I recently took part in a short exchange of views about the current state of classical music with the author of the always-enjoyable Classical Conditioning blog. I have the sense that we are living through a kind of golden age of classical music (and, ask any of my friends, cheery optimism is not what I’m normally noted for). But so many people, including my esteemed interlocutor at Classical Conditioning, are concerned that the future for quality music-making is uncertain.
I’d like to write in more detail about this, beginning with a justification for my bullish statement about a golden age, above (which will, I should say now, include a degree of necessary qualification). This was something that I intended to do anyway (as ever, when I have time) but in the meantime, I thought that this would be a good occasion to invite some responses from the people who read these pages (few though you are, though precious by dint of your rarity).
There are two main strands to this blogging-conversation. One is the question of commercial viability for orchestras and other musical bodies. Classical Conditioning’s writer is a young and – I hope – up-and-coming musician who sees limited prospects for a viable career in the field. Bankruptcies for orchestras, even long-established and world-famous ones, are not uncommon. Those that remain afloat do so in choppy waters. Apart from wishing Classical Conditioning’s writer every success (and extending this to the countless others in a similar position – with their aim of providing sweet music to us sweet-music-lovers, they deserve our regard) I don’t propose to say much more on this strand. Not only am I ill-qualified to comment on the financial arrangements of music-making outfits, but it should also be noted that the commercial environment for orchestras on either side of the Atlantic is rather different. We here on this side of the pond are used to state subsidy for the arts, which enables, to take the example I know best, a city such as London to sustain half a dozen world-class orchestras, as well as two major opera houses and dozens of venues of various shapes and sizes. I don’t doubt for a moment that most of our music practitioners and administrators would protest that government support is inadequate, but it is there nonetheless and, for those that receive it, significantly ameliorates the money-worries that they face. As I understand it, though public subsidy for music is not unknown in the USA, it is limited in comparison to that in many European cities.
The second strand of this conversation concerns what musicians and concert-planners can do to attract and maintain their (paying) audiences. On this I have much to say. When this topic arises, it generally assumes that the people staying away from concerts do so in their droves because the classical music milieu is in some way off-putting, unengaging or even downright snobbish.
Since my teenage years, I’ve attended classical concerts. Even though I come from a family with no tradition of attending such events, I’ve never found the classical concert hall in the least bit unwelcoming. As a young man, I found attending pop music concerts far more intimidating. In consequence, when I hear that those charged with presenting classical music concerts are seeking ways to make to their music-making more approachable, and are concerned about being seen as stuffy and elitist, well, I wonder. When, for example, people say to me that they are unsure of when to applaud, I simple tell them to wait for other people to clap first. If you’re hearing a piece for the first time, there can surely be no shame in not knowing when it has ended, and, if it takes you a few seconds before you can join in with the acclamation, be assured that no-one is watching you. No one will say “you know, that fellow in row D, wasn’t there on the dot when the Sibelius Five finished” (and of course I choose the Sibelius fifth for good reason – those who know the piece will understand immediately, the rest of you, off to youtube, and be grateful to me afterwards for introducing you to one of the great symphonic masterpieces).
My point here is that so many of the supposed social agonies threatening the unpractised concert goer are illusionary. All new experiences, whether attending a concert, an art exhibition or a football match can be a cause for trepidation and there’s no harm in the organisers of those events being aware of this, and taking steps to minimise discomfort in the neophytes. But you can, surely, only go so far without changing the very basis of the experience.
Classical music should be approached with a degree of seriousness. I don’t mean to suggest that a recital should be conducted in an atmosphere of po-faced reverence (though you might adopt this approach for the Beethoven late quartets), but it should be recognised that the music requires commitment and concentration from the audience. Don’t for a moment assume, though, that high-mindedness necessarily precludes the possibility of having an emotional – or even a fun – experience. The challenge for the classical music establishment is to walk that fine line: to avoid appearing stiff and cold, while indicating that what is on offer is something rarefied.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a young colleague who was bemused by my interest in classical music. I asked her whether she’d ever attended a concert. She replied that she had, once, been given tickets to something (an orchestral concert, she couldn’t recall any details other than that) by a friend’s parents who were unable to attend themselves. She and her friend went along. She enjoyed it well enough, she told me, but got bored after the first ten minutes. “There was nothing to do,” she said. “It was weird just sitting there and listening”.
Now this young woman I know to be intelligent, resourceful and imaginative, and I’m sure could be nurtured as a regular concert-goer. If she were willing to be taken under an enthusiast’s wing and persevere a little, I’m certain she could get a great deal out of “serious” music. But she has many other interests in her life (some of which she takes very seriously) and in all likelihood would feel that an interest in classical music is not something that she needs to develop. Fair enough. I feel the same way about 19th century ceramics and gymnastics. But if classical music wanted to endear itself to my young friend with her current attitude, it would have to change its nature so fundamentally that it would cease to have any attraction for us aficionados.
This, I hope, will be a long conversation. Do please have a go in the comments.