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Maybe You Can Dig Up

The first step toward change is admitting there's a problem.

by Drew McManus
March 1, 2004

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The classical music world experienced a major event this month with the announcement that Daniel Barenboim would step down as the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after the 2005-2006 season.  What makes this event so significant isn’t the fact that Daniel Barenboim is leaving Chicago, but why he’s leaving Chicago.  During an interview about the reasons behind his decision, Daniel said:
"Thirty years ago, music was an integral part of culture, of society. Now, and not just in America, you have to spend time explaining to people why music is important, why culture is necessary. There's a feeling of crisis -- financial crisis, the audience crisis. I don't see eye to eye [with the CSO management] on the way these things are viewed. The crux of the matter is not that orchestras are expensive, that the seasons are long. The crux of the matter is that people don't know what actually to expect when they come to a concert.

You have to find a way to do this kind of job [move classical music from the periphery of general culture back toward the center]. This is not something that I really have the energy to do nor do I care to do. I was born to be a musician and that's what I want to do. Because of financial difficulties and the diminished role of music, there are expectations for music directors to do a lot of things concerned with fund-raising, with social activities. I really have no interest in these things."
This is a bomb shell in the world of orchestral classical music.  Here’s an individual that is arguably one of the most influential visionary music directors of the past two decades saying that orchestras have become so self absorbed over the past half century that they’ve removed themselves from the collective cultural awareness of mainstream America.  Now here’s the next big part of this dilemma; to the people inside this industry that determine how classical music is presented, this is something they’ve never really considered.  But if you’re one of the people out there that is feeling alienated and believes that there is an exclusive atmosphere in a concert hall, then this is probably common sense.  Do you see where I’m going with this? 
Orchestra Marketing and Public Relations professionals have unconsciously turned their audience into an elitist group of inbred cultural snobs.  Orchestras have forgotten that at their heart they are still grass roots organizations, dependant on a constant influx of new audience members that stretch across all demographics.  But what they’ve done is to build off of an old 19th century model where a few wealthy benefactors support the organization financially and all of the organization’s decisions are geared toward pleasing those types of individuals.  Granted the Golden Rule certainly applies, and by that I mean “he who has the gold makes the rules”. But times have changed since 1890; the wealth of this country has spread out among the middle class to a large enough extent that they can collectively support a major symphony orchestra just as easily as a hand full of multimillionaires.  It’s allot harder to build this type of support net as opposed to courting a few fat cats, which is why you haven’t seen orchestras attempting to change from that old model.
To their detriment, orchestras have practiced this old system for such an extended period of time that they have lost multiple generations of middle class Americans that believe knowing something about classical music is as important as knowing about literature, art, or even movies.  What we’ve ended up with is an “Odd Couple” situation, with the classical music side not even knowing where to start.  And make no mistake; it is the orchestral side of this equation that needs to change first.  The other side already believes that classical music is not crucial to their cultural soul so you can’t simply say “the public needs to make itself more artistic” and expect them to do it on their own, therefore neatly washing your hands of the whole matter.  You do need to provide people with the tools for self change while simultaneously serving as a guide, but that’s another side of this problem we’ll talk about in a future article.
I applaud Daniel Barenboim for making this issue public.  I don’t think he’s evading the responsibility of solving the problem himself, and I admire that he took the high road of resigning a post that would have been more than willing to keep paying his $2 million annual compensation regardless if he did the work or not.  Would you have been a big enough person to turn down leading one of the best orchestras in the world and a $2 million salary?  Most other big conductors are guilty of this offense; they take little to no interest in their communities or even bother to live in the cities where their orchestra resides.
So where does that leave us?  How does the world of classical music dig out of this hole they put themselves into?  Can you in fact “dig up”?  Is there a new age of classical music waiting to be created? There are several good solutions just over the horizon, one of which I’m working on with a group of very talented individuals such as Stirling Newberry, a classical music enthusiast who possesses the experience and knowledge in the political arena with successfully  bringing large numbers of people to an idea.  Other individuals who have made some great strides in audience development and community outreach are Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony’s music director (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his name on the short list of Barenboim’s replacement candidates).  Another good example are the 20-something audience development programs at the Toronto and Nashville Symphony’s.

What are your ideas?  Have you been to a classical music concert where you felt out of place but didn’t know why?  Send in a Response to the Editor and share your experience.

Comments (3)

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S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
March 1, 2004
It is interesting that you bring up the CSO, considering I live in Chicago. The CSO does (or did) have free concerts in Grant Park in the summer. Also, north of Chicago, we have the Ravinia, which also has a summer program usually featuring both classical and contemporary music. Both of these venues are outdoors, and very casual (for the listener). I think these are great ways for classical music to reach the working class, though I don't know how many attendees would later go to Orchestra Hall downtown, which can seem like a stuffy affair.

MDJohnson from Virginia writes:
March 1, 2004
I happened to be at the 1991-92 season opener at which Barenboin began his tenure with the CSO. The program included Brahams' Symphony No. 1, one of my favorites, but aside from searchlights and limousines in front of Orchestra Hall, there was absolutely nothing special about that concert. I sat in the cheap seats of the Gallery and realized I could have stayed home and gotten more enjoyment out of listening to a CD.

The most memorable orchestra concert I've ever attended came a year earlier, when I had an even less desirable seat, again at Orchestra Hall: front row, with a very partial view of the orchestra. A friend and I spent the evening closely studying the principal bassist, Joseph Guastafeste. While the solo violinist performed slightly out of view far to our left, and though the acoustics offered us a very unbalanced sound, we were enthralled by Joe's every move and appreciated every note. He played perfectly. What would seem unremarkable from the Gallery was exciting up close. We enthusiastically applauded his effort at the end, and he smiled and nodded to us in recognition. Never before or since has an individual musician's role in an orchestra made such a profound impression. For us, the worst seats in the house were, for that night, the best.

jim the yahoo writes:
March 3, 2004
Send members of the city orchestra out in combos to the city’s clubs and watering holes armed with radically discounted tickets to the next symphony concert and discounted prices of that symphony's CD's. Each combo would have its own band name, and play for no cover. Have the combo play highlights of the next symphony concert, plus easy-on-the-ears classical favorites and some re-workings of popular favorites, including sing-alongs. The most attractive and charming member of the combo would communicate with the audience and introduce the songs.

Hey, it’s just a brainstorm.

-Jim the yahoo.

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