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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.

*A comment from a musician cast new light on my earlier blithe allegation that there are plenty of eager musicians for every vacant orchestra seat.

By Anne Midgette  | October 28, 2010; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  national, random musings  
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So why does the Post refuse to run reviews of classical recordings the way it does of pop music? It did for a while and then stopped. Surely there is overlap between readers of the print paper and classical music listeners. Surely there is room online if not in print for CD reviews. Concerts are reviewed after the fact -- people can't attend them after reading unless they're repeated. But recordings can spread and reinforce the music and the performers -- hear a good NSO or DSO CD and maybe you'll want to go to the next concert. Seems obvious, but the Post doesn't seem to get it. More proof of being out of touch?

Posted by: artslovr | October 28, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

I would say that some skepticism is because too much of the writing on the subject has been framed as "classical music is dying" rather than "(some/many) classical music institutions are in big trouble." Those are different propositions.

It'd be useful to have some historical perspective on other times when there was a lot of institutional flux. What happened during the Great Depression, for example? But it is probably in the nature of institutions that some survive and some die.

Regarding the Baltimore Opera, Tim Smith had a fine article last week (maybe you linked to it? or someone else?) about several small companies that are doing excellent work there. Similarly, I remember Drew McManus writing about the demise of an orchestra in Florida and the several groups that were started after it folded.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | October 28, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

LisaHirsch1: Re: small opera companies in Baltimore: that wouldn't be my article from last July that you were thinking of, would it? (I know Tim did one last week as well:,0,1313050.story) I do take your point, but if big orchestras were to start folding, it would give rise to a lot of soul-searching among a lot of people about the future of classical music and fuel the "classical music is dying" cries, and not unreasonably, I think.

artslovr: We've been working to do more classical CD reviews. Sorry they've dried up in the last few weeks, but let it be known that "The Post" is eager to see more regular CD reviewing in future.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | October 28, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Tim's article last week, thanks.

There's a pretty good chance the DSO will fold, sadly. But with hundreds of large and small orchestras, opera companies from the Met to Urban Opera (a local outfit that seems to have a budget of about $10,000/year), and many many choruses, chamber music groups, new music groups, early music groups, and zillions of recordings, "classical music" is not a single entity that will die. More granularity in the discussion would help a great deal.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | October 28, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

A half century ago, an LP of the Brahms 4th with Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony changed my life. With an inspired conductor and a world-class orchestra, it is still the standard by which I judge a Brahms performance. That was then.
Now important orchestras (Seattle and Indianapolis) are hiring music directors that nobody heard of in an obvious effort to cut costs.
Oddly, my hometown orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, is surviving and even thriving as a result of a multi-million dollar gift a few years ago by a high-tech mogul.
I wish more of these new rich had a clearer picture of how important a climate of art and creation is for their community and the world. The tax code makes it relatively painless. A measly couple million to your local orchestra and you could be the Medici or the Louis XIV to turn thing around.

Posted by: Frank991 | October 28, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

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