The roar of the crowds, the lack of the money
It hardly seems controversial these days to aver that both classical music and print journalism are a wee bit concerned about their respective futures. Yet many of those who love orchestral concerts and their daily newspapers simply don’t want to hear about it.
The category of rebuttal I find particularly amusing runs, “I went to a concert last week and it was full of people! This proves that the future of classical music is just fine!” This kind of comment is usually delivered with smugness, as if anyone who talks about the struggles of the classical music field is basing her argument on a fictive depiction of empty concert halls, and can easily be overturned by the hard evidence of a line of people waiting for tickets (even if that line is a lot shorter than it used to be at the Met, or Carnegie Hall -- oh, never mind).
Part of what’s at play here is the conflation of music with the institutions that make it. Is classical music going to die? No. This music is vital and essential and will continue to be made, in some form, throughout human history, or so I'm naive enough to believe. Similarly, there will always be news, and people will always report on it. What are in trouble are the institutions associated with the music (and the news), particularly the big orchestras and opera houses. “In trouble” doesn’t mean that there are no audiences. It doesn’t mean that these institutions are going away tomorrow. It does mean that there are increasing questions about the scale on which some of them -- like, close to home, the Washington National Opera -- can continue to operate.
Conventional wisdom has it that the recession plucked the low-hanging fruit first: groups like the Baltimore Opera that were already in trouble. But the current troubles in Detroit -- where the DSO has been on strike since October 4 and the Michigan Opera Theater is struggling with debt -- are moving higher up the tree, to organizations that have had reasonably good management over the years, but are arguably no longer sustainable in a city that is fighting for survival.
Orchestras are looking at Detroit with concern and fearful recognition: there are plenty of orchestras in similar situations that have so far been able to squeeze by. Musicians are asking whether an orchestra can hope to sustain its level of quality with lower-paid musicians: the answer may be No.* Administrators are asking whether they can afford to keep paying current salaries over time: the answer to that may be No, too. Those two Nos add up to a fairly bleak prospect.
Members of the Detroit Symphony are playing benefit concerts to support the orchestra musicians during the strike. If those concerts are well attended, should we judge from the crowded houses that we needn’t fear for the field’s future -- even if those crowds aren't enough to provide funding so that the strike could have been avoided in the first place?
Tchaikovsky is going to do fine. The orchestra, we’re a little worried about.
| October 28, 2010; 6:05 AM ET
Categories: national, random musings
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