As a composer, one of the steps in the creative process that I often find mentally difficult to grapple with ...
What the Classical Music Establishment Needs to Do in order to Survive…
Lately, anytime I peruse my newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter, I’m bombarded with friends sharing articles and op-eds about the decline of classical music…’5 things orchestras need to do bolster audiences’, etc. Usually the solutions of the so-called experts are to have concerts start earlier, or later, to allow the musicians to wear jeans, to allow for clapping in between movements, to allow cellphones so people can post to YouTube to share. All interesting but ideas that I feel don’t get to the root of the issue and what I never see discussed…and that is that classical orchestras, opera companies and concert series’ are programming the WRONG music! The problem with the classical music establishment is that they are still stuck in and wish that it was the 18th Century. They bombard audiences with the exact same repertoire over and over and over again. As much as I respect and admire the genius of Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, I’VE ALREADY HEARD IT!
Now I know you’re going to say that of course I would advocate for the classical performance establishment to only perform newer works…after all, you’re a composer and pianist, you would benefit! That is true. But guess what, so would everyone else!
Bless the marketing and PR departments of classical performance orgs. Can you imagine if Hollywood had to put a splashy ad campaign to say, ‘come and see Gone with the Wind in the theatres now because it’s a classic.’ Well they don’t because they know no matter how clever they are to spin it, no one will come. After all, people have already seen it before. Arguably, the film, TV and video game industry are the most popular and financially lucrative of our modern day. And the reason? Because they always give us something new. They evolve, they titillate, they make us want to come back. Why can’t the classical music community do the same thing?
It’s 2015…major changes are needed…all classical performance orgs should have a big conference and go into collusion and make the following decision…that 90% of what they perform will have been composed within the last 10 years. Make the remaining 10% a sentimental occasional performance of a historic work. Otherwise, allow groups like Tafelmusik to be relics or special museum pieces of the past and let people enjoy it as an interesting diversion to the ‘classical’ mainstream. Make existing new music organizations, just MUSIC organizations.
Yes collusion seems to be quite a radical (and perhaps even illegal) thing, but consider that at present, collusion is presently being practised in reverse. For the past 100 years, the classical music establishment has treated the programming of new music like giving to charity…some moral obligation. Meanwhile audiences are dwindling. Why? BECAUSE WE’VE ALREADY HEARD IT!!
Many classical music purists out there would probably kill themselves if all classical performance orgs did what I propose. After all, new music is strange, it lacks emotion, it’s too academic. My only reply to that is to say that you are ignorant…but it’s not your fault. You’ve not been exposed to enough of the wealth of variety out there. Tell me that the music of Marjan Mozetich (like Affairs of the Heart) is not the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard and that it would make you cry every time it’s performed?
The classical music purists will also argue that only programming new music is a form of censorship that takes away from the creativity of curating and programming a wide variety of music. Seriously? We live in a day and age where composers are composing in every conceivable style, mood and subject explored. The variety is boundless. Expose your audience to a variety of quality music. See what they enjoy and then programme that again and stuff similar to it. The audience is always right…if they’re not showing up, you’re not engaging them with your content. Give them something new and give it to them a lot.
So to recap, 90% new music, 10% reruns. Program a variety of styles and market the stories behind the music (take a page from Hollywood). Play what people like and engage them. Make the composers and performers into stars. This will result in your concert houses being full and musicians and support staff earning good livings. It’s all really quite simple.
A teaching colleague once told me if things don’t change, they DIE. Classical Music World, you’re having health issues right now. Make these meaningful changes right now and you’ll get a new lease on life and continue to be a relevant portion of our cultural life.