Tending the Gardens of Music, Part II

New Criterion

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with gracious permission from Encounter Books, who originally published it in 2004 as part of a volume edited by Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer, titled Lengthened Shadows: America and Its Institutions in the Twenty-First Century.
This is the second installment of this reflection on the reality and exaggeration
of oft-repeated claims about the state of classical music today. Read the first part here.

A word about the audience – the concertgoers, the operagoers. From time immemorial, people have fretted over the “graying” of the audience, and the relative paucity of the young. This should not be high on any list of worries. As Sedgwick Clark puts it, “You come to appreciate music more when you’re older. Also you tend to have more time and money.” Carnegie Hall’s Harth says, “If you look at pictures taken during Toscanini’s concerts, you will see that the audience is a sea of gray hair. I assume those attendees are now in another realm. But people still come for concerts conducted by Simon Rattle,” and these tend also to be gray-headed.

Jack McAuliffe of the Orchestra League notes that the median age of an audience member – for an orchestral concert – is “somewhere in the mid-fifties.” And “when you say that, most people think, ‘Gee, the concert audience is over fifty-five’ or so. But what it really means is that half the people are younger than that, and half are older – sometimes a lot older. What are we supposed to do? Kick people out when they’re seventy or eight? They keep coming.” The quest – even lust – for younger people sometimes gets a little comic. They are, for many, a holy grail. Concert presenters want the young, the same as churches do. Experience has shown, however, that people take a while to come to both – that is, to music and to church.

But we should not be overly blithe. McAuliffe stresses a key difference between today and yesterday: “most people,” now, “have grown up with absolutely no exposure to classical music. People knew something about music a generation or two ago. Even if they didn’t want to, they learned something about it. Today, it’s easy to avoid, and even if you want to learn about it, it’s hard to get.” In the past, orchestras were “the provider of the end product,” and now they are “the introduction” to it. Orchestras, opera companies, and other institutions are doing what they can to fight musical ignorance, by providing pre-concert lectures, notes on the Internet, and the like.

Zarin Mehta says that it is not only lack of education that gives pause, but “lack of espousal by the media.” The larger culture seems unwilling to embrace and instill classical music. Therefore, Mehta wonders whether the gray heads will keep coming, as they always have. Not a few critics maintain that younger people would be attracted by additional contemporary music, as opposed to the standard repertory. Programming is a rich subject, demanding an essay, or a book, unto itself. But suffice it to say that evidence for this claim – newer would attract younger – is thin on the ground. Nor does common sense support it. As Mehta says, “A certain group of young people may go to an avant-garde evening, if it is created in a certain way, but when you talk about a symphony orchestra playing new music, it is as difficult for a young person as it is for an older person.” Really, “if someone has not been exposed to much music, do you give him a festival of Beethoven or a festival of Ligeti?”

 

Now to the death of the recital, or at least its diminishment. This is especially troubling in that a recital is, for many of us, an incomparably satisfying musical experience. Ignat Solzhenitsyn is a pianist and conductor (and a son of the great man). Of recitals, he says, “They’re going down the tubes. Apparently, they’re too boring, they require too much concentration.” And the explosion of chamber music has bitten badly into recitals, as presenting organizations “just view them as too risky, economically.”

Of course, recitals still abound at Carnegie Hall. Indeed, Carnegie has opened a new hall within its complex – Zankel Hall – that will see a great many recitals. But Robert Harth does not necessarily expect a recital to sell out. He points to one of the best events – in his view, and mine – of the 200203 season, an all-unaccompanied recital courtesy of the great Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov. “Let me ask you something,” says Harth:

What’s a successful concert? Carnegie Hall has 2,800 seats. For Vengerov, 2,000 were in attendance. I said to my board, “Is it not a success because 800 seats were empty? Or is it a success because 2,000 were filled?” It’s absolutely a success, if it’s a great concert and those who were there had a wonderful time. It becomes an unsuccessful concert when, as an administrator, you budget to sell 2,500. But if you budget to sell 1,500 or 1,800, you’ll be happy.

Harth knows that Carnegie Hall will lose money – virtually all classical-music organizations do. He just wants to lose it wisely and enrichingly (in a nonmonetary sense!).

