Dire News?

All lovers of classical music should take note of Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker article “Close Reading” (only available online by subscription, unfortunately), which takes a sober look at the sharp decline of classical audiences. We all know that the majority of folks in the symphony hall are geriatric, and this has been the case for a while. However, for many years, orchestras could rest assured that as people aged they would grow more interested in classical music – after all, our “high art” tradition is only for those with mature, cultivated tastes, right? Not so today. As boomers hit their 60s they show no sign of suddenly wanting to spend their money to hear Brahms (they’re buying the latest Bob Dylan reissue instead?). The NEA has just released a survey showing trends in the public participation in the arts, and it’s pretty dire. (Ross blogs on these findings here and here.)

The bulk of the article is a review of a new venue in NY called “Le Poisson Rouge,” founded by a couple of 20-something classical musicians. The concept: make the music intimate, up close, and casual, like a jazz club. The interior of the club looks a bit like “The Village Vanguard” or “Iridium”; Ross writes about the surreal experience of eating nachos while listening to Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor; and as you can see from the calendar, they run a pretty eclectic gamut of music, from DJs to Gorecki. Lincoln Center this is not.

I think this is a really promising concept. Perhaps for the older generation, a darkened voluminous concert hall, reverential silence, and formal attire symbolized class, sophistication, and “good taste.” For many young people today (and I’m counting Gen Xers and even baby boomers as young here), this ritual is alienating, pretentious, and irrelevant. What sort of a musical event regulates everything down to the decorum of coughing?

This is really a troubling problem. Like the newspaper industry, American orchestras are going to need to do something about this. How do you interpret the decline of classical music audiences? Is this dire news, or can you imagine strategies for getting butts back in the seats? What do you think of the “Le Poisson Rouge” concept – is this the future of classical music?


  1. Anonymous says:

    I think that this concept IS the future of formal music. We (as people who know and appreciate classical music) need to find ways to get youth comfortable with formal music.
    In my experience, the bulk of the problem lies in inexposure to the music and the overall stuffy atmosphere that usually comes with the territory. Understandably, people get the impression that since going to a classical concert is not the most exciting prospect that the music must be boring too.
    Also.. and it is understandable.. kids for the most dont’ really dig Mozart (and the like).. the music is too simple sonically, and they can’t really appreciate the formal and harmonic complexities without practice.. so its pretty much lost on them. I teach a high school ‘music appreciation’ class and have found that kids usually can get something out of more violent complex music (one of the first ones we hear is ‘Le Sacre’) because it more closely resembles the noise and excitement that they are used to hearing on the radio. Even if they don’t hear the strained and broken tonality or the formal ideas in the music, they can relate to the feeling they get from it.
    ..all of this is from my limited experience of course

    In the end, as I said, i think that kids need from experience with music that they can relate to in order to get them in the right mindset to experience and enjoy music that they will have to TRY to understand and enjoy.

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    Given that the whole concert ritual is a very anachronistic way to listen to most of this music in the first place (see Alex Ross’s excellent treatment of the matter at http://www.therestisnoise.com/2005/02/applause_a_rest.html for details), I think it’s about time the classical world re-embraces the “Le Poisson Rouge” concept (and other innovative ways to engage audiences with the music).

  3. Zach Wallmark says:

    I can see what you mean, Anonymous. I think many young people today gather an appreciation for the classics by working backwards (that’s certainly the way it was for me): they don’t start with Bach and Mozart and end up with Stravinsky and Ligeti, they start with the modernists and work back. In the mid-90s, Metallica stated in a big MTV interview that they counted “Rite of Spring” among their major influences. For about a month, bootleg tapes of Stravinsky were being passed around in my high school like the latest Sonic Youth album. I think you’re dead on in your assessment – the violent energy and noise really appealed to kids used to speed, energy, and distortion. And if it has the official imprimatur of a favorite band, it will make the connection to today’s world all the more powerful.

    Another element here: it seems to me that young people in America are more visually oriented when it comes to music than past generations. (This is a huge generalization, I know..) This is the generation, after all, that grew up on MTV. No major pop song exists independent of a video. Further, everyone is exposed to a lot of “classical” music in their daily movie diet. If a rock band soundtrack came roaring in during the middle of a battle scene in “Avatar,” kids would sit up and take notice (in a bad way, I imagine). I know it’s not classical music per se, but lush orchestral soundtracks that utilize a lot of the codes and techniques developed over the last 400 years of western music history play a decisive role in our relationship with the movies. However, many people are only used to hearing the orchestra in this sort of programmatic context. Music without the images is harder. I think Walt Disney was really on to something when he made “Fantasia”: linking abstract, instrumental classical music to images can really make it more accessible, and I think this might be doubly true for today’s generation. It’s amazing what a movie can do for the public appreciation of the classics – “Amadeus” sparked a run on Mozart’s Requiem recordings; Kubrick introduced Strauss, Penderecki, Ligeti, Bartok, even Beethoven (in “Clockwork Orange”) and a host of others to a new generation.

