June 01, 2006

Are We Living in a "Golden Age of Classical Music"?

Esteemed New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn wrote a fairly controversial article this past week examining the overall health of classical music in America today ["Classical Music: This is the Golden Age"]. As you no doubt gathered from the piece’s title, Kozinn argues against the prevailing notion that classical music has become increasingly unpopular in our society by pointing to a host of evidence. Though the article is well worth the read, I’ve outlined his more convincing points below.

-While there has been a drastic decline in the output of major classical labels (old war horses like Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical, BMG, et all) since their feverish peak in the years between 1950 to 1975, industry growth and output have flourished in other corners of the market, most notably the internet. Classical music sales accounted for 12 percent of iTunes’ online business last year, “four times its share of the overall CD market.” In another example, now infamous, over 1.4 million people eagerly downloaded one or more of Beethoven’s nine symphonies when the BBC made them freely available online last June. Relatively young labels such as Naxos, Oxingale and Cantaloupe have also experienced great success in CD sales through innovative approaches to the marketing and production of classical music (Naxos’ incredible success in what was once a notoriously closed market is of particular note).

-“The American Symphony Orchestra League puts the number of orchestras in the United States at 1,800 (350 of them professional). The 1,800 ensembles give about 36,000 concerts a year, 30 percent more than in 1994. And in the most recent season for which the league has published figures, 2003-4, orchestras reported an 8 percent increase in operating revenues against a 7 percent increase in expenses, with deficits dropping to 1.1 percent from 2.7 percent of their annual budgets from the previous season.”

-While season subscriptions to major orchestras have dropped considerably in the past ten years (a figure that has been continually referenced by those arguing for recent decline in Classical Music), last-minute sales have greatly increased suggesting more a shift in audience behavior than in taste.

- There are signs of artistic heath and expansion to boot, as early (pre-Bach, really) and new (post-WWII, -Ravel, -Bartok and -Copeland) music is both played and recorded to increasing popularity. “When Lincoln Center presented a 10-concert celebration of the composer Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960!) this season, there wasn’t a spare ticket to be found.” Over the past decade, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (led by the acclaimed Esa-Pekka Salonen) has dug itself out of relative obscurity to be considered one of the world’s great orchestras through its passionate focus on modern and contemporary composers [see “Continental Shift” from the Jan 15th NYTimes
]. Such efforts have expanded both the age and race demographic of those interested in classical music.

Of course, Kozinn’s article fails to account for two notable aspects of the “classical music has gone to dogs” argument. For one, he fails to acknowledge that much of what he views as “healthy” has often been interpreted to be just the opposite. The sad reality is that a portion of the old guard (overwhelmingly upper-middle class and white) preferred the classical music culture that flourished during much of the 20th century in America. There was an unspoken prestige in the economic and racial disparity and a certain comfort to be found in hearing Mozart’s 41st symphony season after season after season. Under such criteria, I doubt it these curmudgeons will ever see a reinstatement of said “golden age,” and I must say that the spirit of classical music is all the better for it.

Secondly, Kozinn does not delve into the question of whether or not the popular support and financial strength of the institution of classical music as a whole has likewise ushered in a golden age of heightened artistic quality. What does it matter if seats are selling and young people are downloading Cage via iTunes if professional levels of interpretation and execution are not maintained? To his credit, this largely subjective debate has raged on since at least the inception of professional art critics in 19th century Europe and is far too expansive a topic to adequately cover in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a number of fairly convincing cases against our experiencing a “golden age” in artistic eminence, most notably in a heated exchange of emails with my godfather (an obsessive fan of opera for the past 40 years) this past week. I’ve included his most eloquent closing statement below.

"Golden Age of classical music - my ass!
It is just another in a dreary and boring string of "journalists" who are bereft of ANY sense of history, time in the linear sense, and whose primary experiences with classical music are in clawing for interviews and trying to get laid by the artists...........

there are perhaps two opera singers on the world stage today who might rival the middle shelf of the real Golden Age of singers.........

and as for orchestra conductors: it is all about being noticed, not scholarship or faithfulness to the score - with the notable exception of Sir Colin Davis....... - sooo many drearnaught recordings of the classics have been made that now these "journalists" think freakish and bizarre interpretations are 'insightful'.............bullshit
sort of like saying artist Damien Hurst, who submerges sharks in plexiglass vats of urine is a serious artist.................
we're just doomed with this lack of standards..........
it just makes me tired."

