Quo vadis, classical music?

February 3, 2010

An interesting, disheartening blog post by Anne Midgette in the WP. The key graf:

Many of us who love music share a vague idea that audiences should be open to new things, and that they should be convinced to give them a try. But is this true? I’ve observed before that classical music, particularly opera companies and orchestras, are unusual in that they repeatedly try to force things on its audience that its audience doesn’t necessarily want. Someone who comes to the movie theater to see “Avatar” is not necessarily going to be thrilled if I show him “Pan’s Labyrinth” instead, even if I’m convinced that he would really love it if only he would watch it. And yet this is what’s going on in classical music, all the time: audiences are being asked to pay lots of money in order to be taken out of their comfort zone.

I  think it’s worth unpacking this statement.  I’m troubled for instance by the way in which she talks about the audience for classical music as though it’s a monolithic entity; it’s not. In fact, one of the biggest challenges classical music faces is that there is a substantial rift running right down the middle of it’s listeners. Go to the symphony on any given night and it’s easy enough to see: on the one hand you have the older, wealthier segment of the audience. These are the folks who occupy the box seats, the folks who can afford to shell out for season tickets, the folks who show up on the donors list in the program. And by and large, they want to hear the operas and symphonies and concertos they’ve always heard: the classical warhorses. For them, Ravel and Debussy are as adventurous as they like to get. Because these audiences financial influence is high, one often finds their impact  on programming is frequently disproportionate to their numbers.

The other audience for classical music is just as likely to show up at a matinee concert: they’re younger, more open to new music, but don’t wield the purse strings of the  organization. And keeping them coming—in fact, attracting more like them—is the only hope classical music has if it wants to survive, at least in the US. The older audience might be supplying the bread and butter now, but they are dying off and no one is replacing them. This issue is somewhat orthogonal to the old vs. new music debate, but the fact is, new music can spectacularly engage younger, new-to-the-scene audiences; I’ve seen it happen. For these audiences, new music doesn’t have to be an occasional event, leavened with heavy doses of Beethoven and Brahms to make it go down. It can be a vital part of how they define classical music.

It’s also worth looking at this statement: “audiences are being asked to pay lots of money in order to be taken out of their comfort zone” because wittingly or not, it gets at a huge problem in the classical industry. Symphony and especially opera tickets are insanely expensive. If I want to get even halfway-decent seats at a WNO performance, I can expect to pay $100 - $250 per ticket. Big organizations spending lots of money on top-flight talent are going to tend to be risk-averse, but this is happening precisely at a time when the industry needs to take some risks to survive. That’s a likely reason why smaller venues, chamber and solo concerts tend to be more welcoming of new music. But orchestras can do it too. Right here in Baltimore, Marin Alsop and the BSO are a good example.

Update: Alex Ross has more on the state of current classcal audiences, with breakdowns by generation. Good read, albeit depressing.

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