Composers and Wine: Interview with Ron Merlino

As a wine professional and classically trained musician, I’ve always wanted to know if wine was important in the lives of the great composers. Did Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven enjoy wine daily? Did they keep a cellar? Did they write about the wines they drank? I’ve never been able to find much about the subject of wine and composers – until now.

Enter friend and colleague Ron Merlino. Ron is owner and manager of MusicVine Performing Arts and Wine Consulting. Since 2009, he’s managed a roster of internationally renowned orchestral conductors including Sir Andre Previn, Gerard Schwarz, Andrew Litton, and Keith Lockhart. He also consults on a diverse range of projects for artisanal wineries and arts institutions worldwide. Prior to starting MusicVine, Ron was Vice President at Columbia Artists Management Inc. for more than ten years where he established a reputation as one of the most sought after managers of conductors in the world.

Ron is also a wine professional, having worked as apprentice with the late Patrick Bize at Domaine Simon Bize in Burgundy, as well as collaborating with winemakers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New York State, Michigan, and Niagara, Canada on music and wine projects. Merlino passed the M.S. Introductory Course and Certified Sommelier Exam, and is currently a WSET Diploma Candidate at the International Wine Center in New York. In the past few years, Ron has undertaken an academic study of the role wine played in the lives of the great composers. His project has led him to libraries and institutes throughout Europe. Not long ago, I spoke with him about the project. Here is our conversation.

Ron Merlino.

Tim Gaiser (TG): How did your project of researching wine and the role it played in the lives of great composers come about? What was the genesis?

Ron Merlino (RM): The catalyst for the project was my good friend Matthew VanBiesen, who in 2015 was the CEO of the New York Philharmonic. He came to me and said, “Let’s start a series of pre-concert events for donors and board members where we pour wine in my office. You can talk about the intersections between what they’re going to hear on the concert and the wines you’re going to pour.” I ended up doing that for two years.

Over time I realized that there was lot more information to be collected, organized, and written about just how important wine was in the history of so many of the famous composers. That was the launching pad. From there I began to take the work deeper from a more academic point. I met with people like the director of the Beethoven House in Bonn in Germany, the director of the Handel House in Halle also in Germany, and other such institutions. I was convinced that there was something that might illuminate not only the music, but also the lives of these composers and allow us to build some bridges between the two worlds.


TG: What are the kinds of things you learned in researching wine and composers that surprised you? 

RM: There’s a lot. Going back to when I was doing the events with the New York Philharmonic, I was a bit of at the mercy of the orchestra’s development department as far as being handed a program for a performance and having to build something around it. For example, purely by chance I ended up having to do something on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

TG: What did you learn about wine, Vivaldi, and his Four Seasons

RM: Initially I wasn’t interested in doing anything on Vivaldi. The Four Seasons has been played a million times. But I was obligated to try and ended up stumbling upon how important the history of music and wine was during Vivaldi’s lifetime. Moreover, how the two intersected in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Vivaldi was living in Venice at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. The ruling Rialto families, who had been in control of the Republic of Venice for hundreds of years, found themselves in a quandary. The viability of their business model of being able to trade wine and other commodities to other parts of Europe was beginning to wane. They were at the mercy of growing success on the part of Bordeaux and other places, and had to find another line of business besides trade. These families settled on the idea of making the city of Venice itself a high-end luxury destination for the elite of Europe. They built hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment venues trying to attract the wealthy elite. It’s much like the Las Vegas of modern times.

As part of that initiative, some 17 new opera houses were built in the city during the last decade of the 17th century. This created a huge demand for commissions for composers to write music for all these new opera houses. In essence, if you were a successful composer in Venice at the time, you made your bread and butter living by churning out operas week after week.

Inadvertently, the ruling class of wine merchant families suddenly became one of the most important historical groups in the history of Italian Baroque opera. They commissioned tons and tons of music. Today, Vivaldi is known as a composer of instrumental music. In fact, a majority of his output was opera, much of which has unfortunately not survived. So there’s a very direct link between the commerce of wine and the history of Baroque Italian opera, not necessarily something people talk about.

J.S. Bach


TG: What about J.S. Bach? Was wine important to him and his career? 

RM: Yes, there’s a lot to talk about with regards to Bach; not necessarily the wines he drank but even more how important wine (and beer and coffee) were to his life, particularly during the later years when he lived in Leipzig.

A focus on Bach and wine could take up an entire lifetime of study by itself. He was incredibly aware, informed, and connected to all the political, commercial, and artistic trends around him, especially in Leipzig. He may not have been a composer that traveled very much, but he was keenly aware of a sense of nationalism like few other composers. Think about the fact that Bach spent the first half of his life in what was the boondocks. Then he got the position at the Collegium Musicum and the St. Thomas church in Leipzig. At that time, Leipzig was an epicenter for international trade. It was a place where merchants were bringing in goods from the Far East, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In this milieu, Bach was around a highly sophisticated culture including wine.

We know more about Bach’s political and public interest in coffee than wine. There was a raging debate about the merits of coffee throughout Europe at that time. It’s not dissimilar to the marijuana debate today, in terms of whether it’s good for you, bad for you, or a morally terrible thing to be associated with. At various points during Bach’s time in Leipzig, coffee was banned, legalized, and then banned again. But Bach was a constant advocate for coffee. We know that he was a real connoisseur and collected lots of coffee equipment and paraphernalia. He also used it as a platform to promote his own musical activities. Instead of holding concerts in churches and other places, he would famously hold his concerts in one of the coffee houses in Leipzig. It was a daring thing for him to do because coffee houses were often equated to red light districts. He would convene all his students at Zimmerman’s, a well-known coffee house, and present his concerts just as a way to be sensational. So Bach was someone who wasn’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of those around him and shake things up a bit. 

We don’t know a lot about the specific wines Bach drank, but we do have record of him asking for contracts to be paid not in currency but in coveted commodities like barrels of wines from the Rhein land in Germany. These wines were hard to come by in Leipzig and expensive. Bach also had a large apartment at the end of his life that was given to him by the Collegium Musicum. It apparently had some 15 rooms. We know from the ledger in 1750 that when he died two of the rooms were dedicated to the storage of beer, wine, and spirits. That’s not inconsiderable!


TG: What about Mozart? 

RM: With Mozart, we know a little bit more – but we still don’t know as much as I’d hoped we would. I think that’s partly a function of the fact that Mozart falls in the period of time where composers almost always lived under the employ of a court or royalty or the church. Only late in his life did Mozart become what we think of as a freelance artist. Most of the information that we know about his daily life only comes from that late period when he had to write letters about more practical business matters.

