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?