Since 1994, Marilyn Horne has devoted a good bit of her time to the Marilyn Horne Foundation. I have frequently described this organization as a “point of light,” to adapt the famous – or once famous – term used by the first President Bush. It is dedicated, in particular, to the perpetuation of the song recital. Is it really true, I ask the great mezzo, that there are fewer recitals now than there used to be? “Oh, my God yes, please. I started going to song recitals when I was a child, and I started singing them in about 1960. From that time on, I could count on doing twenty or thirty recitals a year, depending on my availability. Some years were heavy with concerts [with orchestra] and some years were heavy with opera, but there was no question that the [recital] opportunities were there.” The number of “community concerts” has greatly decreased. And those series that remain “seldom take classical singers. They don’t take them at all, unless the singer is a big star. So where is the younger singer going to get experience?”

Horne faults the “dumbing down of America” and the tendency to “play to the lowest common denominator.” Television, computers, and other innovations play their distracting roles. Opera, the singer concedes, is doing much better than the vocal recital, which is odd, in a way, because recitals are infinitely cheaper to present. “But you have to have people in the seats,” regardless of the cost of staging the event. “And opera is much more glamorous, of course,” suited to our “very visual age. You can see this in the way casting is done, and the fact that the stage director and the scene designer have much more power than they used to have. If you read an opera review, you see that seven-eighths of it are about the production.” The music is almost an afterthought.

A special shame about the decline of the vocal recital is that there are so many today who do it well. In lieder alone, I might name Michael Schade, Christine Schäfer, Thomas Quasthoff, Marjana Lipovšek, and Thomas Hampson, and I have barely gotten started. I, of course, have heard them, in some cases repeatedly – but I frequent halls in New York and Salzburg. Marilyn Horne has sung in all fifty states – the last of which was Wyoming, where she performed just as her (classical) career was closing. (She now does pop evenings, and marvelously, too.) Whatever the cause for optimism in other areas, it seems clear that the flame of the song recital – and of the recital in general – needs serious tending, which Horne, of course, is laudably engaged in doing.

 

We now turn our attention to that “culprit,” chamber music. America has progressed far beyond the Budapest String Quartet, the famed four who “vent by bus.” There are dozens of string quartets, and other chamber ensembles, making a fine living. As Solzhenitsyn says, “Look at the numbers: The quantity of series and festivals devoted exclusively to chamber music is increasing every year.” The Chamber Music Society of Philadelphia, for instance, started off with a handful of concerts, and “now they’re doing seventy.” Chamber music “has gone from precisely that – a private, intimate affair [in a chamber] – to a major staple of the concert stage.”

The leading chamber-music institution in the country is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Founded in 1969, it was a mere “niche-filler,” to use Solzhenitsyn’s term, but it rapidly grew, spawning many imitators. Its artistic director is David Shifrin, who on the side is one of the world’s foremost clarinetists. He confirms that presenters find chamber music affordable and even profitable. “You can do it in someone’s living room or you can do it in Avery Fisher Hall. Organizations that can’t afford to pay stagehands or a high rent can present a chamber ensemble of the highest quality – they can do it in a high-school auditorium.” If you have any funds at all, “you have a great shot of getting a world-class performance in great and compelling repertoire.” But “as much as I enjoy playing chamber music, these concerts have sort of taken the place of recitals. I wish there were room for both.” To be sure, presenters will still engage “the superstar pianists, but not that many violinists or cellists – to say nothing of clarinetists, flutists, or French horn players – have a shot at a recital.” So the sonata repertoire, in particular goes unheard. “Most presenters around the country go for star power, go for box office. If they can’t have a famous name, they want more people onstage.”

As for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Shifrin believes that it will continue to flourish, if “with some bumps here there,” as in most any enterprise. And the festivals keep proliferating. “For a long time, there have been invitations to play really good music, with really good people, in wonderful places from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now it’s even wider. Next year I’m going back to a chamber-music festival in Tucson in March.” For a quarter-century, Shifrin has been involved with Chamber Music Northwest, in Portland. That institution now operates year-round, not just in the summer. “They are able to do wonderful things there, in a city of about a million. Arguably the highest-quality cultural institution in Portland is that chamber-music festival.”

A wag once said about chamber music, “It’s like the cockroach: Try as you might, you’ll never stamp it out.” An unlovely comparison, perhaps, but clear.

