Philadelphia classical music events, discussion, and directory
I was just re-reading Alex Ross' excellent book The Rest Is Noise and came across the following sentence: "... how can an older art form, such as classical music or ballet, still draw an audience in the age of pop music, the cinema, and the gramophone?" My mind immediately went to recent articles we have all probably read with titles like "The Graying of the Classical Music Audience", "The Imminent Death of Classical Music", and "Classical Music --- What's That?" I thought, "Is classical music truly moribund, on the ropes, singing its swan song?" Then I returned to Alex Ross and the quotation with which I began this paragraph. It came from a description of the plot of a show entitled Parade, with music by Erik Satie, a libretto by Jean Cocteau, sets and costumes by Pablo Picasso, choreography by Leonide Massine, and program notes by Guillaume Apollinaire. Of course, the impressario was Serge Diaghilev, and the year was 1917! So concerns about the survival of classical music in an age of "pop music, the cinema, and the gramophone" have been around for at least 94 years. And when we consider what "standards" of the classical music repertoire have been written since 1917, in spite of those concerns, the mind reels.
What we consider "classical music" has been the rarified preserve of the few, compared to the public at large, from the very beginning. At first, such music provided a diversion for royalty and upper level aristocrats. Of course, such music was being played in churches for the masses, but that was more for purposes of reinforcing church doctrine than for purely aesthetic purposes (consider Bach's cantatas, musically underlining the Bible lesson of the week). Lower level aristocracy got into the game a little later, with the upper bourgoisie following suit at a still later date. But those listening to "classical music" was always a relatively small group.
My point in all of this is to raise the question of whether classical music is truly in worse shape than it has ever been, or if it just continues to be an interest of the few, with more nagging problems of funding in a weak economy, with some governments cutting subsidies as part of austerity measures adopted to meet budgetary needs, or, in the case of the U. S. A., with a government cutting the few contributions remaining to the arts, because of maxing out its credit cards in policing the world.
I began this blurb with a quotation and would like to close with another that I think is appropriate to the question under consideration, viz., "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose", or "The more things change, the more they remain the same." That comes to us courtesy of Alphonse Karr from the year 1849.
Yes, classical music --- the very concept of high art --- has traditionally held the interest of only a few. But 1) these few are even fewer in number now, more scantily dispersed across the earth's face than ever before, and 2) there is no reason why high art should remain the possession of the few.
For the hard, statistical evidence of point 1, I refer the inquisitive reader to the League of American Orchestras Report of 2009, which narrates, in explicit and sober detail, the consistent, ineluctable decline in classical music participation and sales since 1980.
Great art, which by definition must be individual, original, different, and non-conformist, necessarily will demand a greater effort on the part of the receiver in its comprehension than a piece of demotic folk art. Some would argue this difficulty puts it out of the mainstream --- but not at all: that is the point of education and culture. Difficulty is a relative term. Contemporary education sees fit to universally train every human being in aspects of mathematics and science that would have been utterly arcane to the average 19th-century burgher. It also sees fit to provide a vast infrastructure and support network for the physical training in sports, of a prodigiousness and aptitude which would have bewildered our ancestors. The average 19th century European teenager, however, was infinitely more literate and musically trained than the average 21st century teenager. Music, without the modern advantage of immediate, electronic playback, had to be approached through instrument learning, which was considered compulsory in most middle-class households. The classics --- the Greek and Roman poets --- was standard diet; Shakespeare and Goethe were considered so contemporary as to not even be of classical status. And even if you did not know that music was written on five lines, even if your preferred music reached its zenith in the folk troupe at the local Bavarian tavern, most people could name the leading 'serious' composers of the day. Their peregrinations, and the disputes between artistic schools, were traced in local newspapers. The average man possessed, if not a deep sense of cultural history and quality, some global view of it.
Returning to the present day, and surveying the landscape, as Satan surveyed the landscape in Paradise Lost after having been cast down from heaven: "O how fallen! how changed!". There is not a single teenager out of a thousand today, who could name a single living, classical contemporary composer, much less have heard a work by them. And how much real literary and cultural history is possessed even by those who have heard of a Beethoven or Mozart?
Who has not palpably felt the aging of the audience at a PCMS or Philadelphia Orchestra subscription concert? And the 'serious' composer heroes' peregrinations tracked by the local newspapers --- what vain delusion! The local folk troupe has ascended to that dubious pedestal.
There is no popular support; but worse, there is not even popular recognition of the issue, or the framework. Sadly, our musical institutions are principally supported by 1) tax-payer money via civic authorities who feel some grudging historical onus to support 'the arts', and 2) a wealthy elite whose main interest is not music, but their status on the philanthropic circuit.
Our bankrupt orchestra, in efforts to entice and service the younger crowd, thinks that programming light classics (Carmina Burana) and nights devoted to Beatles albums will possess the required allure. But who can that possibly please? Not the uninitiated youth, for whom the Beatles is passé, not the ex-hippie, for whom an orchestral rendition of the Beatles would be like some ancient, decrepit dame trying to incongruously pass off as a desirable coquette, and not the cultural connoisseur, who views the entire programme as a diluting of artistic ideals. Lamentable sign!
More ugly details arise today about the bankruptcy proceedings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Peter Dobrin's article: Legal move threaten Orchestra's endowment. This is such a sorry state of affairs and the sickening thing is that the largest benefactors are the lawyers. While Peter Nero's move to entangle the already shaky 50 million dollar endowment from the Annenberg Foundation seems a bit reckless to me, it would be interesting to see the Orchestra's board's response to this requirement in the agreement:
"the orchestra shall broaden its artistic view and exhibit the regional, national and international leadership necessary to encompass a cosmopolitan perspective that embraces growth, innovation and adaptation to both social institutions and the needs of the populace."
I wonder how they have documented over the years that they have satisfied this requirement? They do have some programs that fit this description, but I'm still curious about their take on it. We may learn the details if Nero's request is fulfilled, but the Orchestra could easily loose the endowment in the process. Somehow this doesn't seem like a prudent move.
This sort of stuff is nothing new. I just finished listening to a recording of George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique debuted in Paris in the early 1920s and later in New York. I'v read descriptions of the antics that went on during those concerts. I'm not surprised at anything that goes on at concerts.
George Antheil. When I read his Wikipedia entry a while back I thought it was a screen play. Someone really needs to do a movie about this character! For those not familiar, take a look at his Wikipedia page.
He was from Trenton, I think. He would be a good subject for a movie. You could call it Anteill. There will be something on him in my book. Now his stuff sounds pretty tame. Toward the end of his life he actually wrote some pretty good stuff.
Many people operate from a "functionalist" view of life that holds that if something is changing from what they were useful, it's dying. Classical music is changing, evolving, not dying. There are people who can't accept that.