if ever have a guest artist–use your own talent, always mingle and talk with audience members before and after and between sets, make sure there are munchies available, ensure a large percentage of the seats costs no more than a movie, and after the last set, make sure there is an encore.

    Well, maybe I'd put complete works on more than 1% of the concerts, but as with all new ideas, we have to work out the details. The important thing is that both these ideas go somewhere real, new, and important.

    posted by greg @ 11:53 pm | Permanent Link
    Encounter with reality

    So, after all the Orchestra Forum blogging, all that writing, and even more striking for me, all that reading of everyone's exciting thoughts…I went to an orchestra concert. The Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

    My first reaction? "My God, why are they dressed like that?" Now of course this isn't a criticism of the Baltimore Symphony. Any orchestra on that stage would have been dressed the same way. And this wasn't a considered reaction. It came right from my gut, and took me by surprise. I wasn't taking a posiition, intellectual or ideological, on how orchestras should dress. I was honestly surprised. Of course I know they dress like that, but…after all those discussions, I'd started to picture orchestras differently.

    And at intermission I noticed something else. Many people in the audience were wearing casual clothes. At the Carnegie Cafe, at least, maybe only one out of every three men was wearing a tie. So the formality on stage seemed even weirder.

    The program also seemed too long. Maybe that was because it was really two programs -- a tender, wry, and yearning new Giya Kancheli piece and the Shostakovich first violin concerto, both with Gidon Kremer as soloist, and then La Mer and La Valse. The first half was so good, the music so strong, Kremer so completely convincing, that at intermission many people (including even someone from the Baltimore staff) said, "Why do we need to hear anything more?"

    So if we think concerts should be shorter, here we had a concert that was really two perfectly programmed smaller concerts. I could imagine doing each separately on a single evening, one at 7:30, say, and one at 9:30. You could sell separate tickets, with a discount to anyone who wanted to see both programs. Over a weekend, you could change the order of the two programs on different days.

    I'm sure there are many practicalities to work out. But isn't it worth thinking about?

    posted by greg @ 11:09 pm | Permanent Link
Thursday, April 28, 2005

    Philly record deal

    I'm grateful for Peter Dobrin's fine reporting in his Philadelphia Inquirer story about the Philadelphia Orchestra's new record deal.

    I'm sure some people want the meaning of the story to be something like, "Philadelphia Orchestra Gets Record Contract." After years in the desert, with no record deal, the orchestra has reversed the trend in the industry and now has a contract with the Finnish Ondine label, etc., etc., etc.

    Ondine, of course, is not quite Columbia Masterworks, which for decades recorded the Philadelphia Orchestra in the full glare of national publicity, and distribution to record stores everywhere. But that's the least of it. Dobrin (and this is why I admire him) tracked down and printed the inner details of this record deal, providing facts and numbers of the kind that don't usually see the light of day. We all know, or ought to know, that classical recording (especially big projects, like orchestral CDs) aren't really done on a commercial basis. They're paid for by the artists being recorded. And here it is in black and white. The Philadelphia Orchestra will pay $75,000 to record each CD. If sales reach 10,000 units, the orchestra will be vaguely in the ballpark of breaking even, expecting to recoup (or so it says) $50,000 to $75,000 from that many sales.

    Will the CDs sell 10,000 copies? Not likely. A classical CD that sells on that level is a runaway hit. Sales of even a few thousand are considered a success. Some major-label big recording projects in the last couple of decades have sold, no kidding, in three figures, which is to say just a few hundred sales in their first year on the market.

    The orchestra, of course, didn't say how long it might take to sell 10,000 copies of its CDs, and that's a fair question. Classical recording, in the old days, when it was profitable, worked by keeping releases in the catalogue for years. It was the entire catalogue that was profitable, not every individual release (and, above all, not every individual release in its first year out). Now Naxos works that way; few other labels do. One reason for all the crossover projects on the major classical labels is the frequent demand from corporate owners that each release have a shot at being profitable. Or, alternatively, that the label as a whole make more profit that classical labels used to make in the past.

