Rant! Everything’s Fine, Dammit

Wishing the classical doomsayers would clam up.

The classical music biz has its share of problems, and a critic’s job is to point them out. But the gnashing of teeth has recently become deafening. Look over the articles collected on Web sites such as artsjournal.com, aldaily.com, or andante.com, and it seems music criticism’s become a branch of eschatology: Every difficulty is read as a sign of disaster. ArtsJournal offers a link titled “Deathwatch—Is Classical Music Really Dying?,” a colloquium of 73 articles debating the point. A typical blurb: “By and large, orchestras are in a death spiral, with little good news to cheer about as they circle the drain.” And this kind of pessimism has prevailed for years: The doomsayers’ bible is Norman Lebrecht’s 1996 book Who Killed Classical Music?, which, despite its foregone-conclusion title, is an entertainingly indignant dissection of the industry’s faults.

Orchestras that fold make headlines; healthy ones don’t. A decade ago, it was San Diego and New Orleans; this year, it was San Jose, with Toronto and St. Louis teetering. This is tragic—but it’s not the apocalypse. A few baseball teams have recently been threatened with closure for financial underperformance, but I don’t recall reading any elegies on the death of spectator sports. Also, orchestras aren’t all of classical music: Thanks to savvy marketing and supertitles, opera attendance has crescendoed. Seattle’s made a commitment to classical music, springing for Benaroya Hall and the new opera house, and the Seattle Symphony boasted a budget surplus for its 2000-01 fiscal year.

Like orchestras, the classical recording industry is struggling, but hardly on its deathbed. True, the major labels are ignoring worthwhile and superfluous projects alike and have slowed their new releases to a trickle. Sony’s “classical” fall offerings are mostly film soundtracks, plus a couple transparent attempts to re-milk the Andrea Bocelli/Charlotte Church cash cows with discs by a “handsome young crossover tenor from Greece” and a 12-year-old Nova Scotian folksinger. But forget about them and look to budget label Naxos, which offers just about the entire standard repertory, plus a lot of obscurities, for $7 a disc. Check out the new-release racks at Tower Records, and you’ll find one, two, three dozen composers you’ve never heard of. Right now, more of music history is available to music lovers than ever before. This is dying?

A legitimate concern about audience age—since the public schools, by and large, have tossed classical music overboard—has become an obsession. The audience is graying. Soon they’ll be dead, taking classical music with them unless they’re replaced, runs the conventional wisdom. But is this anything new? Why the panic? Was there some distant golden age when America’s concert halls were filled with teenagers? Isn’t classical music—or any art—something one grows into? Art rewards an attention span—it’s a game for adults. But the classical establishment would rather buckle under to our society’s market-driven credo: If white males aged 15 to 29 don’t want it, nobody gets it. Incidentally, there is an easy way to attract the young: Program new music. In my observation, between a third and a half of the audiences for the Seattle Symphony’s “Music of Our Time” concerts and the majority of the Seattle Composers Salon audiences are under 30. Problem solved.

How is the health of a musical society determined? You would have to look hard in recent music journalism to find any indication that it’s a matter of anything other than numbers: dollars and butts in seats. At what point does the deathwatch become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I suspect the doomsayers are actually talking people out of supporting classical music with their steady production of everything-sucks articles. This, after all, is one of the few remaining areas of human endeavor that’s not entirely about money, and it’s disturbing to see colleagues talking about little else. Yeah, there are problems, and some things need to change. But the foregone conclusion that this 1,200-year-old art form is going to collapse on our watch is—besides being stunningly arrogant—not going to help.