Rejoice! Classical Music Lives!!

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Rejoice! Classical Music Lives!!

Post by Ralph » Sat May 27, 2006 11:18 pm

From The New York Times:

May 28, 2006
Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music's Demise Are Dead Wrong

EVERYONE has heard the requiems sung for classical music or at least the reports of its failing health: that its audience is graying, record sales have shriveled and the cost of live performance is rising as ticket sales decline. Music education has virtually disappeared from public schools. Classical programming has (all but) disappeared from television and radio. And 17 orchestras have closed in the last 20 years.

All this has of late become the subject of countless blogs, news reports, books and symposiums, with classical music partisans furrowing their brows and debating what went wrong, what can still go wrong and whether it's too late to save this once-exalted industry. Moaning about the state of classical music has itself become an industry. But as pervasive as the conventional wisdom is, much of it is based on sketchy data incorrectly interpreted. Were things better in the old days? Has American culture given up on classical music?

The numbers tell a very different story: for all the hand-wringing, there is immensely more classical music on offer now, both in concerts and on recordings than there was in what nostalgists think of as the golden era of classics in America.

In the record business, for example, it can be depressing to compare the purely classical output of the major labels now with what the industry cranked out from 1950 to 1975. But focusing on the majors is beside the point: the real action has moved to dozens of adventurous smaller companies, ranging from musician-run labels like Bridge, Oxingale and Cantaloupe to ambitious mass marketers like the midprice, repertory-spanning Naxos.

Similarly, someone shopping anywhere but in huge chains like Tower or Virgin might conclude that classical discs are no longer sold. In reality the business model has changed. Internet deep-catalog shops like offer virtually any CD in print, something no physical store can do today. The Internet has become a primary resource for classical music: the music itself as well as information about it.

On Apple's iTunes, which sold a billion tracks in its first three years, classical music reportedly accounts for 12 percent of sales, four times its share of the CD market. Both Sony-BMG and Universal say that as their download sales have increased, CD sales have remained steady, suggesting that downloaders are a new market, not simply the same consumers switching formats.

In their first six weeks on iTunes, the New York Philharmonic's download-only Mozart concert sold 2,000 complete copies and about 1,000 individual tracks, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's two Minimalist concerts, combined, sold 900 copies and about 400 individual tracks. Those numbers, though small by pop standards, exceed what might be expected from sales of orchestral music on standard CD's.

Other orchestras are catching on: the Milwaukee Symphony and Philharmonia Baroque in San Francisco offer downloads on their own Web sites. And the major labels are planning to sell downloads of archival recordings that will not be reissued on CD.

In concert halls, season subscriptions have plummeted in favor of last-minute ticket sales. That doesn't mean the business is tanking, however, just that audiences have shifted their habits. As two-income families have grown busier, potential ticket buyers are less inclined to commit to performances months in advance (or as ticket prices climb, to accept predetermined concert packages). But as much as orchestras and concert presenters would prefer to sell their tickets before the season starts, the seats are hardly empty.

Neither are the stages. The American Symphony Orchestra League puts the number of orchestras in the United States at 1,800 (350 of them professional). The 1,800 ensembles give about 36,000 concerts a year, 30 percent more than in 1994. And in the most recent season for which the league has published figures, 2003-4, orchestras reported an 8 percent increase in operating revenues against a 7 percent increase in expenses, with deficits dropping to 1.1 percent from 2.7 percent of their annual budgets from the previous season.

Meanwhile corners of the field generally ignored in discussions of classical music's mortality — most notably, early music and new music — are true growth industries. When Lincoln Center presented a 10-concert celebration of the composer Osvaldo Golijov this season, there wasn't a spare ticket to be found. The Miller Theater's Gyorgy Ligeti series packed them in as well. And though the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival sold slightly fewer tickets than its regular programming, it drew a younger crowd: 25 percent of the audience was said to be under 45 (compared with 15 percent normally), and 10 percent was 25 to 34 (compared with 2 percent).

By relying heavily on contemporary programs and concerts of Renaissance and Baroque works, Miller has achieved an 84 percent increase in ticket sales since 2002, and this season's box office receipts have exceeded last season's by $100,000.

Zankel Hall, the newly built, high-tech, adventurously programmed addition to Carnegie Hall, has produced a steady increase in sold-out houses, from 57 percent of its concerts in 2003-4 (its first season) to 63 percent in the first third of the current season. At Carnegie's main hall and its smaller Weill Recital Hall, ticket sales have been fairly steady since 1982, with 565,000 tickets sold in a slow year and 635,000 in an exceptional one (most recently 2003).

The classical music world has even found a silver lining in the reports about its imminent death. Fund-raising letters now allude to classical music's parlous state as a way of shaking larger donations from supporters. And when EMI needed a marketing hook for Plácido Domingo's "Tristan und Isolde," it jumped on predictions that it would be the last studio recording of an opera.