Mozart was a person who was very interested in trends. He was a man of the moment, so to speak. Today we would call him something of a dandy. I don’t necessarily think Mozart was a connoisseur of fine wine and food, but he was always interested in being of the fashion of the time. It’s probably not entirely by chance that the few references we get as far as the wine he was drinking was Champagne, which shows him to be a man who was able to access something more rare and prestigious within the wine culture of the time. 

We know from his father Leopold that Mozart was fond of drinking Champagne in the daytime – not at night! I don’t if that’s a show or a display or status or if it gives us an insight into how people actually were using Champagne at that point in time. Leopold tells us specifically that the Champagne would come – and there were many bottles of it – at the end of a lunch and not at the beginning. It was served with shellfish and sweets.

(Since our conversation, Ron wrote, “The Champagne and oyster lunch apparently became fashionable in France during the reign of Louis XV, at the time when Champagne was being actively promoted by the King as a line of commerce. The wealthy elite would usually hunt in the mornings and convene for a shellfish and oyster afternoon lunch – so this may have some relation to the time of day and service of the champagne at Mozart’s home – an emulation of the French ‘style.'”)

We also know that Mozart often kept bottles of wine on the keyboard at night when he was composing. There are also some reminiscences from a neighbor that lived in the apartment across from him in Vienna. Apparently, in the middle of the night when Mozart was composing and needed more bottles of wine he would simply knock on the wall between the apartments and his neighbor would bring him more bottles so he could continue writing.



TG: What about Beethoven?

RM: Beethoven is amazing. In regards to this research journey, he continues to inspire and amaze me every day. Every time I look, I discover more. Beethoven was the first composer in history who literally lived as a freelancer, from day one through the end of his life. He never had a job where he was employed under the patronage of someone full time. Every single piece of music he wrote, he wrote on commission. This is significant because it meant that from very early on, at least in his professional life in Vienna, he had to be capable of functioning well in high society, with the political, social, and noble elite. He had to be able to find connections and friendships with the patrons who would basically keep his career alive. This required him to be informed, conversant, adept, and able to slip in and out many different contexts, which meant that he had to be incredibly knowledgeable about things that would appeal to these people.

Beethoven was therefore very connected to the world of culture and wine. The patrons who stuck with him throughout his lifetime had their own specific lines of business. What almost all of them had in some way, shape, or form, was some aspect that had to do with the business of wine. Through interactions with these patrons, Beethoven became very knowledgeable about a wide array of wines. We know through his letters and the conversation books he used to communicate with people because he was deaf in his later years, just how diverse the array of wine he was drinking but also what specifically he was drinking, from Bordeaux to Champagne to a wide variety of wines he enjoyed in local heurigen and taverns. He tells us what he would drink and what he would eat. He writes about being frustrated with certain kinds of wine. It’s very interesting and quite fascinating how much information is there and how important wine was in his life.

Something also worth noting about Beethoven is that while he sometimes lived in the center of Vienna, he would also take apartments outside the city walls. Frequently, the apartments were in what are now major wine regions. So Beethoven was literally living in and among the vineyards. He was taking walks through the vineyards, up and down the steep hills, and strolling next to the Danube. He was constantly composing while living in the vineyards. There’s a link between his compositional spirit and the actual land, vines, and wine.

In a bigger picture, wine for Beethoven was symbolic. It was a representation of something he wanted to aspire to in his own music. He felt that wine was something artistically more pure and incorruptible that inspired people to communicate in a more immediate way with each other. It was something that would strip away all the barriers and layers of status, and bring everyone around the table to eat and drink and be equals. I think this for Beethoven was so important. It has a lot to do with why wine played such an important role in his daily life and his professional life.

TG: I remember you mentioning a quote in a previous conversation; something Beethoven supposedly said on his deathbed that has been long misinterpreted. What is that quote?

RM: A British biographer in 1827 wrote that Beethoven’s final words before passing were, “Pity, pity, it’s too late.” The biographer and Schindler – Beethoven’s handler at the time – wanted the world to believe that the composer’s last words meant that he was raging at the heavens because of all the amazing music he had in his head that he wouldn’t be able to write. The reality is that in the very last months of his life, Beethoven’s doctors had advised him to stop drinking the kinds of wines he had grown accustomed to. He had terrible digestive issues and was going through a series of medical treatments to alleviate almost constant pain.

At that point in his life, Beethoven was drinking almost exclusively sweet wines like Tokaji, Rust, and Ausbruch. His doctors recommended that he stop drinking entirely – and if not, drink lighter wines like German Riesling from the Mosel. Beethoven then asked his publisher Schott in Mainz to send him a shipment of Rieslings from the Rheingau. But the wines didn’t come for months and months. Beethoven sent Schott several letters asking about the wines and when they would arrive. Finally, the shipment arrived the day before he died. When his butler told him, he famously sat up in bed and said, “Pity, pity, it’s too late.” The wines he wouldn’t be able to drink.



TG: What about Brahms?

RM: Like Beethoven, Brahms was very connected to the world of the Rheingau. When Brahms was younger and visited Schumann, he literally hiked on foot from Mainz through the Rheingau to Düsseldorf. He kept a small travel book so we know literally every vineyard that he walked through on this long two-month trek. It made such an indelible impact on him that later in life he befriended Rudi and Laura von Beckerath, who were not only musical devotees but also wine merchants and negociants who lived in Rudesheim in the Rheingau. Brahms started to visit them every summer and spent time in the vineyards of the Rheingau. He spent a lot of time composing in there during the summers. The third symphony was written during a time when he was in Rudesheim and Wiesbaden.

Brahms drank many different kinds of wines. He was an avid traveler, visiting Italy nine different times throughout his life – no small accomplishment in those days. He was very fond of sweet wines and drank a lot of Sicilian wine, especially Marsala. We know that at the Red Hedgehog, his favorite tavern in Vienna, he had a standing barrel of Tokaji always at his disposal. And like Beethoven, Brahms’ final words are about wine, in this case also Rudesheim Riesling. On his deathbed, he was given a spoon of Riesling and said something to the effect of, “Ah, this always tastes good.”


TG: Any closing thoughts about your project?

RM: I look at Beethoven and how he able to communicate directly to the core of humanity with his music. Wine as an art form was something that he could use in his daily life as inspiration to keep going. I think it’s very profound and also important. We may be fascinated in the minutiae of wine, but to me it’s very uplifting to see wine as an art form that meant so much in a very spiritual, moral, and social way to someone as important as Beethoven. I take some comfort and solace in that. For all that we do in our professional tastings and comparisons, there is humanity, personal energy, and creativity imbued in a bottle of wine that can also inspire us to do better. 