    So what's the significance of this deal? To me, it's two things. First, that the orchestra got its musicians to agree to the recordings, with no promise of payment until the records made some money. (And how many years might that take? Compare, by the way, a related success in Cleveland, where the orchestra got the musicians to agree to let their performances at the BBC Proms be streamed on the Internet, which then made it possible for the Cleveland Orchestra to be booked at the Proms for the first time in years.) And second, that the orchestra is making a big commitment to recording, with money out of its own pocket. 

    These aren't small things. Obviously the CDs, if they're good, well packaged, and well marketed, can help the orchestra. They're calling cards, proof of success, items which, distributed properly through Philadelphia, can add a lot to the orchestra's presence. I imagine that they'll help in getting tour dates, too.

    But I'd think orchestras would do best by making recordings and giving them away, along with downloads and concerts streamed free on the Internet. Philadelphia's budget, for this extensive new recording project, might not allow that. Or at least might not have been drawn up with free distribution in mind.

    But for me, the equation is pretty simple. Orchestras, at present, aren't likely to make money from recording. They badly need exposure. Put these things together, and it seems very tempting to make recordings and give them away by the thousand, while streaming every concert on the Internet (and probably putting video screens outside concert halls, so everybody can see and hear what's going on inside; when the Houston Grand Opera did this with a few opera performances, I understand that ticket sales went up).

    Let me repeat. Orchestras -- almost all classical music organizations -- need exposure. Free distribution of recordings would be a good way to get it. And after a while, when the free distribution is a great success, and people really want the recordings, the downloads, and the streaming broadcasts, that's when you start charging for the concerts people want most…

    posted by greg @ 3:37 pm | Permanent Link
    Indie rock

    Three notable newspaper stories, in the past few days.

    1. The Boston Globe, April 24. Indie rock is thriving. Terrific bands, exposure on TV shows, buzz spreading on the Internet, six-figure sales, which in the case of Death Cab for Cutie are now ten times larger than they used to be. All this largely without commercial radio play. ''The Internet is challenging the corporate clutch on both radio and retail," says the founder of Kill Rock Stars, an independent label.

    2. The New York Times, today (April 28). Radio won't play current rock any more. Stations are changing their formats. They'll play alternative-rock hits from the '80s and '90s, but not the current stuff.

    3. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27. For four years, the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, which the story calls "a showcase of visual art," has been "consciously programming music with equal artistic relevance." What music is that? Alternative acts like Lucinda Williams and Sonic Youth. This isn't music with a huge popular following. Sonic Youth is famous for noise and dissonance; the mainstream classical audience couldn't handle its classical equivalent, should there be such a thing. (Its latest album, though, sounds a little more tame.) As a media partner, the festival enlisted WYEP, described as "a diminutive but influential listener-supported station" [my emphasis] that plays alternative music. (A very nice station, too. I was on it once, talking about the concerts I do with the Pittsburgh Symphony. They were completely sympathetic to classical music.)

    What's the moral here? Indie pop is art music. It's not designed for a large audience. Increasingly, you won't hear it on the radio. One radio station that plays has to be supported by its listeners. Indie pop is part of a Pittsburgh festival of visual art. Not that this is anything new to people who know pop. Rock bands were doing non-popular art music as far back as the late '60s, if you count the Velvet Underground. But people in classical music often don't seem to know this. They talk as if all pop was simple-minded junk for teens. While in fact pop has developed its own art music. This is a huge threat to classical music. Do we understand this? We talk about attracting a younger audience. But this younger audience already has art music of its own. Why do they need us?

    When I first thought of writing all this, I was going to ask why the Three Rivers Festival doesn't book any classical acts. But the answer is obvious, isn't it? A better question would be this: What could classical music people (especially new music people) in Pittsburgh do to get these bookings?

    (One caveat. Some of the pop acts at the Three Rivers Festival this summer might not be mass-market, but they're lots of fun -- Buckwheat Zydeco, for instance. But on the other hand, Cowboy Junkies, Aimee Mann, and Nanci Griffiths, also on this summer's schedule, are quiet and serious.)

    posted by greg @ 3:06 pm | Permanent Link
Monday, April 25, 2005
    Question responses

    A couple of weeks ago I asked a question -- how many people would like to see more inside information in reviews and other writing about classical music? As an example, I told a story from the New York Philharmonic. Semyon Bychkov had replaced Christoph von Dohnanyi one weekend, and had substituted the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony for most of the music Dohnanyi had planned to conduct. The Shostakovich, though, is a very expensive piece, because it needs many extra brass players, and so the Philharmonic must have had some special reason for wanting Bychkov to do it. (Which, as I mentioned, might simply have been that they needed Bychkov badly, and this is what he wanted to conduct). Thus my question -- would readers have wanted the New York Times review to talk about all this?

