Saturday, October 04, 2008

The unsung success of live classical music.

Taking a look at yesterday's Wall Street Journal, I spied an interesting op-ed by the American conductor and academic Leon Botstein on "the unsung success of live classical music." Taking issue with the belief that aging audiences and slumping record sales point to declining interest in classical music, Botstein finds evidence of a thriving classical scene:
. . . looking out at the audience at most classical music concerts in the United States, one sees a crowd that is largely middle-aged, verging on the geriatric. This has set off alarms within the music community, whose members are quick to blame the loss of a younger generation of listeners for the sorry state of classical music, waning ticket sales and a record market that has all but disappeared.

Memories are deceptive. Classical music has never been the passion of the young. It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education, like voting or drinking Scotch. And in fact, more young people today are playing classical instruments than ever before, according to conservatory enrollments. More surprising, the classical music world has never been healthier; since the early 1970s the growth has been robust.

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-'05 and 2005-'06 seasons.
According to Botstein, classical music's doomsayers are misreading the signs of the times. Sales of recording music have slumped in large part due to the ready availability of downloadable recordings on the Internet, a phenomenon which Botstein believes has actually gotten younger generations of listeners more interested in attending live concerts. "The real attraction of classical music is the power and sensuality of the live sounds," Botstein points out. "The excitement that ensues from the unpredictability and drama of live performance is comparable to watching spectator sports. Following a game on television is enjoyable, but to be cheering at the stadium or sitting courtside is incomparable."

I agree with Botstein about the superiority of live performances, and I think he's right when he suggests later in his article that concert halls and opera houses need to offer more innovative programming in order to grow their audiences. What needs to be emphasized, I believe, is that the classical tradition is a living one. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are wonderful, but a repertoire that does not include the works of twentieth and twenty-first century composers runs the long-term risk of driving off all but a band of committed antiquarians. In short, I think that Botstein has some wise things to say and I hope that his words are heard by the people who need to hear them. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home