Finally, concert halls are sprouting like mushrooms. New symphony halls are about to open in Miami, Nashville and Costa Mesa, Calif. (not far from the newly opened Disney Hall in Los Angeles), and Toronto is opening a new opera house in September. Clearly, someone sees a future for this music.

UNDERLYING many of the jeremiads is what might be called golden ageism: the belief, bordering on an article of faith, that everything was better, both artistically and commercially, in the relatively recent past.

To a degree, the golden ageists have a point. From the 1920's through the 70's, classical music was plentiful on the radio and on nascent television. Variety shows like "The Bell Telephone Hour" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" presented both top names and newcomers, and networks offered symphony concerts, opera and seductive introductory shows like Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" in prime time.

There was a vogue for films built around classical music and musicians as well: "100 Men and a Girl," with Leopold Stokowski (1937), and "They Shall Have Music," with Jascha Heifetz (1939); "Humoresque," with Isaac Stern on its soundtrack (1946); biographical films like "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945); and extravaganzas like "Fantasia" (1940).

All this made classical music's reigning stars — from Toscanini to Bernstein, from Heifetz to Stern, from Horowitz to Van Cliburn — household names in a way that only Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma are now.

But the disappearance of this exposure is hardly a lethal wound. Though classical radio stations have become scarce in most cities, the Internet offers a global radio dial. The Internet radio audience is said to be small at the moment, but people who want it will find it. When the BBC offered a Beethoven symphony cycle as a free download last year, 1.4 million people took up the offer. And if classical music is now scarce on television, with even PBS cutting back, DVD labels are pouring out everything from long-forgotten TV performances to newly produced symphonic, chamber and recital discs.

The golden age of concertgoing, meanwhile, is at least partly a matter of idealized memory. Organizations did not collect demographic information then, but musicians and critics who attended concerts during those years remember the audience as always middle-aged (and concert videos bear out those memories). And despite the music's greater visibility in daily life, it was a niche market even then. The pianist Gary Graffman said recently that when he began attending New York Philharmonic concerts at Carnegie Hall in the 1940's and 50's empty seats were plentiful. And among the great soloists, he added, only Heifetz, Rubinstein and Horowitz could expect to sell out Carnegie Hall.

At the time Carnegie was undisputedly the city's premier hall, with Town Hall, Hunter College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the principal chamber music and recital halls. Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill) and the Frick Collection offered chamber concerts as well, and McMillin (now Miller) Theater at Columbia University was a hot spot for new music. When Lincoln Center was planned in the late 1950's, Carnegie Hall narrowly escaped the wrecker's ball. It was thought, however briefly, that two large halls were an extravagance New York didn't need and couldn't sustain.

Consider how things have changed since Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall opened in 1962. Carnegie, until then a rental hall, began doing its own presentations, and it now offers about 200 concerts a year. Lincoln Center — with its two opera houses, Avery Fisher Hall for orchestras and star-turn recitals and Alice Tully Hall (opened in 1969) for chamber music — quickly undertook its own presentations as well: some 400 annually now, extending to halls and churches beyond its campus.

The 92nd Street Y revived its long-dormant concert series in 1974, and Merkin Concert Hall went up in 1978. Carnegie added Zankel Hall in 2003, and Lincoln Center opened the Rose Theater and the Allen Room — intended mostly for jazz but sometimes used for new-music concerts — in 2004.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection remained committed to classical concerts. Small- to medium-size halls at the French Institute/Alliance Française, Scandinavia House and the Austrian Cultural Forum have opened since the late 1980's. And the Morgan Library and Museum opened a new chamber music hall this month.

That's in Manhattan. Just across the rivers, the same period brought a revival of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the construction of the Tilles Center on Long Island and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and the advent of small but successful enterprises like Bargemusic.

In the deficit column? Town Hall and Hunter College have largely abandoned classical music, although each offers a handful of concerts. But apart from the old Metropolitan Opera House, demolished when the Met moved to Lincoln Center, no halls have closed in New York since Lincoln Center opened.

The concert world has expanded in other ways too. Through the 1950's the music season ran less than 30 weeks. But in 1964 the New York Philharmonic negotiated a 52-week contract with its players. Other orchestras quickly followed suit, and the season grew longer. The Mostly Mozart Festival cropped up in 1966 and spawned similar series around the country. And in 1967 the Ford Foundation began giving orchestras grants for even greater expansion, in most cases, more concerts each week.

The nightly offerings in classical music are immensely more plentiful and varied now than during the supposed golden age. The wonder isn't that audiences fluctuate from night to night or that empty seats can be spotted. It's that so much competition can be sustained in a field usually portrayed as moribund.

One way to keep the gloomy reports in perspective is to understand that the rumored death of classical music has been with us for a very long time.

The Metropolitan Opera was in almost constant financial peril between 1929 and 1944, and there were dicey moments in the 70's. The orchestra world's 1960's expansion caused anxiety as well. In an essay in The New York Times on Sept. 3, 1967, "Do We Have Too Much Music in America?," John O. Crosby, the founder of the Santa Fe Opera, worried that the audience was insufficient to support the blossoming 52-week orchestra contracts.