    I got nine responses; eight people said they wanted the inside information. I also asked people in Pittsburgh Symphony audience, when I was in Pittsburgh leading "talkback" sessions, in which the audience gets to talk to the Pittsburgh Symphony. Almost everyone I asked said they wanted the information, too, the only exception being a polished, well-traveled board member, who knows all this stuff himself, but didn't think others in the audience would care.

    In a moment, I'll quote some of the responses, which were quite compelling. But first, the real reasons why the Philharmonic could afford the change, as communicated to me by a number of people in the industry. First, Dohnanyi's fee is a lot higher than Bychkov's. So the substitution saved the Philharmonic money, which could then go to pay the extra brass. But that's only the beginning. Dohnanyi had planned to conduct the Janacek Sinfonietta, which needs nine extra trumpets! So the orchestra had already budgeted for extra brass, and could schedule the Shostakovich Seventh without losing any sleep at all over money. They were already saving a bundle on the conductor's fee.

    And now the responses. From the person who didn't want to go behind the scenes:

    I do find that there is a preoccupation with the behind the scenes minutiae that inhibits the appreciation of the big picture. Reviewers offer us the option to learn what went on there that night, not during the day, not in the back room, not in the petty fight in the violin section -- just what music was made. That is all I want to know about in a review.

    And on the other side:

    Once a performance is over, details about it are no longer very important, except as they illuminate larger issues -- about the piece, the composer, the performers, the music business, etc. It is these larger issues that I think are most interesting, not who sang flat or played out of tune. (Of course, some performance issues lead to these more interesting issues, if you go beyond the bare facts: exploring why the tempo was wrong, why the orchestra doesn’t have a good string sound, or why some wind sounds are better in certain repertories than others, for example.)

    ***

    Having ushered every Cleveland Orchestra concert for more than 10 years, I have a pretty good feel for our audience, and I can tell you that people ALWAYS love "inside dope."

    ***

    In addition to classical music, I'm also a sports fan, and sports fans are in my experience always fascinated by the "back room" details -- things like how trades get done, why this player is drafted instead of that one, why this play is called instead of that play, why the defense lines up in one formation instead of another, et cetera. I can't imagine why the classical music press would assume that all classical music lovers are interested in is the music itself, and not interested at all in the mechanics of bringing it to fruition.

    ***

    Look at the sports world. How much of any episode of Sports Center is devoted to 'inside information'? Who's a free agent? Who'll they draft? Who got fired? Salary cap?

    ***

    Yes, I think they should mention it -- if I saw an article like that, it would make me think "hmm, maybe this isn't going to come my way any time soon again, since it's so expensive", and it would add an extra incentive to attend the concert.

    ***

    I would love to know when "extramusical" factors influenced the programming of a major orchestra such as the NY Phil.  In these straitened economic times, it would be worth knowing that an orchestra dug into its pockets to perform a piece of music that wasn't part of its budget to accommodate an artist who was helping out the orchestra.  [Not to mention that] the writer will have missed a great story -- talk about burying your lead!

    ***

    Greg, I personally believe that the audience is (or at least, can be) interested in this type of thing. It’s the newspapers that aren’t – unless there’s controversy, of course.

    To that last response I'd add that, in my experience, people who write about classical music may not know the inside details, because they don't know much about how the business works. So they don't tell readers what's really going on because they themselves don't know.

    I like the sports analogies, and often make them myself. But I also remember what Entertainment Weekly was like, when I worked there first as music critic, and then as senior music editor. Their readers just loved to read about what went on behind the scenes in movies, TV, and pop music. I can't understand why classical music fans should be any different -- especially since these backstage things often explain the musical choices that classical music organizations make.

    posted by greg @ 10:09 pm | Permanent Link
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
    Something good

    I've been very critical of classical music press releases, which typically say nothing that would give me or anybody else -- and especially someone new to classical music -- any reason to go to the concerts they publicize.