Orchestral Outreach to the Mexican Community

My first real job playing trumpet was in a Mexican orchestra, high up in the mountains beyond Mexico City, under the snow capped peaks in Toluca. What a blast! I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

I say it was my first real job because it offered me for the first time a great monthly salary, at least given the low cost of living down there. And it even paid everyone for a 13th month – you know, for Christmas expenses. I did not, however, get my own locker. (That would have to wait until my next job.) But then nobody did: we were expected to show up dressed in our tails – outfits that nobody remarked upon as being somehow backwards. Tails or tuxedos were simply what orchestras wore, as they do worldwide. By local standards, compared to the mariachis walking around town, we were positively trendy. The town of Toluca itself was unremarkable. I’m sure you would never see it in a travel brochure. It was notable only for having the largest flea market and best chorizo around. And an orchestra.

Our conductor was an HR department’s worst nightmare. Imagine a cross between the perversions of Harvey Weinstein and the tantrums of Buddy Rich, and then throw some matador in there for flavor. I will not attempt to give accounts of what transpired in rehearsals as the reader simply would not believe me. There was no HR department, however – just a few staffers who ran around putting out fires and setting up music stands for our fourth-generation photocopied parts.

I also taught at the conservatorio where I had a studio bursting at the seams with eager young trumpeters who still worshipped the patron saint of lightning fast staccato trumpet playing, Raphael Mendez, born just over the mountains in Michoacán. In the eco-system of that school, trumpet and guitar were at the top of the food chain, and “less useful” instruments like cello and piano had to eat our scraps. Almost all these young trompetistas came from one village, Metapec, where most worked as carpenters making furniture and the mandatory hobby was playing in the local banda, numbering 500 players. One can imagine what kind of fiestas go on in a village where everyone plays music!

Concerts were celebratory, tremendous outpourings of enthusiasm for classical music and the musicos who play it. The audience, as is customary, showered roses on the orchestra from time to time. As we were the orchestra that represented the State of Mexico, we covered that entire territory with frequent forays into the countryside.

On the Sunday afternoons when we ventured out, we would, without fail, get lost on the long bus ride out to  uncharted villages to play in their local churches, which were always large and opulent no matter how far they were off the map. During the panic to find these places, as if scripted, the bus driver would always ask an old lady selling tortillas and cactus by the roadside for directions, which she gladly provided regardless of whether or not she had any real idea where we were going or how to get there. Other times, we would go to a large outdoor venue somewhere outside the big city and there play the same heavy program we played indoors the night before.

The audiences always showed up and always cheered mightily. One year, we made it our routine, upon returning home after our Sunday concerts, to turn on the tuba player’s bulging black-and-white TV, to fiddle with the coat-hanger antennae, pull out a case of Negro Modelo cervezas, and watch the Orquesta Nacional play their televised, complete Mahler Cycle. Highly entertaining it was – a bit like going to the demolition derby. They, like the numerous other professional orchestras in Mexico City, had their own audience, loyal to only them – like White Sox fans who won’t go to Cubs games. And theirs was the first Mahler cycle in Mexico, having about it the air of what must have transpired during the weeks of rehearsals before the premier of Rite of Spring in 1913.

The only exception to filled houses were those weeks when none of the three administrators who ran things remembered to tell anyone in the public, by way of what these days we call “marketing” but in those days was basically a sign on the hall or an ad in the newspaper, that we were holding a concert that week. In cases of such oversight, practically nobody showed up.

We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.

We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.

Given my experiences in Mexico, my lingering question has been, “Who decided, or why do we feel, that we must upend our programming in order for people of targeted ethnicities to comprehend and enjoy classical music played by a live orchestra?” It strikes me as suspiciously odd that, for all our talk about the universality of classical music, administrators, and, certainly some musicians, when they think of specific ethnic groups, must suddenly condescend to them, patronizingly and awkwardly changing what we do to suit all the clichés.

There are Mexicans in Mexico and Mexicans in the US, but only individual Mexicans attend classical concerts either here or there. It may be a conceit of planners that we can put out special bait for an entire group or that any one community leader speaks for them, as if there was a hive mind we can tap into. Only individuals choose to attend classical music concerts – and for personal reasons. Entire groups do not.

I was certain, by the time I moved away from Mexico, that Mexicans enjoyed and appreciated classical music as much as anyone else in this world. Of course, many Mexicans never went to orchestra concerts. But to be certain, those who did also loved to dance in their neighborhood street parties, called pachangas, and at weddings that started solemnly in churches with Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Schubert’s Ave Maria and ended with mariachis raising the dead at the late night cena. What with the huge families they had, that meant a wedding just about every month. Today, not only do most Mexican cities have their own orchestras but every single state has a robust youth orchestra, too, as part of their far-reaching Esperanza Azteca Foundation program.

And they do this, not because they don’t have other societal problems, including true material poverty or a vast and bloody drug war spreading every which way, but because music, the best music, is self-evidently and intrinsically good by their estimation, a testament to and reminder of human flourishing and accomplishment. It is a cornerstone of a good life.

I think of those days, a lifetime and a world away, whenever I hear the intelligentsia up here talk about what our various “under-served communities” need in order to cross an imaginary chasm in order to be able “to understand” our music, which we are told must be so alien to them.

The author on a return visit to teach for a week in Metapec in 2013. Many of the students who attended are children of his students from his early years there.
The author on a return visit to teach for a week in Metapec in 2013. Many of the students who attended are the children of his students from his early years there.

Site and Sound, Size and Scale: A Conversation with Victoria Newhouse

There are certain books that make ideal beginning points for very broad subjects: Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music and Berlioz’s or Strauss’s treatises on instrumentation come to mind. Victoria Newhouse’s Site and Sound1 is one of these. It achieves the status of essential reading by both its focus and its scope, chronicling the concert hall’s origins in the ancient Greco-Roman amphitheaters, its flowering in the ornate baroque opera houses of Europe, and its most significant modern incarnations, touching on their roles as both ideological battlegrounds and testaments to our shifting attitudes towards art and, more specifically, classical music. Her book carefully outlines the challenges, the successes, and the failures of the historic and – especially – the modern opera house or symphony hall. Together with its successor, Chaos and Culture2, Newhouse’s books should be the starting place for anyone responsible for the conception or realization of a new concert hall or cultural center anywhere in the world.

