Monday, May 29, 2006

Grim Reaper Comes to Concerts

Much has been written about the declining interest in classical music, much of it for valid reasons. A number of orchestras have folded and most of the remaining ones have serious financial problems. Recitals are rare, other than those by ‘stars’ or within a university circuit. At the same time conservatories and colleges turn out ‘professionals’, musicians with a degree, in increasing numbers. Odds of these young adults finding the kind of employment they want are less every year. Even for someone who has been employed for years, changing jobs in the same field is nearly impossible, unless they have inside connections. Most are forced to turn to teaching, whether they have a talent for it or not, and this in turn will contribute to creating even more unemployable musicians.

Of course classical music isn’t dead and will not die. What we have is a gross imbalance of supply and demand. Orchestras have had to increase salaries for their musicians and in turn have added more concerts over more weeks to earn an income from ticket sales. To be a subscriber to a symphony orchestra season is a major undertaking and involvement these days. I certainly would see no reason to pay a lot of money to go hear a year’s worth of often mediocre performances of works I don’t even like. The few times when something would awaken my curiosity I would buy an individual ticket. A small recital series with five or six concerts by good instrumentalists and a modest number of chamber orchestra performances might be more tempting and feel like less of a waste of my time and money.

Soloists and conductors are earning astronomical amounts for the work they do, not to mention the heads of orchestra administrations. The increased workload means that musicians no longer find pleasure in their work and they are bitter that a star soloist earns as much or more in one gig than they do in a year. The book ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ is worth reading for the last ten pages alone, as Ms. Tindall analyzes today’s classical music realities very well.

Of course there are numerous people who don’t see the situation in such grim light and even claim that music has never been as successful and popular as now. Just recently Allan Kozinn wrote a long article in the New York Times titled ‘Check the Numbers: Rumors of Classical Music’s Demise Are Dead Wrong.’ He brings out some important points and facts. Interestingly, the article has a picture of the audience listening to the Houston Symphony earlier in the year. The same reviewer wrote at the time: “It was a risky venture: Carnegie, which has a hefty orchestral series, wasn't sponsoring this concert, meaning that the orchestra had to rent the hall and find an audience. Some of its public came with it from Houston, but even so, empty seats were in good supply.”

Another article appeared a few days later: Daniel J. Wakin wrote an interesting piece titled ‘MUSIC; Fancy Hall 4 Vry Lo Rnt’ in which readers are made aware of what goes into performing in Carnegie Hall. At least the Houstonians got a printed review in the NY Times and a rather nice one at that, not always the case with orchestras who decide to come and ‘conquer New York’ by renting that hall.

It will be interesting to read how the smart and insightful Greg Sandow will be responding to Kozinn’s article. Signs are he didn’t agree with it and it is easy, at least to yours truly, to understand why. Almost a decade ago, Scott Duncan (of the Orange County Register) wrote: “American orchestras in 1997 aren’t exactly a growth industry. It’s like watching the life go out of the last specimen of a nearly extinct species.”