    I agree that the music will be appreciated a lot more if people actually try to understand it, but understanding might mean more than just the traditional idea of musical understanding (theory, history, etc.). Maybe linking music to a visual narrative is another way for people to feel music that might otherwise seem too formal and stuffy for them. Now, how to accomplish that.. I have no idea.

    Nathan, thanks for the link. You bring up a really good point: maybe the concert tradition is just plain old anachronistic. It hasn’t changed in over a hundred years, despite all the tumultuous changes in society. Maybe this model is a dinosaur and we should just let it die a peaceful death, to be replaced by contemporary, savvy concepts like “Le Poisson Rouge.” I do wonder though: how do you fit a symphony orchestra into an intimate venue? LPR makes perfect sense for string quartets, piano repertory, and other chamber music, but how will the Gurrelieder be performed in 2100, when all the concert halls are silent? How do you think large-scale classical music can make the transition into a more comfortable, relaxed cultural space?

  4. Nathan Baker says:

    The same way large-scale classical music originated–in a comfortable, relaxed cultural space. Symphonic concerts were for much of the symphony’s history a middle-class entertainment venue analogous to today’s jazz and rock concerts (even with “rock star” soloists), and they didn’t take place in darkened, quiet halls where people glared at you if you forgot to bring a cough drop. The concert tradition itself isn’t anachronistic (as evidenced by the health of the jazz/rock concert scenes)–the silent, worshipful ritual that classical music concerts somehow became is.

  5. pds says:

    great topic. just my added two cents. Very broadly stated, the canon of “art music” simply requires too much concentration and time for younger audiences to open up to. I also think the “classical music” scene suffers deeply from its Romantic legacy, something Taruskin addresses in the OHCM. That is, what Hegel once referred to as the “inwardness” of music renders the notion of cultural and social “relevance” a nagging issue…thus, classical music’s “public” is taken for granted, as well other adjacent arts. And the public is moving on, for better or worse.

  6. Mark Samples says:

    Last night I went to the UO Opera’s production of The Magic Flute. It was the world premiere of a new production by Nicholas Isherwood, the director of the UO Opera program. He did a fantastic job of breaking down the boundary between stage and audience: the singers went out into the audience, and substantial action occurred behind the majority of the audience. Papageno, in his famous “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” sang hilariously to various women in the audience. And the chorus, dressed in street clothes, was among the audience. When they all of a sudden started singing, there were several titillating moments when the audience was genuinely shocked, confused, and—here’s the main point—ENGAGED.

    The audience last night wasn’t expected to walk in, sit down, and block out Self in order to more faithfully worship Art Work. Who wants to do that? Instead, they were expected to negotiate and participate in the experience. Now that’s something that a 21st-century audience might get excited about.

  7. MEKB says:

    On the other hand, it may just be a local phenomenon – when I moved to Hong Kong, I was gratified to find that the HK Philharmonic audience wasn’t the older crowd I was used to from New York, but was full of people of all ages, including a number of parents bringing quite young children. Attendance for school-age children is encouraged via a 50% discount for tickets to make it affordable.
    The difference may be that that in the US study of classical music has largely dropped off the schedule of your average child – all sorts of other lessons and after-school activities, but not music. Without that kind of basis, orchestras and the like are producing programs for an audience with no experience in the form or content. In my music class for non-majors, the average number of years of music study is about 7.5 years.

  8. The notion that classical music is intrinsically “stuffy,boring and elitist” is a myth which is badly in need of being debunked.
    If it were truly boring, no one would attend concerts and opera etc. And in fact, those who do attend performances of classical music, far from being bored, are in fact extremely enthusiastic and excited about what they hear.
    The fact that orchestral musicians dress somewhat formally does not make concerts in any way stuffy.
    Attending classical performances is simply a vastly different kind of experience from attending performances of Rock,Pop, Jazz,or folk music etc.
    It’s true that lack of exposure to classical music in school has been responsible to some extent for the lack of younger people at concerts, but fortunately , the audience for opera has actually been growing steadily and more and more younger people have become operagoers.
    But one thing is certain; our orchestras are not to blame for their predicament . If more people would just keep an open mind and give concerts a chance, they might find them a wonderful experience.
    But unfortunately, there is a widespread misconception among many people that classical music is simply not for them,and that it’s only a superficial social occaision for rich snobs. What a pity!

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