    Biographies of classical musicians -- the ones we find on press releases, and in program books -- have the same problem. They're deadly. Long blank lists of distinctions and superlatives, and never anything to tell you what kind of artist the musician in question might be. This gets especially annoying when the musician is world-famous, and we're asked to read a mind-glazing list of all the orchestras he or she has played concerti with. (I mean, if you're Emanuel Ax, of course you've appeared with all the major orchestras in the world, and you know what? We already know their names.)

    Here's a wonderful exception, a  biography of David Del Tredici that showed up in the program of a concert by the Da Ponte Quartet, in Weill Recital Hall. They were playing the New York premiere of David's string quartet, which they'd commissioned. Here's David's bio:

    Generally recognized as the father of the Neo-Romantic movement in music, David Del Tredici has been awarded numerous prizes (including the Pulitzer) and has been commissioned and performed by nearly every major American and European orchestral ensemble. Much of his work has offered elaborate vocal settings of James Joyce, Lewis Carroll and - more recently - a cavalcade of contemporary American poets, often celebrating a gay sensibility. Of late, he has ventured into the more intimate realm of chamber music (in addition to tonight's premiere String Quartet No. 1, he has written A Grand Trio, which the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio brought to life). Still, the extravagant Del Tredici remains at large: In May 2005 Robert Spano conducts the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus in the premier of Paul Revere's Ride (a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's landmark poem), while November will see the premiere performances of Rip Van Winkle, for narrator and orchestra (Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony), in which Del Tredici collaborates with his life-partner, Ray Warman, in retelling Washington Irving's classic tale.

    This is readable, even lively. And it tells you things you want to know -- what kind of composer David is, and even something of his personality.

    (The Da Ponte Quartet, as the New York Times review pointed out, filled the hall with very vocal fans, something very unusual in a New York debut. Some of those fans came from Maine, where the quartet lives, and where it's built enough enthusiastic support to pay for this concert, and to commission David's piece. Clearly the quartet -- which plays with lots of spirit -- is doing something right. Classical music may be losing support nationwide, but who's to say we can't build new support locally? Full disclosure -- the quartet is looking at my music. But I'd write exactly the same way even if they weren't.)

    posted by greg @ 4:01 pm | Permanent Link
Sunday, April 17, 2005
    Another reason classical music might die

    Here are thoughts from the opening pages of Paul Light's book, High Performance: How Robust Organizations Achieve Extraordinary Results. It summarizes lessons learned from more than 10,000 studies done over many years by the RAND Corporation, and it's fascinating to read. (How did Volvo, which hadn't changed its ways in many years, figure out how to introduce a successful SUV? Why did Pearl Harbor take the U.S. by surprise, when all the information necessary to suspect that an attack was coming was available?)

    One of the book's mantras is that we now live in an age of rapid, unpredictable change. So organizations have to be prepared to make rapid changes in their own work.

    Thus, in the opening pages, we read:

    In a perfect world, organizations would not worry about surprise and vulnerability. There would be one future and one future only. It would be steady and predictable, a simple extension of the past.…[Which of course is exactly the assumption that lies behind the planning orchestras have always done.]

    High performance requires more than a robust strategy that will succeed in a variety of scenarios. It also requires an organization that is among the first to sense a change in probabilities across a range of probable futures; among the fastest to deploy resources against threats, surprises, and opportunities; among the most creative in forging a presence in the evolving future; and among the very best in moving as a whole into whatever the evolving future holds. In a word, these organizations are robust. They are alert to change, agile in deployment, adaptive in practice and product, and aligned in purpose.

    And then this:

    Robust organizations think in futures (plural) tense. They plan against landscapes of possible futures; accept the inevitability of surprise; challenge their assumptions about the futures they face;  reduce regret by adapting robust, adaptive plans, avoiding unintended consequences, and reducing vulnerability; and focus on the direct, indirect, and cascading effects of what they do. As such, they are highly alert.

    Does any of this describe any classical music organization we know? Nominations welcome!