I suppose all you can in fact say is that burgeoning ticket and recording sales must be a good thing as it, sooner or later, creates an environment conducive to superior artistic standards. Though, in the end, I still have yet to see this renewed popularity trickle down below the thick canopy of big name professional symphonies. Just this past weekend I attended a rousing performance by the Broderick Ensemble - a loose chamber collective made up of principal musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera Orchestra - as part of the Old First Concert Endowment Series. There were twelve people in the audience…

May 26, 2006

The Prodigal Son and Summer Blogging

It’s been a while...

and by ‘a while’ I mean over two months since my last post. Rest assured, I do not return to the proverbial table empty handed. Over the past eight weeks I’ve traveled East twice, passing through seven states and four major cities in what was, ultimately, a blessedly successful quest for employment. Between marathon-long “official visits” (eight hour ordeals of candidate evaluation that bear striking resemblance to Baka Pygmy manhood rituals) I actually managed to see a great deal of the cities and countryside I thought I knew so well. Much to reflect on, especially with regards to Mid-Atlantic wetlands, African Americans in Washington D.C. and the wanton depravity of the 20-something New York City financial scene.

In any event, our astute readers are no doubt already wondering what my personal “success” means for the future of this thriving forum. Though John and I have yet to discuss the issue at hand, I dare say that my return east actually augments both the spirit and, of course, formal title of East Meets West. Let us also acknowledge reality for a moment: the prolific bedrock of this page (John) remains west in Palo Alto indefinitely. Thus, I am optimistic, and I urge our readers to be as well.

That aside, in the coming weeks I hope to post a gratuitously critical response to John’s First (And Probably Last) Artistic Inspiration (stick to your rocks, shameless imposter!%!), an expose on sidewalk graffiti and latent class contempt in my Western Addition neighborhood as well as bits and pieces on the corporeal experience of instrumental performance, how I found myself dressed as a lobster and entered in their years Bay to Breakers and a few questions to John regarding financial markets and their effect on domestic and global oil prices. Thanks for all of your emails of support while I’ve been gone - it’s good to get back into the fray!

May 24, 2006


The social networking on Facebook + the feedback mechanism on eBay + the adventure of the Lonely Planet guides = one of the coolest social phenomenons (phenomena?) I've ever seen on the web, CouchSurfing.

Basically, CouchSurfing enables you to get in touch with people who will let you crash at their place while you travel if you let others in the network crash at your place when they travel. Coverage around the world is pretty good. The feedback, vouching, and verification mechanisms are designed to assuage people's fears of staying with or accommodating strangers.

A quick Wikipedia search reveals that CouchSurfing is one of several such Hospitality Services, including a few that were paper-based before the advent of the internet.

Travel sites like these give me a wanderlust that I find hard to shake. Is this why I read less travel writing than I'd like? (Or do I just have no time given everything else I'm trying to read?)

To my co-blogger Ned (who will soon be reappearing on this site in a blaze of written glory after his own cross-country travel related absence), might you recommend some of the classics in travel writing so I can begin to delve into the genre?

(Came across CouchSurfing via the "Frugal Traveler" at the New York Times, who is embarking on a trip around the world.)

May 18, 2006

A Depressing Thought

I will never read more than .02% of the books written in my lifetime.

How do I know this? Approximately 300,000 books are written worldwide every year. I expect I will read, at most, 60 books a year over my lifetime. That's about a book a week (which is the typical college course load), plus a few extra for when I'm on vacation or sick. So if I treat pleasure reading like an extra year round college course (in addition to job, family, housework, exercise, etc.) and focus on the most recent books, I'll only read about 2 out of every 10,000 published books each year.

Does it matter that I will absorb so little of the world's knowledge over my lifetime? Perhaps I should simply focus on the best literature and be satisfied with that. But since I secretly desire to be the first person to know everything since the last person who knew everything (see candidates here and here), it is depressing how little I will ever be able to read.