Her books lay the foundation for any serious discussion on the topic of concert halls by covering the vast but essential ground and by surveying the lessons experience inevitably offers us. But they also, most interestingly, broach some of the subjects about which the classical music world, either reluctant or else remiss, largely fails to discuss. And it seems to me that these are precisely the most important discussions we could be having. This is the purpose of my work at FSI – to propel these conversations – and I wonder if Newhouse didn’t plant some early seeds in my mind. For example,

People on foot, not automobiles, are now the focus of plans for the inner city. Historic plazas and dense commercial streets have become the model for pedestrian zones in city centers throughout Europe, and the trend is beginning to take hold in the United States. Planners have come to realize that superblocks and broad, sunken plazas deferring to monumental buildings have deadened the street life essential to a lively urban environment. …Rather than siting several cultural institutions in one place, contemporary designs return to the earlier practice of locating concert halls and opera houses in different parts of a city – as the first Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall (William B. Tuthill, 1891) were in Manhattan, and the Royal Opera House (Edward Berry, 1858) and the Royal Albert Hall (Francis Fowke and H.Y.D. Scott, 1871) were in London.3

Her observations are both insightful and timely. They could have been the basis for our recent Seaside Symposium, which brought the most prominent thinkers and the basic tenants of New Urbanism together to consider the problem of concert halls in the context of community. In the space of one page in her book, Newhouse hits two gigantic problems that almost never show up on the radar of the boards and builders envisioning tomorrow’s concert halls. But they are issues very much known to the New Urbanists – who also know just what to do about them. The fact that these issues are so often entirely overlooked by our institutions of classical music here in America, and that the worlds of New Urbanism and classical music are so completely disconnected, makes Newhouse’s piercing analysis and her very direct challenge seem to me quite remarkable.

I had another such moment when we sat down to speak in person at her home in Manhattan. Our conversation began, naturally enough, with some remarks about the Met.

VICTORIA NEWHOUSE: The Met’s financial problems were first written about in the New York Times. I wrote to Peter Gelb, whom I know, and I said that the only way you’re going to solve these problems is to tear down that house, which is almost four thousand seats – just a couple seats under four thousand – and build something half the size or less than half the size because you’ll never in this day and age fill that, even in New York. I’m going less and less to the Met, and I’m going more and more to places like the National Sawdust, Poisson Rouge, Roulette – and these are small, as you know, very small venues. I believe National Sawdust has something like just two hundred seats – maybe just under – anyway, it’s extremely small. Roulette has maybe four hundred or so. Poisson Rouge I can’t tell you. …I am convinced that these very large concert halls – I would say anything over fifteen hundred seats – are a thing of the past. I just don’t think there are audiences to go to them. And I think that’s one of the problems. I dread going to the Geffen, the former Avery Fisher Hall. I find it so unwelcoming, it’s so enormous. One has no sense of intimacy there whatsoever.

ANDREW BALIO: I’m so glad to hear you say that because in your book you document the largest venues, but what we’re finding in our work is that what makes classical music special to people is its intimacy.

VN: Absolutely.

AB: And what’s missing in people’s lives is intimacy. We spend so much time in these giant buildings – shopping malls, monstrous office complexes, big box stores. Classical music should bring people together in a more social, intimate way. We’re hoping to design the whole concert experience from the beginning to be smaller. In fact, we have an initiative we’re working on called Slow Music. It’s about shrinking the scale, bringing classical music into the human scale.

VN: I couldn’t agree more. What they’re doing at the Geffen, they’ve announced an architect and an interior designer who are going to either totally renovate the hall or tear it down and start from scratch.

AB: They’re not allowed to tear it down because now it’s historic. It’s going to have to be a gut job.

VN: They’ve already done that once, you know; they gutted it once. They should be building two – at the very least – smaller halls in that space. There’s no market for these big concert halls anymore.

And of course, again, I have to marvel at Newhouse’s insight. In a world dominated by international corporations, daily commutes on ten-lane beltways, and the nonstop, frantic pace of our ubiquitous technology, we long for something small, human, knowable, and intimate. The boutique hotel, the farm-to-table restaurant, the local business: they’re all making a huge comeback. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to understand why. We’re looking for the antidote to our outsized, automated, and numbers-driven world. Classical music is the perfect antidote, but not if we continue to present it in the way we do now. We can’t expect people to file into halls the size of Walmart, assigned a number as the only thing by which they’re identified as a seat, and then to sit there, elbow to elbow with perfect strangers that they’ll never get to know, without even the smallest hope that someone will bring them a glass of wine or a coffee – or even smile at them – for at least the next several hours. It’s no wonder our halls are looking empty.

AB: How does it make you feel when you go into a half-full auditorium?

VN: I think it’s very depressing. I won’t publish an empty hall in my books; I won’t publish an empty opera house. I think to see a picture of an empty hall is very unsettling. I feel the same way when I go into an actual venue and it’s half empty. It’s a downer.

AB: Absolutely. This is the frustration in our work. They say we have a half-full house and somehow we failed rather than saying we arbitrarily scaled the whole operation too large. We have this industrial approach to concert music that we took in the last century when we wanted to make everything bigger, like sports stadiums. But the symphony doesn’t operate the way football does. They criticize the art form itself because we have a half-full house. We say the house is too big.

VN: How do you handle the problem – if you have a smaller hall – of finances for the musicians? How do you make ends meet?

AB: An orchestra in the United States generally gets only one-third of its operating funds from ticket revenue. Two-thirds come from donated revenue. So the economic imperative is both consistent, repeat ticket sales and a compelling mission to attract philanthropic funds. We’re trying to make the case for building concert halls smaller, as you said, and increasing the valuation of the concert experience – if people value it much more, they’ll pay and donate much more. But even if we elevate the ticket prices in the top tier, we’ll always set aside a certain number of tickets for people of lower income – could be the music students, the youngsters. This is a way of price structuring that has been going on forever. There’s a method to it and the wealthy know they’re offsetting the costs of the other people and everybody’s happy. Let’s say the demand goes up, which would be a wonderful thing: you have a small hall, so you play more concerts. Most orchestras aren’t playing enough concerts – or not as many as they could – and they wish they could offer more concerts that would sell. In our work at FSI we focus on the difference between price and valuation. Believe it or not, orchestras have been trying to push their prices down, assuming that price is the determining factor. But for things beyond the necessities it doesn’t work that way. When a concert costs less than a movie eventually people come to value a concert less than a movie.

VN: There are a lot of free concerts in New York. I’m sure you know that.

AB: What does that do? It may teach people that the value of a concert is free. You have a few wealthy people who are paying because they think this is a public good.