 

In the field of education, the good news is at the top: Conservatories have rarely had it better. Endowments are full and so are the practice rooms – full to overflowing, actually. Leading conservatories are the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, [the New England Conservatory], and so on – names that have been renowned for decades. New on the block is the Colburn School in Los Angeles; the San Francisco Conservatory is still going strong farther north. Then there are the many music schools in universities, led, probably, by Indiana and Michigan. As Solzhenitsyn observes, there is “an obscene number” of music majors in the United States today – on the order of 100,000 a year. There are not plum jobs for all these aspirers, even if they were equal to them. But those who fall short of their highest goal may teach or otherwise stay close to music.

At Juilliard, applications increase by 10 percent annually. The school admits about 8 percent of those who apply. Joseph Polisi, the president of Juilliard, is adamant that his school provides a better education than it did, say, in 1930: For one thing, “we educate the entire human being, not just the artist.” Students are presented with a liberal arts curriculum, and they study every aspect of music, not just their specialty. In addition, says Polisi, “we preach ‘the artist as citizen,’” seeking to endow the student with “a sense of responsibility for making sure that the arts flourish in society.”

People who tend to look for a dark lining say, “Well, yes, the better music schools are at a peak, but the students aren’t American – they come from overseas, mostly from Asia.” True, but, as Zarin Mehta says, “What do you mean by American?” Many of these kids become American in due course, along with the family members who surround them, just as people have done for generations. Polisi reports that 70 percent of the pianists studying at Juilliard come from abroad. The foreign country supplying the most students overall is South Korea, followed by Canada, Taiwan, Communist China, Japan, and then the former Soviet republics. Marilyn Horne reports similar patterns at the Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara), where she is voice director. We have gone from a time when Americans went abroad to study music and become musicians, to a time when the world beats a path to the American door.

Joseph Polisi has no doubt about Juilliard’s staying power:

I often get the Chicken Little question: Is the sky falling? Will music survive? Of course it will. I’m surrounded every day by about 800 absolutely motivated, talented, disciplined, energized young people. There’s no way in the world they’re going to be stopped in music, dance, and drama. They will create audiences, and they will be the leaders of the future. That’s what I ask them to be. Yes, the audiences of the New York Philharmonic are grayer than for Pearl Jam [a rock group]. There has never been a large niche for classical music. But it will survive.

We have a glut problem, however. Horne recalls saying fully twenty-five years ago, “We should close all the conservatories for five years,” just to give the job market a break. And “now the situation is worse!” For woodwind and brass players, life has always been tricky: Zarin Mehta tells me that, for a recent tuba opening in the Philharmonic, over 120 people applied. [Editor’s note: A current tuba opening at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has over 180 applicants.] One result of all this redundant talent is that players tend to be quite good, everywhere. David Delta Gier, a conductor with wide experience both in America and abroad, says, “You should hear some of the players in Sioux Falls!” (The orchestra there is the South Dakota Symphony.) The sad part of our cornucopia is that many musicians wind up disappointed. Gier knows many fellow conductors – or would-be conductors – who have not had careers, or satisfying ones, simply because of the number of podiums available (versus all those who want to stand on them). “You get into a great school, you study with a great teacher, you work hard, you do everything right, and you think you ought to be rewarded. But a lot of people have been made to realize that that’s not necessarily the case.”

It would take a very hard-headed person to state the cold fact that no one asked anyone to pursue a career in music – or in film, or in journalism, or in anything else. But he would not be wrong.

 

The decline in music education from kindergarten through high school is a bit of a puzzle. Contrary to what many believe, America’s public schools are awash in money. Never has per-pupil expenditure been higher. In some places it is scandalously high (for what it produces). But music has been downgraded, meaning that it is almost surely a question of priority.

Most people of a certain age – people who love music – can remember with fondness particular music teachers. Marilyn Horne had two of them with whom she kept in touch till the end of their lives. In fact, when she was making a Christmas album (with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), she remembered a carol from her schooldays, but could not locate the music. So she called the relevant teacher and asked her for it. “All she had was the melody, because we sang without any accompaniment – we only had a pitch pipe.” Schools across the country rarely had elaborate facilities. Little Marilyn and her classmates – in Bradford, Pennsylvania – had what was called a “playroom,” down in the basement. But there was a sense of caring about music, and the other arts, and nurturing them.