On the bright side, perhaps this will be overcome by combining the complete digitization of all books ever written with some upgrades to my hardware. But my guess is that if any of this ever comes to pass, Google will likely become self-aware much sooner, making my eventual omniscience much more ordinary.

First they came for the salami...

On Monday inspectors destroyed all the cured meats at Il Buco restaurant in NoHo. They did so, according to the owner, Donna Lennard, not because of any evidence of contamination but because the temperature in the curing room was six degrees higher than it should have been.

"These are pigs that were raised for us," Ms. Lennard said. "We knew their names. We were trying to do something sustainable and traditional, and this is what happens."
From the New York Times on Wednesday, here.

The New York City Health Department is doing a great job recruiting for the libertarian chef movement.

May 14, 2006

Trader Joe's Defeats the Tyranny of Mustard

Continuing my interest in food-blogging (see posts on libertarian chefs, smelly foods, and taquerias) I thought I'd write a bit about Trader Joe's, which I've become positively obsessed with since moving to California.

I came across an essay by Jesse Friedman called "Knowing its Audience: Trader Joe'’s and the Reenchantment of Food Shopping". Key quote:
"With Trader Joe's, predictability does not mean the bland comfort of identical experiences, but rather the reliable quality of every product offered...To establish the consistent quality of new products, founder Joe Coulombe instituted "“a winning concept…born of necessity": a good, old-fashioned tasting panel composed of store employees. A whimsical hand-painted sign in one store describes the panel'’s philosophy as, "“If we don't lick our plate, we won't sell it,"” a statement in no uncertain terms of the company'’s commitment to selling delicious products...If all this quality assurance fails, customers are assured of a no-hassle refund on any product they don't love, encouraging forays into new, yet safely delineated, territories of culinaria...Today'’s Balsamic-Marinated Portabella Mushroom Strips have replaced the Bagel Pizzas of the previous decade, yet are predictably healthy and, most likely, delicious, and satisfy the clientele'’s desire for some adventure."
For someone who is adventurous yet budget-conscious when it comes to food, Trader Joe's is perfect. I find myself grabbing food items I never thought I wanted and just trying them for the heck of it. More often than not what I've tried is awesome, and I trust Trader Joe's to sell delicious products at a good price.

So what does this have to do with mustard? Psychologists have pretty much nailed down in recent years that we are lazy, irrational, and easily-scared when it comes to the choices we confront every day. One psychologist, Barry Schwartz, has argued that we'd all be better off if we had fewer choices. We'd be less stressed, less anxious, less paralyzed by the dizzying array of options and choices that confront us everyday, and just generally happier. Radley Balko has facetiously called this argument the Tyranny of Mustard, in reference to the 100+ mustard choices we face at the local mega-mart.

An article in Reason last year by Virginia Postrel reviewed the recent criticisms of choice. She gives good reasons why the arguments may be overblown, but also lists ways that we can successfully reap the benefits of nearly unlimited choice while avoiding the debilitating side effects:
"Yet free individuals voluntarily limit their options all the time. They decide to be vegan, to write strictly metered poetry, to wear natural fibers, to date born-again Christians, to buy Japanese cars. They happily shop at boutiques, use blogs to guide their reading, and hire interior designers. They let expert gatekeepers narrow down their alternatives.

These choices about what and how to choose are not only voluntary but meaningful. They help define who we are. And they preserve the essential value of abundant choice. Most people, most of the time, are less interested in choice per se than they are in the benefits of variety. They want to find what truly suits them.

Hiring an interior designer or wedding consultant is not, as The Washington Post’s Mallaby suggests, a way of “deliberately avoiding choice.” To the contrary, these specialists are valuable because they don’t simply limit the number of options. They limit those options to ones you’re likely to like. They do not hand you a one-size-fits-all solution à la Social Security. Unlike the Schwartz prescription for “less choice” overall, these gatekeepers do not reduce your chance of finding what’s right for you. They increase it."
By "outsourcing" some of my food choices to Trader Joe's, shopping is more fun, more productive, and more successful.

Interestingly, the dijon mustard at Trader Joe's sucks. I guess I can't have everything.