This is a model based on 100% philanthropic funding. And it’s all well and good until the philanthropist moves on. The fact of the matter is that orchestras need a better, more resilient model – one based to some extent on a realistic understanding of market forces and, most importantly, of human nature. What they need is something that will allow them to help themselves – to earn their own way – as much as they can, to insulate them against the whims of philanthropic fashion and the kinds of top-down government control and populist pressures that threaten the orchestras of Europe. We see a great need for careful research and the application of tried and tested market principles to the management of the nonprofit symphony – and a reevaluation of the predominant ideological principles that are pretending to be business principles. But a large part of making our orchestras viable is going to be developing the foresight and restraint needed not to hang an albatross around their necks by building halls that are too expensive to operate and maintain. And Newhouse has thought a lot about that.

VN: People don’t think beyond the bricks and mortar. They don’t think about programming, maintenance. My latest book, Chaos and Culture, touches on just this problem. Writing my last book [i.e. Site and Sound] about opera houses and concert halls, I became aware of how incredibly complicated the process of building a venue for music is – with the whole problem of acoustics, circulation in terms of how people move in and out of it, and all the different problems. So I’ve written a book about the process of building a cultural building in Athens, Greece. It’s an amazing project. It cost over eight hundred million dollars. It’s totally financed by a private foundation: the Niarchos Foundation. It consists of a small opera house – fourteen hundred seats – and the national library, which they desperately needed because their national library has extraordinary treasures – Byzantine and Medieval manuscripts.

They have the same problem because the deal they made with the Greek government before the global economic crisis was that the day it was finished they would turn the key over to the government and the government would run it. At that time, in 2007, the government said, yes, they would be delighted – they were thrilled to have a very expensive, very beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano. They would be very happy to run it; but a lot happened between then and now and they have no money to run it. The same problem as everyplace else: here they have a beautiful building and no money to run it. Of course the foundation will step in and help them out, but I don’t think they’re prepared to do that forever.

AB: Our cultural institutions expect the demand for their programs and resources to support these things – and just the opposite can happen. That’s what is dooming our high culture. The high arts are being saddled with these structural costs, and we never, ever get out of this ditch.

VN: There’s a chapter devoted to the major aspects of building this kind of a building. Really my inspiration for the book – the reason I wrote the book – is to alert people in cultural organizations about the problems: how difficult it is, how time consuming and how expensive and how complex. I have the feeling that so many of these boards jump into construction projects without having any idea what they’re getting themselves into.

AB: That’s exactly what happens. They keep deferring to “experts.” Other people step in – and it’s often driven by the architects, who have agendas and want to make a big statement, or else it’s the client who wants it to be all things to all people, which is usually not possible. The acoustician is often the last person who gets a chance to weigh in. In the case of Disney Hall, unfortunately, the acoustician, Yasuhita Toyota, did not get to “own” the interior of the hall, the concert performance space. As the musicians tell it, it did not turn out very well acoustically, even though it’s a cool place, visually. This happens a lot, where the architect creates all these issues. It’s a big challenge for a local philanthropist, for example, who is going to put down ten million dollars to kick off a concert hall project. First he has to inform his strategy. And there’s nothing – other than your book, actually – that gathers and distills the information into the wisdom of lessons learned. Instead they have information presented to them by all these different interests – usually vested interests. That why it’s so wonderful that you’re doing this.

VN: You might be more interested in the final chapter, where I compare the building of the Cultural Center in Athens, which went very smoothly, practically on time (– of course, it’s a little late – they all are – but it’s almost on time, almost on budget – it went very little over budget), with some other projects, like the Paris Philharmonie. As you know, it was tremendously late, tremendously over budget. Another one is the Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbaphilharmonie in Hamburg. Also Peter Eisenman’s thing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I make those comparisons to show how this was exceptional. The rule is rather the opposite. But these guys in Athens, having gone through all of this so beautifully, now have the same problem as all the others.

And indeed, it was the growing realization that many of the problems facing our symphony orchestras are shared not just among symphony orchestras but with businesses, institutions, and pursuits in so many different fields and so many different places that prompted me to begin my work at FSI in the first place. Too many mistakes are repeated unnecessarily because the lessons we should have learned from them are not being collected and disseminated – because we have too much invested in them to call them mistakes in the first place, and because too many of us don’t think to look outside of what has become for us our silo.

My work starts with the search for experts, often outsiders, who are examining these problems afresh – and sometimes in surprising, seemingly disparate fields. Victoria Newhouse was one of my first finds. And she’s been thinking about some of these problems for a long time, as part of a very big picture. That makes her work exceedingly important.

VN: There’s a lot to think through. …Alternative venues like Poisson Rouge or National Sawdust: that’s the future.

AB: Small, intimate – smaller scale. We’re seeing this contraction in so many things. All these things we’ve tried to supersize. They don’t sustain themselves. We need to pull people back in. Classical music is actually built on chamber music. The size of the symphony orchestra as an expression of classical music reached an apex at the end of the romantic period in the early 20th Century. Chamber music, the piano recital – they’ve been pushed off into other places. They’ve become their own separate world. I’d like to bring them together so that a thousand-seat concert hall could also have every night of the week different things. Most importantly, we’d be developing the depth of our audience’s experience. They could have a membership to the local symphony hall, and they could be enjoying this constant diet of music, learning our vast canon, and doing it in an environment of gold-standard hospitality – where they’re not just a face in a crowd, but a friend at an intimate gathering of friends. That’s what we’re envisioning.


1 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010.

2 Newhouse, Victoria. Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2017.

3 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010. Page 99.

Value, Meaning, and the Economic Crisis

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the author and from Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2.

The recent catastrophic bubbles [of 2008] in the electricity, oil, housing, and financial markets bring home to us that the relationship between physical reality and the signs, values, and meanings we give to it can be wildly unstable. In many countries past and future (Germany between the wars, Zimbabwe today), galloping inflation taught the population that their currency was just paper and that a loaf of bread could be twice as expensive in the evening as it was in the morning. The dollar, euro, yuan, and pound have been relatively stable, and this fact perhaps lulled us into a false sense of security in the belief that generally things were worth what they claimed to be worth, that the label matched the product, that the word matched the action, that the idea corresponded to the thing.

That faith has now been shaken, but there is what pundits call an upside: we are forced to reconsider the whole question of what value is, what meaning is, what the word reference itself refers to. These questions are of fundamental importance to artists and always have been, for the forte of artists has always been to make something supremely valuable and meaningful (and, they hope, expensive) out of the cheap and meaningless raw materials of sound, paint, words, stones, and bodily gestures. The everyday revelation of new bubbles and Ponzi schemes compels us to ask not only how a financial bond can really be cashed in and how a currency is backed, but also how we know that a so-called virtuous act really is good, how we know a scientific theory really explains the facts, how a painting or poem can be said to be genuine, beautiful, true.

