A Wild Time for Classical Music

by Greg Sandow. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

Greg SandowEveryone in the classical music sector in the US knows that they are living through turbulent times. Two things seem to be going on. First, massive problems for many mainstream classical music organizations, especially orchestras. And, second, the beginnings of large-scale change, which looks very hopeful. Veteran US critic and commentator Greg Sandow reports.

I’ll look at the problems first, and I’ll focus on orchestras, since they’re the hardest hit, and their problems have been the most publicized. What we’ve had, to put it bluntly, is the worst trouble in the past hundred years. In the past two seasons, things looked bad. Orchestras were running deficits. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of our largest and most venerable orchestral institutions (if not our best managed), declared bankruptcy. The Syracuse Symphony and the New Mexico Symphony completely collapsed, and went out of business.

The Detroit Symphony nearly died. Its management said its operations weren’t sustainable, and said that musicians should take pay cuts, and should spend less time on the concert stage and more time in the Detroit community, in order to build support. The musicians hated these things, refusing, as they saw it, to accept changes that made them look like a second-rate orchestra. That led to a long labor dispute, during which musicians and management attacked each other publicly, and the orchestra didn’t perform.

Then the current season dawned, and the Detroit situation spread to the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis (Indiana) Symphony, the Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony, and even to the Chicago Symphony, which (like Philadelphia, and along with New York, Cleveland, and Boston) is one of the so-called Big Five, our largest and most venerable symphonic institutions. All these orchestras failed to open their seasons, because musicians and management were fighting. In Minnesota and St. Paul, the fights are so bitter that both orchestras — whose seasons were supposed to start in the fall — still haven’t played any concerts! That’s a sentence that truly deserves an exclamation point.

Quick announcement: As I’m writing this, the San Francisco Symphony, too, has shut down because of a labor dispute. And has cancelled all its tour dates. I can’t remember any year with as many musician/management confrontations, and wonder if there’s ever been one.

And there are problems in other areas of classical music. Insiders know, for instance, that the Metropolitan Opera has major, if not publicly acknowledged, financial problems, and that its much-talked about live streams to movie theaters aren’t reaching a new audience. The people who go are elderly, and 95% of them have previously gone to live opera performances. The Met recently announced a cut in ticket prices, necessary, it said, because sales were down. Why were sales down? Because, the Met said, it — foolishly — raised ticket prices last year, and that drove people away. Insiders might also note that the productions (especially last year’s new Ring) haven’t, on the whole, been very good, and that this, too, would keep people from going.

But every troubled institution — every unhappy classical music family (to paraphrase Tolstoy) — has troubles of its own. What’s the larger reason why all these institutions are having similar troubles, at the same time?

The musicians’ unions in the US blame orchestra managements, saying first that managements are lying about how serious the problems are, and second, that if problems do exist, managements could solve them simply by selling more tickets and raising more money. Managements don’t do these things, the musicians say, either because they’re incompetent, or because they want to convince the world that they’re in a financial crisis, so they can pay musicians less.

Orchestral managements, in turn, blame the musicians, for refusing to see that the problems — and the deficits — are real, and that cuts need to be made.

And of course many people blame the economy, which, as everyone knows, has been bad. But what everyone — including managements and musicians — either forgets or won’t admit is that problems started long before the current recession. Somewhat vague data from the League of American Orchestras shows attendance at orchestral performances declining ever since the mid-1990s.

The data is vague because it doesn’t firmly distinguish between an orchestra’s mainstage performances, and events for which no admission is charged, like school performances and concerts in public parks. What happens at the mainstage performances is far more crucial, because it’s there that the orchestra fulfills its core mission, and makes a large part of its income. Precise, private data from large orchestras focus on these events, and show a sharp decline in ticket sales beginning in 1990 and continuing right through the present.

Tied into that is a notable drop — measured by both the National Endowment for the Arts, our federal arts agency, and the League of American Orchestras — in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical music performances of any kind. This drop has been building for decades, and now has spread to every age group, except the oldest one, people over 65 years old. They’re the only ones going to hear classical music as often as their counterparts did in past decades.

So what we’re seeing is a decline in the audience, which of course leads to problems. Income from ticket sales falls. Funding, too, might become more difficult, because if the audience is smaller, than the pool of likely donors becomes smaller, too. Which is troubling, because orchestras in the US get a large part of their income from private donations. It might, of course, be possible to attract a new audience, but to do that, orchestras (and other classical music organizations) will have to lower ticket prices. Which then means they’ll lose money. So they’re in an economic squeeze, and some insiders think the only solution will be to cut back drastically — to give fewer concerts, maybe, in a worst-case scenario, many fewer concerts. This won’t happen this year or next, but the mere fact that it’s talked about, however quietly, means that things are very bad.


