Friday, January 31, 2014

Classical Music In America: "I'm Not Dead, Yet"

America's Musical Tastes

Classical Music has been under continued attack for hundreds of years. William Robin writes: As the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen so eloquently put it, 'The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.' ”

An article, by William Robin, in The New Yorker looks at how well classical music is faring in America; it's no secret that some would like to see its demise for reasons that fit the United States' current anti-science and anti-intellectual views.

Robin writes:
“Classical music in America is dead.” Those words rang out across the Internet last week; their source, a Slate article written by Mark Vanhoenacker, complete with a gravestone illustration and the hoary cliché of the singing fat lady. It was nothing we hadn’t read before, but the timing of the latest obituary was particularly strange. Yes, New York City Opera folded last fall. But, a week before the Slate piece appeared, the Minnesota Orchestra emerged from a fifteen-month lockout crisis, and the day after publication the New York Philharmonic and Seattle Symphony announced energetic 2014-15 seasons. So what brought on this latest spasm of morbidity? And why is the American media so fixated on the supposedly imminent demise of classical music?

As the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen so eloquently put it, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” To place that tradition in context, consider the infographic below. Design credit goes to Andy Doe, a consultant in the classical recording industry and the author of the blog Proper Discord. Doe has already addressed some of the factual and conceptual errors committed by Vanhoenacker. This timeline shows just how long the “crisis” in classical music has lasted, and just how superfluous it is to declare 2014 the year the art form kicked the bucket.
There is a creepy bloodlust to the doom-mongering of classical music, as though an autopsy were being conducted on a still-breathing body. What if each commentator decided, instead, to Google “young composer” or “new chamber ensemble” and write a compelling profile of a discovery? Why not interview members of the local orchestra and find out how real people make careers in a purportedly comatose industry? Why not talk to those graying audience members—contempt toward the elderly is a common theme in death-of-classical-music articles—and find out how their history of listening has improved their lives? Statistics provide firm answers, but not necessarily to the right questions. If the stakes are as high as the life and death of an art form, why not explore the question of why it might be the case by looking at the actual, lived experiences of those involved?
Instead, classical-music concern-trolls toss poorly aimed barbs. Critics blame the business (“It’s a charity case!” “Ticket sales will never account for all of its costs!”) and the culture (“Why all the abstruse rules of conduct?” “Why can’t I wear shorts?”) without having a clear grasp on either. There seems to be a deeper savagery at work, one that maniacally insists that a functioning industry reflect on itself, as though orchestra managers and opera intendants were oblivious to their own problems. “Listen to me!” the pundit demands, shaking classical music by its shoulders. “I have the stats. You’re dead.”
What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion. (Vanhoenacker writes of “classical trappings … that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture,” as if popular culture were an exclusively American affair.) But, like plenty of other great things in the U.S., classical music has endured because it has been made American. For more than a century, agitators for Beethoven and Brahms helped secure it an increasing stake on American soil. These were educators and musicians who carried what the historian Joseph Horowitz calls “moral fire,” who genuinely believed that great music made people better. The moral angle is bust—it’s unjust and untrue to claim that classical music is inherently better than any other kind of music—but a fire still burns. Talk to anyone who performs, composes, promotes, or organizes anything in this field and the blaze is palpable. It is not a profession for the apathetic.
True enough. Classical music has long been regarded as music for the elites, but the current cohort of the wealthy high-tech billionaires are not the kind of persons who will likely appreciate classical music or any traditional music for that matter. It is true that audiences are greying, and that this musical form does not appeal to a wide cross-section of America, notably its youth. This is both unfortunate and understandable, given America's anti-elitist sentiments and its desire for things new.

And, yet, there are today so many fantastic and talented young musicians, including Evgeny Kissin, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang—these are only some of the musicians whom I enjoy and whose performances have figured prominently in this blog. The list of talented exciting performers has never been longer, and that they have not found a greater audience is disappointing, to say the least.

More disappointing or disturbing, however, is the language of death and violence in America, and the glee associated with the demise of someone or something, notably older institutions like classical music. There is a strong tendency in America to resort to violence, and aggressive acts, even if its only in language and rhetoric, against classical music is a sure sign of a failing and corrupt empire. This is worrisome, and that classical music is under attack is not surprising. Also not surprising is the supremacy of hip hop music and its sub-genre, gangsta rap, both appealing to and reflecting the violent and violence common to American life.

Let's hope that Charles Rosen's analysis, despite the apparent odds against it, hits the right note.

Read the article at [NewYorker]

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