    (Many thanks to my friend Jesse Rosen, for recommending this book. My comments of course express my thoughts, not necessarily his.)

    posted by greg @ 2:37 pm | Permanent Link
Friday, April 15, 2005
    Sobering statistics

    One way to define the classical music crisis is in terms of shrinkage, starting to happen now, and maybe accelerating in the future -- shrinkage of the number of people interested in classical music, and thus in the market for it, and then in the organizations that perform it.

    So for anyone who thinks this is a danger, or, worse, even a reality right now, a story linked on ArtsJournal yesterday is really sobering. It's from the Chicago Sun-Times (their music critic, Wynne Delacoma wrote it), and it's about staff cutbacks at the once-triumphant Lyric Opera. But Wynne, in what I think is a piece of impressive journalism, really did her homework, and reported problems at other opera companies, which put what's happening in Chicago in a troubling context.

    I'll quote the most telling passage in the story:

    Lyric's year-round staff will shrink from 101 to 90.…

    "This is the first time we've ever done anything like this,'' [general director William] Mason said of the staff cuts. "The idea of doing [staff cuts] earlier was anathema to us, and we wanted to try to avoid it. But when we started looking to the future, we realized reductions were going to have to be made. We've always been very lean, and we tried desperately to avoid this.''

    Lyric has been struggling to keep its annual budget, typically close to $50 million, balanced for the past three seasons. This season's budget is higher than usual, about $58 million, because of Lyric's 50th anniversary celebrations and three sets of performances of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung.'' The company ended 2002-03 with a $1.1 million deficit, but closed 2003-04 with a $700,000 surplus.

    "After 2002-03, we looked at an economy that was changing,'' Mason said. "That was the first year [in 15 years] we didn't sell 100 percent of our tickets. We really didn't know where the economy was going, and we had to start to think about economies that could be made. Obviously, the very fact that we changed those two operas in 2003-04 [substituting Gounod's 'Faust' and Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance' for two more expensive, less popular operas] was a response to the economic situation.''

    In recent years, many major arts organizations throughout the country have sacrificed staff positions in the quest for a balanced budget.

    The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, struggling with shrinking ticket sales and relatively stagnant annual donations, made similar staff cuts in 2001. Through attrition and general belt-tightening, the CSO's full-time staff has shrunk by about one-third, or 50 positions, from its 2000 level. The CSO's current full-time staff is 102.

    The San Francisco Opera, which has produced up to 11 operas per season in recent years compared with Lyric's eight, suffered much more severe financial problems than Lyric's in 2002 and '03, incurring deficits of $7 million and $3.8 million, respectively. The company's total budget and staff have been cut by more than 20 percent over the past three years, and its season reduced to nine operas.

    We don't get reporting like this in New York. One question, though, is why people blame these things on the economy. That's an optimistic explanation for the problems, since if the economy is bad right now, it'll probably get better. But then we ought to ask why previous downturns didn't have the same results (note that the Lyric Opera never made staff cuts like these before). And we also have to ask why the downturn has lasted so long, and hit the classical music world so hard. Someone at a major orchestra told me not long ago that donations were persistently down for each of the past four years, and that this was the longest decline he'd ever seen.

    So maybe there's something else going on -- maybe (once again) there's a decline in interest in classical music, and maybe this decline has picked up speed. It's easy to see how that might happen. Suppose there's a long-term decline in interest in classical music. Of course younger people are the most affected. So now imagine the pool of people who might be interested in classical music, or in other words the potential classical music audience. The older people, 50 and above (roughly speaking), are the ones who buy the tickets. Up till recently, the people in that age group had grown up at a time when interest in classical music was still relatively high, so when they reached ticket-buying age, they bought tickets. And donated money.

    But as they grow older, they leave the active audience. And the pool of potential ticket-buyers changes. The younger people who come into it grew up at a time when interest in classical music was declining. So as they grow older, they buy fewer tickets than previous generations did.

    With each passing year, then, the pool of potential ticket-buyers changes. In the old days, so to speak, once people reached the ticket-buying age, around 50, a reasonable percentage of them -- enough to keep classical music in business, anyway -- bought tickets.

    But now time passes. The older people get older. Younger people coming into the ticket-buying pool are less likely to be interested in classical music. For a while this doesn't matter, because new people coming into prime ticket-buying age still grew up in the days when classical music was more popular. So ticket sales remain strong.

