Here's a very smart piece by Steve Metcalf on the subject of "putting people in seats." He makes three strong points. The first is to question the widespread belief that music education is the answer to classical music's problems. To quote: "If it were just a matter of making sure that schools were doing their part, then all the school systems that still have good music programs (including the one that my own kids enjoyed in our town of West Hartford) would be producing fresh waves of dutiful adult concertgoers. That's not happening. Blaming the schools for the problems of the concert hall is, I'm afraid, a cop-out. It excuses us from the harder task of inventing genuinely compelling new concert models...." The second point is about the paradigm-shifting significance of the iPod. A couple of years back, I speculated that classical music might thrive in unexpected ways in an iPod culture because it could be disseminated as pure musical data, free of cultural stereotypes. The surprising popularity of NYPhil and LAPhil broadcasts on iTunes bears this out. Metcalf's last point is about the need for superstar composers with the ambition and drive to become "genuine culture heroes." That would be nice. Nothing's going to change if Anna Netrebko is semi-famous for a little while.
Update: ACD responds with some very smart points. He's right on #3, wrong on #1 and #2. "...[A] hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young," he writes, or wrote back in 2004. This, as Metcalf says, is misguided. Many kids are exposed to classical music when they are young. What happens when they reach high-school age is that they discover it's uncool — it's old people's music, rich people's music, snob music, sissy music. Many of them throw off their youthful interest and never go back. This started happening after WWII and it keeps happening in generation after generation. The need now is to recapture the attention of young adults, not by making the music superficially "cool" (can't be done, anyway) but by stressing its passion, its intelligence, its relevance. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for music education. But Metcalf is right that classical institutions love to blame education when their own lazy conservatism is the problem. They whine instead of act. By the way, I did not realize that "smart" was an adjective redolent of the "New York intelligentsia." If I ever see the New York intelligentsia, I will be excited. I thought I was standing behind it at the Rite Aid the other day, but it turned out to be the gay mafia.
Update 2: Lisa Hirsch affirms why the iPod matters: it's a new, powerful, peculiarly versatile way of disseminating music. People loitering on the outskirts of classical music are often baffled by the sheer multiplicity of offerings. On iTunes they can sample different kinds of music, make a low-risk $0.99 or $9.99 purchase, and go on from there. Apple's habit of regularly featuring new classical releases on the main page of the iTunes Store is surely one of the best things that's happened to classical music in a long time: finally the work is out there in the main cultural arena. I don't necessarily think that there's anything to be learned from the iPod in terms of programming, as Metcalf implies in his piece. There are obvious opportunities here for horribly tacky marketing ideas ("Shuffle Concert": let's play the movements of the Haffner Serenade in random order!). But the deeper transformation represented by the digitizing of music has huge potential. The best thing about the LAPhil/NYPhil efforts is that they should ultimately have the effect of luring people back into the concert hall, where the music really lives.
Reader Gary Jarvis of Iowa puts his finger on the real problem, which is that tickets are far too expensive: "A live performance is the catalyst in moving from someone who 'appreciates' classical music to someone who loves it and actively consumes it.... Music hall managers and record label execs and music journalists and Peter Gelb and whoever else can talk about making the music relevant and developing superstars and the rest, but much of this won't particularly matter if us 'regular folks' can't tap into the live experience on a regular basis." As Peter Dobrin noted in a piece last year, orchestra ticket prices have tripled over the past thirty years. It's pretty amazing that anyone still shows up — testament to the power of the music.
Blogger Ali Marcus has more good thoughts. She zeroes in on the canonization of the Germanic repertory as the source of classical music's image problem (indeed, of the phrase "classical music"). Back in the nineteenth century, Mozart, Beethoven et al were designated "serious" music while Rossini was designated mere entertainment. We're hung up on the same dichotomy today, except that now we've moved Rossini to the "serious" category and replaced him with others. I have not yet read Richard Taruskin's huge history of music, but I believe he spends a lot of time anatomizing that canonization of the Germanic-classical. The music itself was indeed worthy of worship, but the manner of the praise displayed creeping intellectual mediocrity.