Let’s explore one set of theories about the evolution and foundations of meaning, value, worth. I will be drawing on many sources – anthropological, biological, economic, neuroscientific, mythological, linguistic. I take full responsibility for any personal oddities in the way I have recombined the existing scholarly materials. First, some etymology. The word value comes from a root that also gave us valid, valor, avail, convalesce, equivalent, valence, and wield. All these words imply a sort of “putting your money where your mouth is,” a “stepping up to the plate,” a keeping of promises, a fair trade, healthy strength, the buck stopping where it should. But the word value is used correctly in a huge variety of contexts, implying that those contexts may not be as comfortably separate as we would like to think. It can be used of a banknote or financial contract, the price of a retail item, the content of an algebraic sign, the result obtained from an experimental measurement, the principle behind a virtuous act, the shade of a color in a painting or the quality, and beauty of an important work of art.

The words mean and meaning have many guises: a mean person is a stingy one, a mean repast is poor and unsatisfying, but the way we make something happen is the means by which we are able to do so, and a wealthy person is a man of means. If our behavior is neither passive nor violent but prudent, just, and wise, then we are following Aristotle’s noble ethic of the Golden Mean between the extremes. A word is not just a vibration in the air, but means something, and life is not worth living if it has no meaning. The word mean, then, spans a whole nested set of meanings from the lowest and meanest to the highest and most meaningful. It is a connector, a rope or string that links all the beads of signification and pricing and ability to accomplish what has been proposed.

The word mean is used in law to distinguish whether an arrestee meant to injure the victim – i.e., whether or not he was free to do the act and intended to do it, the key elements of moral judgement. Meaning is the central issue in the fields of linguistics and semantics, and the crux at the core of all contemporary philosophy. The meaning of a will or contract is crucial to all property relationships. The meaning of life is the heart of all religion. The meaning of a scientific formula, the meaning of a newly excavated inscription on a stele from an unknown civilization, the meaning of a strange cloud formation, the meaning of Gloucester’s attempted suicide in King Lear, and the meaning of the egg in Piero della Francesca’s Madonna and Child with Saints (Brera Altarpiece, 1472–74) are all valid uses of the word meaning (note that I need the word valid to make this point).

The simple word good, too, shares in this strangely useful variety of meanings – a good banknote, a good act, a good use of a word, a good theory, a good poem are all good. The Anglo-Saxon word for good is the same word as the word for God in that ancestral language. In these words, the collective wisdom of the Indo-European family of languages can be seen at work. (The etymologies of other language groups show a similar set of metaphors and logical connections.) One surprising element of that wisdom is that it draws together fields of thought often treated as entirely separate. The great American philosopher C.S. Peirce made important distinctions in this whole realm of signs, but our language itself is content to use the same words for this huge mixed set of economic, linguistic, moral, cognitive, and aesthetic significations.

So there is some justification in thinking that a careful look at where our economic meaning and value system has gone out of whack may yield valuable lessons to us as artists, language-users, and moral beings. In all these meanings, there is implied a basic bond between the immortal label and the temporal, volatile, labile matter of what it labels, between the person’s name and the enfleshed human being, between the moral intention and the act, between the face value of a coin and the intrinsic value of its metal, between the description and the reality, between the work of art and the world. When that bond is disastrously broken in one case, it may cast light on how the bond can break in others, and teach us how to keep the bond strong. Note, again, that the word bond itself, which demanded to be used here, is another of those words. Chemical bonds, government bonds, legal bonds, the bonds of brothers and sisters, the marriage bond, the bond of divine covenant are all bonds.

How can the bond break? To answer this, we must first inquire how it got made in the first place. Perhaps a good starting point would be to look at the emergence of meaningful action among animals and early humans. In mating rituals and ranking contests in animal species, we find symbolic gestures and behaviors that express the intention to mate or enter into a contest (sometimes both, resolved in symbolic displays, like the triumph ceremony of graylag geese). Trading and trusting coalitions also require such signals. In order for these signals to be believable, they must be what ethologists call “costly.” Though they may not cost as much as rape or overt battle to the death or risky robbery of resources, they are still expensive. They are sacrifices, paid in terms of scarce metabolic energy, the development of bodily pigment, antlers, decorative feathers, and nervous tissue to control the song or dance of the animal. Animals, and we, communicate by sacrifice, and we trade for what we want by being prepared to give up something we already have. The things that are traded – the proffered food of the male for reproductive access to the female, the pack leader’s status for the follower’s membership in the pack, the sentinel meerkat’s safety for the preservation of her genes among her kin – are thus equivalents for each other, and they make up a relationship of worth or value.

When evolutionary anthropologists try to date the emergence of language among our ancient ancestors, they look for signs of artificial sacrificial behavior. It seems that human, conscious self-awareness, the recognition and performance of sacrificial behavior as such and its transformation from a hardwired signaling device into a culturally rehearsed and agreed upon ritual, and the origins of language, are all intertwined. As humans, we no longer trade just with each other but with the gods or God – i.e., with whatever out there gave us what we have and are, and perhaps can give us what we want. The great old religious myths of the creation – and of the awakening of human beings to what they are – seem to be regaining a great deal of respect for their wisdom, as so many of them root the origin of the word in the rituals of sacrifice.

Among humans, sacrifice has a peculiar element, which we might call “commutation”: every sacrifice is an act that, in other circumstances, would be a crime of violence, waste, imprudence, or impurity, but which is excused on the grounds that it commemorates and expiates a previous sacrifice, in which some much more bloody violence or costly loss was required. Each new sacrifice is a little ascent on the Maslovian pyramid of valued goals, its purpose a little more intangible, intellectually demanding, ambiguous in form, rich in significance, inclusive in sympathy. We sacrifice first for survival, then for sustenance, then for power, then for status, then for love, then for spiritual transcendence. And as we do so, the actual demands of the deity to whom we sacrifice are tempered and gentled. The capital punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve is commuted to pain in childbirth (presumably because of the enlarged braincase of the newly human infant) and the need to work for a living (presumably because humans can and must take thought for the morrow). The punishment for Cain’s sacrifice of his brother Abel to God is commuted to a sign of his eternal homelessness, the human fate. Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, who was due to the Lord. Instead of a whole firstborn son, only a shred of flesh from the foreskin need be given. Later, the prophets tell us that God prefers the benevolent moral sacrifice of philanthropy over the meticulousness of ritual, and the generativeness of mercy over the strictness of justice, and so human blood sacrifice is gradually amped down physically and amped up morally until it becomes love for one’s neighbor.