    Still more time passes. Now a new group of people starts to be 50 years old. They're the first to grow up in the age when classical music became less popular. So now the prime ticket-buyers -- the people of prime ticket-buying age who actually buy a lot of tickets -- are a little older. They're 52 and older, maybe, not 50 and older. Ticket sales begin to fall, though this might be hard for any individual institution to detect, because there's always a natural fluctuation, due to many factors (the economy, programming, the weather, many more). So a year or two of decline might not mean anything. It's easy to think that it could be reversed.

    More time passes. More older people leave the ticket-buying pool, and more younger people enter it. Again the people entering prime ticket-buying age grew up at a time when classical music's popularity was falling. Again they won't buy as many tickets as people from earlier generations. So now, let's say, it's people 55 and older who are still buying tickets at the old rate. People 50 to 55 buy fewer tickets. There's even more decline in overall sales. Maybe now everyone starts to notice the decline. It's talked about. "The economy," people say. "9/11. Competing entertainment options." But still people think that sales can go up. The economy will improve. 9/11 was a long time ago. Better marketing will make classical music more visible, more likely to be chosen, among all the competing forms of art and entertainment.

    More years go by. The same process continues. After a while, the prime ticket-buyers are 60 years old. then 62. Then 65. A larger proportion of people from the prime ticket-buying age grew up at a time when classical music was getting less popular. They buy fewer tickets. At some point, the decline in sales gets inescapable. People start saying, "We've reached a tipping point." Or, "Maybe it's not a change in weather. Maybe it's a change of climate."

    That's where we seem to be right now. Or at least these things are what people now are saying. Not that anyone is certain -- it's all "maybe." But people think it's possible, at least, that a long-term decline has set in, which can only be blamed on large-scale changes in our culture. (Which, of course, are pretty obviously taking place.) Of course, the ages I used as I presented my theory are hypothetical. I'm not saying ticket-buyers now are mostly in their 60s. The latest figures I've been told about, in fact, show the average age for people buying orchestra tickets at 57, up from 55 a few years ago. (Uh-oh!)

    These figures need interpretation, though, because I think they're for all orchestral events. The core subscription series might sell to even older people, while the average age of someone buying tickets for a family or holiday concert might be younger. I'd love to know the age of people buying tickets to the serious classical events; if my theory is correct, it might be rising faster than we think.

    posted by greg @ 12:14 pm | Permanent Link
    Music students -- another way the crisis hits?

    Here's something I might add to my list of ways that classical music is in crisis: Even music students now don't seem to have the same interest in classical music that students used to have, years ago. (And as they did when I was a graduate student in composition at the Yale School of Music, from 1972 to 1974).

    A fair number of my Juilliard students say they never listen to classical music. Of course, they play it all day, and maybe that explains why they don't want to listen when they're not playing. But some of them show no curiosity about great musicians of the past, or repertoire, or the leading musicians around today. Maybe that was also true when I was in school, but I don't think students were as militant about it. I can't remember anyone saying, "I just never listen to classical music."

    And the results of a recent survey in Britain are really sobering. I should note that I've heard of this only second-hand, from someone in the British music world who says he heard about it. (If it's been published, I don't know about it.) But the guy is well placed, and involved with a serious project to extend the reach of classical music, so I trust him.

    He says that a consortium of British commercial companies involved with classical music Gramophone magazine and Classic FM were two of them; I don't remember the others surveyed young classical musicians, kids who play in youth orchestras. Almost none of these kids, the survey found, would even consider reading Gramophone. They think it's a magazine for old people. And almost none wanted to go to classical concerts. My source was quite shaken by this news.

    Britain -- as has been reported several times, in news stories linked on ArtsJournal -- is also seeing a decline in the number of students studying the less popular orchestral instruments, like the viola and the bassoon. This decline, the stories say, is reaching crisis proportions. I have to say, though, that I haven't heard anything like this in the US (and I've asked about it).

    posted by greg @ 12:04 pm | Permanent Link
Thursday, April 14, 2005
    Depressing CD

    I was browsing in Coliseum Books, a very fine and serious bookstore in New York, and I noticed that they sell a few CDs. Some were fascinating compilations from the All-Music Guide (African rap, for instance), and some were low-rent, like a two-CD collection of Sousa marches with nothing on the box to say who played them.

