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…


Blogger John said...

To provide further evidence of my lack of artistic knowledge, I'll quote an economist in response to the debate:

"It is also an open question what is the right unit for judging a peak. Instead of looking at the highest peaks, we could judge an era by how good its "one hundred best composers" are, or by the aesthetic worth of its "best five thousand hours of music." Or consider a peak of a different kind: "How many excellent musical genres does an age have?" By these standards, contemporary times fare better, vis-à-vis the era of Beethoven, than if we just compare the best composer from each period. We have many talented composers today, in many different musical fields, even though today's best composer is not the equal of Beethoven.

Why the focus on a single artistic work and its greatness? Mozart's Don Giovanni has musical beauty, terror, comedy, and a sense of the sublime, making it a favorite of opera connoisseurs. But what if consumers draw their comedy from one work, their terror from another, their beautiful music from yet another, and so on? Artistic peaks typically bundle qualities together. Yet arguably a world with unbundled qualities is superior, since it allows consumers to pick and choose how much of each quality they want, and from which source.

We cite "peaks" when making an aesthetic assessment because they are relatively easy to observe and talk about. Few individuals know much about eighteenth-century culture except for its peaks. But the peaks standard remains incomplete. The notion of a peak does not correspond to how much aesthetic value is produced in an era or to how much that value is enjoyed."

That's from Tyler Cowen's new book, "Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding", the first chapter of which is available here:

10:17 PM  

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