Likewise, the Greeks can burn the fat and bones and hide of the bull to the gods, and eat the flesh themselves. The blood sacrifice demanded by the Furies is commuted to the civic service required by the Eumenides. In the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, and the sermons of the Buddha, animal sacrifice, asceticism and costly ritual are trumped by moral duty, which is in turn trumped by spiritual submission and compassion.

When the process has been going for a long time, the sacrificed object can become apparently rather trivial. Cucumbers are sacrificed in some African tribal societies; Catholics and Buddhists burn candles; almost all Christians break bread, simultaneously commemorating, re-evoking and symbolically atoning for the bloody sacrifice of the Cross – an act of ritual cannibalism that excuses our real cannibalism. Thus every sacrifice is an act of impurity or violence or waste, that pays for a prior act of greater impurity, but pays for it at an advantage – that is, without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that can be seen as the original dictionary by which we learned higher meanings.

The process of commutation has much in common with the processes of metaphorization, symbolization, even reference or meaning itself. The Christian eucharistic sacrifice of bread not only stands in for the sacrifice of Christ (which in turn stands in for the death of the whole human race); it also means, and in sacramental theology is the death of Christ. The Greek tragic drama both referred to, and was a portion of, the sacrificial rites of Dionysus – both a use and a mention, as the logicians say, or both a metaphor and a synecdoche, in the language of the rhetorician. The word commutation nicely combines these senses. In general use, it means any substitution or exchange, as when money in one currency is changed into another, or into small change, or when payment in one form is permitted to be made in another. In alchemy, it can be almost synonymous with transmutation, as of one metal into another. In criminal jurisprudence, it refers to the reasoned lightening of a just punishment to one which is less severe, but which is juridically taken as equivalent to it. In electrical engineering, it is the reversal of a current or its transformation between direct and alternating current. In mathematical logic, it refers to the equivalency of a given operation, such as A multiplied by B, to its reverse, B multiplied by A.

Thus sacrifice is the meaning of meaning. What this implies for our own time is that the death of sacrifice is the death of meaning; that the crisis in modern philosophy over the meaning of the word reference – and this is the heart of it – has its roots in the denial of commutativeness; and that for reference and meaning to come back to life, some deep sacrifice is required. Fact is bonded to theory in science by the costly work of experiment. Price is bonded to utility in economics by the hard knocks of the marketplace. Good intentions are welded to actions by the sacrificial submission of the donor to the real needs and wants of the recipient. Lofty artistic conceptions are realized as beauty in paint or words or stone or sound by the exacting and even agonizing ordeal of learning and exercising the craft. When the pain of the commutative process is denied, the bond is broken.

How could this denial have taken place? When we think of the history of sacrifice, the answer is obvious. Spiritual submission and compassion for the poor are separated by so many stages of commutative transformation from the original human sacrifice that the connection can easily be lost, both by forgetfulness and as a convenient concealment of the shame of our good behavior’s shameful and atrocious origins. Even the honest Socrates argued in The Republic that the dreadful doings of the creator-gods should be concealed, by a noble lie, from the good citizens of his ideal community. If Passover and Holy Communion become polite ceremonies among social peers, their origins in blood and atrocity – and thus in the sacred and terrible mysteries of the human body – can be lost. If the derivatives traded by Icelandic government executives can no longer be traced back – and nobody wants to inspect them closely enough to trace them back – through the insurance policy against default taken out by a Japanese trader in bundled mortgages, and the bank that bundled them and used them as collateral, and the mortgage agent that convinced the speculative Florida homebuyer with twenty-five maxed-out credit cards, to the physical McMansion that constitutes some tiny fraction of its real value, then the bond of monetary meaning is lost. If one can only understand a conceptualist installation in a gallery if we trace its origins in critical theories based on recent performance pieces, based on other critical theories about commercial simulacra that derive from neo-Marxist concepts of commodification, themselves founded on protest against Victorian mass-produced decorative art, it is easy to forget the connection to anything living or experienced – and maybe convenient to do so.

When the bond breaks, it leads usually to some catastrophic bubble or inflationary explosion, either in the realm of the signifier or of the signified, or both. Science goes wrong when theory and data get separated. What follows is a proliferation of meaningless data-gathering or an arms-race of empty theorizing, or both. When morality goes wrong, we get either brutal expediency (unprincipled action) or hypocrisy (principles not being matched by actions). When law goes wrong, we get excuses for bad behavior or cruel legalism. When religion goes wrong, we get idolatry or puritanical iconoclasm: too many things chasing too few ideas, or too many ideas chasing too few things. When philosophy goes wrong, we get know-nothingism or sophism. When our economy goes wrong, we get hedonistic materialism or the fantastical escalation and inflation of utterly immaterial derivatives and complex but bloodless financial instruments. When art goes wrong, we get a philistine welter of empty prettiness or an arid desert of conceptualism.

The place where a sacrifice takes place is an altar. For a social animal, the altar is its home territory. For a human, the altar is the hearth or the dining table, the place we carve the sacrificial turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas. The choice of and commitment to one’s homeplace is, extended and abstracted, the choice of an identity, a set of promises constitutive of who one is. It is what we are prepared to defend to the death. The altar is where the idea and the fact, the signified and signifier, the thing and the label match each other.

Thus there may be a deep cultural connection between the current economic crisis and the increasingly abstract and elitist spiral in the postmodern arts and the crash that followed. What I believe happened in the market was that trading experts, recognizing that the central banks would no longer permit inflationary currency spirals from which they could profit, simply switched currency to relatively unregulated financial instruments – oil futures, bundled mortgages, credit default swaps – thereby wresting control of our legal tender from the nation itself. The sovereignty of a nation is anciently embodied in its control of its own currency, the medium of exchange and value, Caesar’s head on the coin, the golden sovereign. The coinage is a nation’s altar, its word, its bond. What the speculators had done was to substitute their own coinage, which they could manipulate at will. When Hitler wanted to destroy the sovereignty of Britain, its altar of exchange, he forced enslaved Jewish printers in Oranienburg and Mauthausen to forge perfect ten pound notes and tried to flood the markets with them.

The word credit comes from the Latin word credo: I believe, I have faith. In the arts, one could well argue that the sustained attack on all our faiths – in the goodness of our Western nations, in the integrity of our signs and symbols and stories, in the truth of science, in our religions, in democracy, in the classical values of virtue and beauty, in the basic meaningfulness of our lives beyond their mortal collection of experiences – helped set the conditions for the great betrayers (Lay, Blagojevich, Madoff) in our political economy.