    But the worst, the nadir, the rock bottom was something called Classical Music for the Reader, which claims to feature "specially selected triumphs in classical music appealing specifically to the dedicated reader."

    And so what does the music turn out to be? The same stuff you'd find on any classical greatest-hits CD, aimed at easy listening: Handel's Largo (more respectably known as "Ombra mai fu"), the "Air on the G String," Schubert's "Ave Maria," "Clair de lune," the Largo from the New World Symphony, the "Meditation" from Thais. There's nothing literary about this, nothing that's involved with reading. I'd guess the company that did this simply took some other compilation they'd produced, and repackaged it with a bookstore-friendly title.

    It's really a shame, especially since a classical anthology honestly aimed at serious readers could be a delight. The music on it, I'd think, would have to be quiet, on the whole, to convey what it feels like to read. Some of it could be settings of literary texts (I'd avoid warhorses like the "Erl-King," wonderful as it is, and go instead for Hugo Wolf and Fauré). Some could be music meant to evoke literary themes. And some, maybe the most interesting category, could be music that simply sounds literary, by which I mean thoughtful, intelligent, and a little offbeat, something like, maybe, an excerpt from Stravinsky's Apollo.

    This also would be a chance for classical music to reach out to an important audience. One of the saddest things in the classical music crisis is the desertion (so to speak) of artists and intellectuals, along with educated, thoughtful people of all kinds. You just don't find scholars, scientists, painters, and choreographers in the classical concert hall. A few, sure -- but these are classical music fans, who tend (at least in my experience) to enjoy classical music just as uncritically as lawyers and podiatrists. (No disrespect meant to these professions.) Classical music just doesn't have an audience of artists and intellectuals, who listen artistically and intellectually. A CD aimed seriously at serious readers might be a small step toward fixing this problem.

    posted by greg @ 9:03 pm | Permanent Link

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Though I've been known for many years as a critic, most of my work these days is composing or consulting, or doing projects with orchestras. I'm not doing much writing ... More


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Is classical music dying? That's a big topic, and a blog seems like a perfect way to attack it ... More


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RESOURCES


ORCHESTRAL MUSICIANS' JOB (DIS)SATISFACTION
The classic study of this, done in 1991 by Harvard psychology professor Richard Hackman, isn't available on the web (as far as I know). But you can learn Hackman's findings in an interview with him, from Harmony magazine, the unhappily defunct publication of the Symphony Orchestra Institute.

MUSIC AND SCIENCE
Since there's so much talk about the "Mozart Effect" (or the alleged "Mozart Effect"), we need this thorough listing -- The Music and Science Information Computer Archive -- of online scientific studies. They're not just about the fabled Mozart stuff, of course, but about everything known about the effects music can have. Very useful at a time when many people think classical music is tangibly, even physically good for us.

USEFUL ARTICLES
Why PBS doesn't broadcast opera. A report in Opera News explains the reason -- hardly anybody watches.

Why public radio is cutting back on classical music. The bad news -- few people listen, and those who do, don't give money -- is in a New York Times piece that we can't link to. You can search for it, though, on their website: "Public Radio's Private Guru," by Samuel G. Freedman, published 11/11/01. You'll have to pay to read it, unfortunately.

More to come.


PARC STUDY
Who's the audience for the performing arts? A report from five cities, by the Performing Arts Research Coalition. It's encouraging -- lots of people go to performing arts events, and even those who don't go think they're important.

KNIGHT FOUNDATION STUDY
The most talked-about thinking in classical music today -- a study of the classical music audience, with special reference to orchestras. More people like classical music than you'd think, but they don't go to concerts, and don't listen (for lack of a better word here) artistically. So what can we do to attract them? That's where the controversy starts.

THINGS I LIKE

The Peregrine
A 1967 classic by J. A. Baker, an Englishman who wrote one further book, then disappeared into obscurity. Obsessively he watches a pair of peregrines. This might be the only nature book that sounds like film noir combined with post-apocalyptic science fiction:

"For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me. Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away…"

"For a bird, there are only two sorts of bird: their own sort, and those that are dangerous. No others exist. The rest are just harmless objects, like stones, or trees, or men when they are dead."


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