Those worries were soon born out. In "Dip in Concert Audiences Troubles Impresarios" (Dec. 21, 1968), The Times reported that classical music ticket sales had dropped as much as 40 percent. The reasons included everything from the distractions of television and recordings to street crime, parking difficulties and high ticket prices, meaning a $15 top at the Met and "as much as $8.80" for "other prestige events." Young people reading these reports would have had little reason to expect the classical music world to exist in 2006. But now that those same people have begun "graying," are they joining it? Demographic information over the couple of decades institutions have been collecting it suggests that they are. For whatever reasons — changes in taste, a desire to expand their musical experiences, a lack of interest in current pop — middle-aged listeners continue to join the audience. And the generational shift is coloring both programming and performance.

Listeners now in their 50's — the core classical audience — were the baby boomers who grew up in the 1960's and 70's. For those already interested in classical music during their student years, Shostakovich, Ives and Mahler were musical obsessions, and the early-music boom was a campus phenomenon. All that music, marginal in the 70's, joined the mainstream as those listeners became performers and ticket buyers.

Classically inclined boomers were also new-music agnostics, at home with the rigorous atonality of the previous generation but also open to a trippy avant-garde scene that ran from Cage to the Minimalists. That has had a telling effect too: witness the standing ovations Elliott Carter's music now gets at symphony concerts and the rock-star popularity of John Adams and Philip Glass.

At the same time this generation's fascination with pop has influenced its composers (and younger ones), who draw on the energy of rock. They have also left behind their elders' bias against amplification and sound processing, which they use not simply to increase the volume but also to expand their palettes of timbre. A fascination with world music, which also has roots in the 1960's, has stretched those palettes further.

All this is changing the classical repertory, and to judge from the comparatively young audiences to be seen at concerts by daring groups like the Kronos Quartet and Alarm Will Sound, it is more likely to rejuvenate classical music than kill it.

Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" observation about relationships and sharks — that both must either move forward or die — also works for culture. In classical music, lots of people really just want the dead shark. They pine for the days when Bernstein, Reiner, Szell and Toscanini stood on the podium, with Heifetz fiddling, Horowitz at the piano and Callas and Tebaldi locked in a perpetual diva war. Most of all they want their repertory dials set between 1785 and 1920.

You can send those people your condolences.

For the rest of us, the shark is still moving. We're getting our revivals of Machaut and Rameau along with vigorous reconsiderations of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler and a varied gallery of contemporary composers. We may be hearing much of this in small, high-tech halls instead of cavernous temples of the arts or finding it online instead of in shops or on the radio. But it's all there, constantly renewing itself. You just have to grab onto the dorsal fin.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

Albert Einstein

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Post by Lance » Sun May 28, 2006 1:04 am

A positively enlightening article. I trust what Kozinn says. Classical music ISN'T in the state that everyone seems to think it is. Rumors abound and color our thinking. Having attended local concerts with our own Philharmonic, audiences fill most seats. There's more diversification amongst the audience age-wise. I see more younger people. Some of the oldies (except me!) don't go to trial-type concerts. For example, the Binghamton "Pops" concert most recently featured theater organist Dennis James with interchanges between organ and orchestra for the silent film, The General. This was not terribly well attended - maybe two-thirds of a house. Some older people still remember some of these silent films and that may be the reason they went, but to have it presented with live organ and orchestral music was a special musical treat. Younger people have little patience for silent films especially, and some don't even know who silent-screen star Buster Keaton was; they have no patience because they are riveted and absorbed with high-action TV shows, movies, and DVDs. I admit, I like some of that, too!
Lance G. Hill

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]


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Post by Ricordanza » Sun May 28, 2006 6:21 am

I agree that this is an excellent article, in large part because Kozinn actually did some research, in contrast to many of the "moaners and whiners." Particularly noteworthy were his points about the shift from subscriptions to last-minute ticket sales for orchestral concerts, and the growth of community orchestras.

One area that I question, however, concerns the "graying" of the audience. Kozinn notes that demographic data was not collected about the audience 40 or 50 years ago, but concert-goers from that era recall that the audience was, like today, "middle-aged." Well, I suspect things may be different in New York, but in Philadelphia concert halls, a look around tells me that most of the audience is well beyond middle age.

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Post by jserraglio » Sun May 28, 2006 7:31 am

Ricordanza wrote:. . . a look around tells me that most of the audience is well beyond middle age.
True, and us artful codgers are otherwise good, decent folks. The general population, here in Cleveland at least, being on average much older than it was 40 years ago, I am hardly surprised the concert audience looks older.

In the pop world certain classic acts (Dylan, The Stones, The Dead [RIP], Neil Diamond, Neil Young, etc.) whose audiences have grayed over time still keep touring and pick up new younger fans as they go.


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