Obviously, there are pockets of excellence – of caring – in primary and secondary schools. As David Shifrin says, I wouldn’t count this country out.” It is a big, continental nation, with thousands of school systems. But where music education does exist, it tends to be “aesthetic,” according to Joseph Polisi, rather than “performance-based.” In aesthetic education, “you just talk about the music. You don’t play anything. You talk about a symphony or an opera or a piece of chamber music. That’s much easier to teach, because the teacher doesn’t need to be an expert in the oboe, for example. The downside is, that kind of education doesn’t stick, in my opinion.” Performance-based education is far and away preferable. But we have apparently reached a point where any education at all is a welcome surprise.

 

As to the recording industry, it is certainly not true that no CDs are coming out – they are. Acres of them. But fewer are being made than in the past, particularly in the US. We could live off recording already made pretty much forever, as almost all the known repertory has been recorded, often many times over. But that would be no fun. First, new music needs to be recorded – and it regularly is, despite the griping of composers and their advocates – and, second, it would be a shame not to capture musicians of today, or of the future, even in the most familiar repertory. Yes, we should have Renée Fleming’s Violetta. And we should have Michael Schade’s Schöne Müllerin, no matter how good Fritz Wunderlich’s is.

I will share an anecdote that speaks to the nervous state of recording. It comes from Marilyn Horne, talking about Deborah Voigt, one of the most important sopranos now on the scene. Voigt was scheduled to appear in a gala for Horne’s foundation. But she called Horne to say, “I would never do this to you, but I have a chance to record Wagner duets with Domingo, and it would be at the exact same time, and I feel I can’t pass it up, because I simply don’t get to record.” Needless to say, Horne understood, and released her; the recording – a superlative one on EMI – was made.

Horne is incensed at one tactic of the record companies:

They’re marketing singers as opera singers who aren’t opera singers! Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church …Whatever else they are – and a person may like them – they’re not opera singers. I let out a yell the other day, because I was doing the crossword puzzle, as I do daily, and one clue was “Tune for Bocelli.” It turned out to be “aria,” and I went, “&*@!” I wish him well, and he has a place, but please don’t call him an opera singer.

This would be especially misleading, according to Horne, to those who are new to operatic music or to classical music in general. I could argue that Bocelli and other such “soft” singers are good for music – partly as a starting point for the public, a kind of gateway – but Horne, whose musical standards are rigorous, has a point.

We should also understand that not all companies have flopped with classical CDs. As Benjamin Ivry reported in The Christian Science Monitor, “independent” labels such as Naxos, Chandos, and Harmonia Mundi are more than getting by. “Naxos is thriving,” said Klaus Heymann, that label’s founder, “and other independents who make interesting recordings people want to buy are also doing well. …What has been killed, or rather committed suicide [!], are the big-budget, all-star productions which got so expensive that they could never recoup their investment.” And Bernard Coutz, founder of Harmonia Mundi, remarked sensibly, “No one killed classical music, which makes up part of the patrimony of humanity.” (In 1997, the critic Norman Lebrecht published an incendiary book called Who Killed Classical Music?) “Across 2,000 years of history, classical music, like painting or fine cuisine, has not necessarily attracted great crowds …but it has always interested people who by luck or talent have learned to love it.” That is an attitude of maturity.

A major issue for the first part of our century is, as Robert Harth puts it, “How do you legislate the use of music over the Internet? How do you not overpay, not underpay, not take advantage of musicians?” Harth expects that people will “get their musical fix” from the Internet the way they once did from the radio, and that is already occurring. A new site iClassics is offering “webcasts” – a new word that may become as familiar as “broadcasts” – meaning that people can watch and listen to concerts, over the Internet, for free. How, then, does a company make money? As a representative explained to me, the hope is that those watching and listening for free will come to like the performer, or the music, and thus attend a concert or buy a CD. All involved are still feeling their way around in the new era.

As I mentioned earlier, musicians are beginning to make CDs on their own – without benefit of the big labels – and peddling them themselves. David Shifrin observes that “technology is such that nay musician who really wants to be heard, and recorded for posterity, can just go ahead and do it. It costs practically nothing to record and produce CDs, compared to what it used to cost with vinyl.” As a result, “you have a proliferation of vanity recordings, plus small labels that have success.” The cellist David Finkel makes big-time Deutsche Grammophon recordings with the string quartet of which he is part: the Emerson. But he and his wife – the pianist Wu Han – started www.ArtistLed.com which they bill as “classical music’s first Internet recording company.” Other musicians have started similar enterprises. Shifrin notes that “recordings are much easier to find on some websites than they were when you actually had to find a record store, a physical, bricks-and-mortar store. This whole trend is in its infancy.”