But the wild time — luckily for all of us — has an upside. First, it makes classical music institutions think they should change. I was very struck, some months ago, by something the chief executive of the New York Philharmonic said. The Philharmonic hasn’t been known as an innovative orchestra, but when a renovation of its hall was announced, its chief executive took this as an opportunity to rethink what the Philharmonic does.

The Philharmonic [the New York Times wrote]…feels a sense of urgency. Many orchestras have folded in the past 10 years while patrons have moved away from season-long subscriptions in favor of single ticket sales.

‘If you’re not thinking about the way in which our art form and music and audiences are evolving, you’re not serving the art form long term,’ said Matthew VanBesien, who this year became the orchestra’s executive director. ‘You really want to build this next great hall in a new way, to do the kinds of things you maybe are doing but want to do in a more compelling way or maybe can’t even imagine yet.’ 

The board chairwoman of Lincoln Center (the performing arts complex in New York where the Philharmonic performs) added another thought, which is that VanBiesen is comparatively young (at least for classical music) and that so are the Philharmonic's board chair, Gary Parr, and its music director, Alan Gilbert. Which lead the board chair to say: ‘You have three guys under 50 who are thinking hard about what’s the future of music.’

What changes they’ll make, of course, we don’t yet know. But certainly people are talking about change. The Cleveland Orchestra has created a Center for Future Audiences, promising — or maybe boasting — that by 2018 they’ll have the youngest audience of any American orchestra.

But what’s more interesting, at least to me, is an irony that makes me very happily smile. The reason, as I see it, that classical music has problems is that, while the culture around it has changed, classical music hasn’t kept up with the changes. That’s why, starting in the 1980s (according to federal data) people under 30 years old stopped going to classical concerts. They’d grown up in a new kind of culture, a culture which made classical music seem dated. Which also explains why, right now, it’s only those over 65 who keep on going to concerts as actively as their age group did in the past. They’re the only ones left who grew up at a time when classical music was popular.

But if the culture has changed, then that affects people inside the classical music world just as much as it hits those outside. And so classical music people — especially younger ones — want to see classical music change, not simply to save it from going extinct, but because they want their work in classical music to be more like what they do in the rest of their lives.

And so change is sweeping through classical music. No one has ever counted the changes, or catalogued them. (That’s a task I’ll start to take on, in my blog at www.artsjournal.com/sandow.) But they’re happening at big institutions and small ones, in cities and in small towns, and at music schools. Here’s a short list. It’s certainly not meant to be exhaustive, and I won’t even claim that it’s carefully chosen to represent every main variety of change. It’s just a list of things I know about, have some connection with, or just like, for various reasons. Nor am I claiming, not even remotely, that things like this happen only in the US. In Australia, you’ve got plenty of innovative classical musicians, and classical music institutions. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, for instance, and your wonderful pianist Sally Whitwell. (Though ‘pianist’ barely begins to describe what she is.) And many more.

Here’s my list:

The Baltimore Symphony — which does no end of interesting things — made an arrangement with Parsons, a major design school. Parsons students will work with the orchestra to develop a new kind of concert dress, more fashion forward and more contemporary than the formal clothes orchestral musicians now wear.

Classical musicians are playing in clubs, something that of course is happening more or less everywhere. Maybe not in China, but certainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia, as well as the US. But there are two notable developments. One is the rise of a loose national organization of classical musicians who play in clubs, called Classical Revolution. The other, whose fame has spread far and wide, is the emergence of (le) Poisson Rouge, a club in New York that features classical shows. LPR, as it’s called, has gotten so famous that people think it’s an entire revolution in itself. That’s not quite true, since many of the performances are record company showcases, and largely attract a classical crowd. But LPR certainly provides what you might call a proof of concept, a demonstration that classical performances can work in clubs. Many of us knew that before LPR opened, but LPR is now so famous that people embrace it who never thought about club performances before. Someone I’m friendly with, someone with a very high position at one of the largest US conservatories, tells people privately that LPR shows the shape of the future.

The Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra, a group in Pittsburgh, played a concert that explored the early days of minimalism. But they didn’t only play classical music. As the group says on its website, they ‘highlighted the connections of this music to pop art and the loft party culture that spawned it by presenting it alongside transcriptions of jazz, pop, and New Wave music.’ (The very interesting description of what they did is at http://www.unionproject.org/throughthelookingglass.)

Simone Dinnerstein, a very serious classical pianist, of the highest integrity, made an album and then toured with Tift Merritt, a singer-songwriter. Hilary Hahn, a violinist who surely needs no introduction, made a recording and toured with Hauschka, a musician who improvises.

The Brooklyn Philharmonic — an orchestra with nothing to lose, because it came close to going out of business — reinvented its relationship with its community, doing so more thoroughly than any orchestra I’ve ever known of. They chose two Brooklyn communities, the Russian immigrants who live in an area of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, and African-Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the largest black neighborhoods in New York. But their idea wasn’t to bring standard classical repertoire to these communities. Instead, the orchestra met at great length with community leaders, trying to find common ground. What music could the orchestra play that would resonate with both the musicians and the community? In Brighton Beach, the answer turned out to be music from Soviet-era cartoons, films the Russian expatriates felt great nostalgia for, and whose scores were expertly one. One was by Shostakovich. In Bed-Stuy (as the area is often called), the Brooklyn Philharmonic teamed up with Mos Def, a hiphop star who grew up there. He did some of his hits, with orchestral arrangements written by Derek Bermel, an American composer who’s a serious hiphop fan. And he joined the orchestra in Coming Together, a piece by Frederic Rzewski, in which there’s a prominent part for a speaker, who reads a text from an important black historical event.

At the University of Maryland, the school of music’s student orchestra has evolved a new style of concert dress. The musicians all wear informal black clothes, and then — with each musician acting individually — add accent colors chosen for each concert, green and blue, for instance, for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The result is wonderfully festive, showing a happy orchestra with great commitment to the music it plays. They also play extraordinary concerts. Last season, they played Afternoon of a Faun from memory, while dancing the piece under the direction of choreographer Liz Lerman. You might think the performance would be enterprising, but that the music wouldn’t be well played, and that the dance would be rudimentary. But I was there, and I can tell you that — to my astonished delight — none of that was true. The playing was rapt, and the movement engrossing. A video of the performance has very nearly gone viral. (At Juilliard, where I teach, someone sent a link to the school’s entire email list.) You can find the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=782GpSv9pTM.

I’m going to stop my list there, but there’s one more development I want to add, and that’s the emergence of entrepreneurship programs at many conservatories. The idea behind these programs is simple enough. First, students have never been properly taught to handle the business side of their careers. Second, and most crucially, the classical music business is changing. Careers may not be made in the old ways, because the old ways of making a living in classical music — playing in an orchestra, singing with opera companies, getting bookings as a soloist, or as a member of a chamber ensemble — are drying up. So students need business skills, to make careers in new ways, taking the initiative on their own.

It’s a common mistake, though, to think these programs are only about business. Once you encourage students to make careers in new ways, it’s just a short step to making music in new ways, something many students had already been thinking about. So these programs — I’ve been invited to give talks to students at some of them, and I’ve been involved in creating the very new one at Juilliard — end up encouraging creativity. That happens more at some programs than at others, but it certainly happens. At the New England Conservatory, one of our biggest music schools, located in Boston, produces a concert each year, or rather makes it possible for students to produce one. Last year, the concert was part of a school-wide Mahler festival, and featured dance DJs creating mixes from Mahler recordings, while a sitar player improvised on Mahler themes.

So what do these changes mean? They haven’t yet revolutionized the classical music sector. And, most crucially, they haven’t yet shown how they can be financially sustainable, so that they can lead the way toward a future in which classical musicians earn reasonable and perhaps even comfortable livings, playing classical music in new ways.

But they’ve given classical music new energy and excitement. They’ve empowered musicians, especially younger ones. And, most important of all, they’ve brought classical music back in contact with the culture around it, by making it more informal, more surprising, more inventive, and more contemporary. So while it’s still too early to say how things will evolve, I’m ready to believe that — with these changes leading the way, and with organizations that do things the old way reaching a tipping point, and opting for change — classical music may be reborn.


Greg Sandow is a veteran critic, a composer, a member of the Graduate Studies faculty at Juilliard, and a specialist on the future of classical music. His blog on the subject is at www.artsjournal.com/sandow. He’s often asked to visit schools, and give talks on how things are changing, and in 2010 gave a keynote speech at the MCA Classical Music Summit in Sydney.