Here again, we “evolve,” to use the word that Joe Volpe has learned to love.

 

You could be sour about the music industry if you wanted to be. Classical radio stations are dying – even when you can make money in classical, you can make more in pop. But a person can buy Heifetz in the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos for seven bucks. And you can listen to the world’s best classical stations via the Internet, wherever they are, and wherever you are. It was said, eons ago, that radio would kill concerts, and then that the LP – mass produced and marketed – would. But concerts kept growing in popularity. Sadly, few orchestras now broadcast nationally. But the musicians’ union has a lot to answer for. It may have helped to make its members more prosperous, but it has been self-defeating in other ways. Orchestras don’t broadcast nationally – or record much – because of rigid union rules and, if I may, dumb, fruitless greed.

Some lament that classical musicians are ignored today, kept off the tube and Time magazine’s cover. The critic and scholar Stuart Isacoff informed me that, when Anton Rubinstein first came to this country, he was greeted with a torchlight parade. And yet this day has its celebrities, ones so big they are known by their first names alone: Itzhak and Yo-Yo; Luciano, Plácido, Renée, Bryn. Some critics shudder at the Three Tenors stadium concerts, those vulgar spectacles – yet these may be the same critics who complain that classical music has no connection to the broader public. It is merely human to want things on one’s own terms.

Music-lovers are a terribly nostalgic lot, always going on about golden eras (long past, of course) and cluck-clucking over the present. But there are great and historic musicians in every age – we simply tend not to recognize them when they are before us. The present age, in my view, is a thrilling one for singing. I could give you a list – a long one. And, yes, Heifetz and Milstein are dead. But have you heard Hilary Hahn and Maxim Vengerov? Rostropovich is getting old, but have you heard Han-Na Chang? Rostropovich certainly has: The young lady – girl, really – was the first cellist with whom Slava ever recorded, as conductor. Eventually, these young musicians will teach, and create protégés. Hilary Hahn studied with Jascha Brodsky, who studied with Ysaÿe and Zimbalist. And so it goes.

 

Our musical institutions will survive because people insist that they do – not a vast number of people, as compared with those who love sports or soda, but enough people. As Sedgick Clark says, “Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and the rest will always be performed. Always. There’s no doubt about it. And, incidentally, I have no problem viewing orchestras [for example] as museums.” This is one of the great sneers: that our institutions have become museums. “They are museums, no less than the Metropolitan Museum of Art of the Museum of Modern Art. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t mean that the orchestras don’t play contemporary music – they bring it into the museum, and whether it stays on exhibit remains to be seen.” I hasten to add that a museum is not a mausoleum. There is great life – throbbing, comforting, provocative, glorious life – in those musical museums of ours.

It pays to remember, too, that people who have been around for a while tend not to sweat the future of classical music. “The pendulum swings back and forth,” says Gary Graffman. Already he has lived “through two or three of these round-trip swings!” To obsess over the fate of classical music, notes Graffman, is like obsessing over the fate of the stock market: We should take the long view, and not get carried away by sharp spikes up or sharp spikes down. Echoing our chairman of the Federal Reserve, I might say that both irrational exuberance and irrational gloom are errors to be avoided. And do not, as Gary Graffman says, make the mistake of thinking that “the audience is limitless.” Always there will be classical-music fannies in the seats – just don’t create a ridiculous excess of them (seats, that is).

And allow me a final repetition: Our institutions will not prosper by themselves. One has to to work at them. One has to tend the gardens of music, and they will indeed grow, or if not grow, at least not die, blooming again every year, to one degree or another. America is lucky in its plenitude of gardeners, and the gardens they make. Amidst all the hand-wringing – some of it justifiable – we should pause, in gratitude, to fold those hands as well.

About the Author

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and a book fellow of the National Review Institute. He writes about a variety of subjects, including politics, foreign affairs, and the arts. He is music critic for The New Criterion. Since 2002, he has hosted a series of public interviews at the Salzburg Festival. For the National Review website, he writes a column called “Impromptus.” With Mona Charen, he hosts the “Need to Know” podcast, and he also hosts a podcast called “Q&A.” In 2011, he filmed “The Human Parade, with Jay Nordlinger,” a television series bringing hour-long interviews with various personalities. His latest book is Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. He is also the author of Peace, They Say, a history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Some 100 pieces are gathered in Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. A native Michigander, Nordlinger lives in New York.

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