When we live, as we must, on top of a multitude of teetering inverted pyramids of metaphors, abstractions, and derivatives, we must be careful always to inspect the buttresses and foundations of our flooring, lest the bond to origins, and between thoughts and things, be lost altogether and our house should fall. Maybe we need to revisit the ancient altars, the ancient roots. Maybe, from time to time, the tree of liberty does indeed need the blood of patriots and martyrs, as Jefferson suggested.

In the symbolism and rhetoric of the recent [2008] presidential inauguration, there was a welcome renewal of the language of faith, wresting the term away from the various spiraling and inflationary ideologies that have claimed it. Meanings and values and bonds were being heavily reemphasized. If we can also renew our deep and even shameful sense of what those words mean, we may be on our way to a recovery not only of our economy, but of our artistic culture.

Tending the Gardens of Music, Part I

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 first installment of this reflection on the reality and exaggeration
of oft-repeated claims about the state of classical music today. Read the second part here.

America may be a young country, but it fairly dominated music in the twentieth century. When I say music, I mean classical music, but the statement applies equally to popular music – maybe even with more force. Think of Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, and the jazz greats, just for starters. It all went wrong in about 1970 – you’re free to pick your own date – but that is another long, sour essay.

In classical music, America’s strength is a little short of astonishing. We are talking about a European art form, which the United States embraced with gusto. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Mozart was already twenty; America had a lot of mud (and political genius and some other things). By the Civil War, we had little to commend us but Louis Moreau Gottschalk. But by the end of World War II, we were rolling.

Of course, Europe helped us immensely, by persecuting – when not trying to kill – so many of its people. America grew to dominance in classical music partly by default, as it did in other areas. Conductors like Reiner, Szell, and Solti may not have chosen to have American careers, but those were the careers they wound up having. Our musical institutions were built on the talent and drive of European émigrés. And those institutions are healthy now, despite clamorous claiming to the contrary. Will they continue to be healthy – even dominant – as the twenty-first century progresses? Probably so, as long as America remains welcoming, ambitious, and free.

To remark the preeminence of America is not to say that Europe is nothing – not at all. Vienna is still a worthy music capital, and Berlin has much to offer, and so does London, not to mention numerous smaller places, such as Oslo. But the United States is still the place where the action is, where big careers re made, where music-making is most predictably excellent – in the orchestral hall, in the opera house, and elsewhere. An acknowledgement of this should have no odor of chauvinism whatsoever; it is a matter of objectivity. Music is a universal, not a national, enterprise anyway, and people from all over the world come to America to make music, rendering this activity not so much American as human.

The death of classical music is frequently proclaimed, and it has ever been thus. As Charles Rosen once wrote, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest tradition.” The arguments in favor of death (if you will) are so tired and weak they are hardly worth confronting anymore. But we are usually drawn in. In my experience, some people actually enjoy predicting or announcing the death of classical music, because, when they do, others are apt to nod sadly and knowingly. To proclaim the death of classical music marks the proclaimer as a defender of civilization, and a foe of the destroyers.

One who doggedly counters the death idea is Gary Graffman, the pianist and (former)director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was even moved to title a recent speech “Dead Again”! He noted that he kept having to give essentially the same speech, because prophecies of doom would not let up. “Disaster is always just around the corner,” he said. But “one advantage of having reached the age of pontification” – Graffman is in his mid-seventies – “is that I actually lived through experiences identical to those which are now considered unique to our present philistine conditions.” He went on to give multiple examples, some of them amusing. Consider this: in 1961, RCA Victor wanted Horowitz to record an album of popular music. His wife, Wanda – the daughter of Toscanini – shouted to an executive, “Better you should open a whorehouse!” RCA canceled the pianist’s contract. Somehow, he survived.

When Graffman was coming up, the music business was puny compared with today. In the late 1940s, “there were only two major concert managements, with a total of about 40 pianists between them.” In 2001, Musical America – a professional bible – listed 624 pianists. “So maybe we should be worrying more about glut than decline.” Moreover, at mid-century, “New York had only one large concert hall, and – believe me, because I was there – very few performances were anywhere near sold out.” For Horowitz, Rubinstein, and Heifetz? Yes. But for Serkin, Milstein, and Piatigorsky, Carnegie Hall was not even half full. No one thought this condition odd or alarming. Indeed, “a half-empty (or half-full) hall” was “the norm.”

Zarin Mehta is eloquent on the subject of glut, as he is on other subjects. (Mehta was the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, and the brother of the conductor Zubin.) “If people think that classical music was healthier in earlier decades,” he says, “they should investigate how many seats were available then versus now.” The success of classical music in the 1960s and 1970s, when orchestras became full-time instead of part-time, “led to an explosion in every city” – and not just large ones, but simple burbs. Communities wanted their own orchestras. “Many, many more seats became available for classical music.” So “if ticket sales are deemed soft today, perhaps it’s a question of supply.”


I will take a little tour of the American music world, looking in on various facets. But here is a basic point: How you think classical music is doing depends, in large measure, on what your expectations are. If you expect classical music to be as popular as popular music, you will be sorely disappointed. As I frequently have cause to say to people, “That’s why they call it popular music, you know.” There will always be a type that can’t stand that the broad public fails to share his concerns, passions, loves. Many such people have an evangelizing, proselytizing spirit – they can hardly sleep at night knowing that their neighbors prefer musical dross to gold. They will not reconcile themselves to the fact that classical music will always be, as it has always been, a minority taste. But the minority – lucky us – has an abundance before it.

The great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne said to me, in an interview, “Classical music is under assault in this country.” This is an understandable – if strikingly dark – point of view, for in some ways we are slipping. For example, music education in grades K through 12 has all but ceased. And the song recital – a major Horne concern – is dismayingly rare. But in other respects, we are going gangbusters: Chamber music has exploded, for instance. You can hardly walk a block without encountering a chamber-music concert, or festival. As Gary Graffman pointed out to me, there used to be only the Budapest String Quartet, and its most prominent member, Alexander (Sasha) Schneider, liked to recall, “Vee vent by bus.” Now there is a comparatively huge number of musicians who make a living in chamber music, and they don’t go by bus.

Even in areas where we seem to be distressed, the news is mixed. The recording industry is currently moribund, but why? Because the record stores are groaning with albums already made. Never has so much music been available to so many, and so cheaply. As Zarin Mehta commented, “I started buying records when I was sixteen or seventeen. I don’t go to record stores anymore, because I have essentially everything I want. Do I need a fifth recording of the Ring cycle?” Furthermore, the Internet is now seen as a great robber of recordings, but it may prove a boon to music in the future. In addition, musicians are making CDs in their own homes or studios, at little expense, and selling them to interested parties.

So the business of music will evolve, as it always has. We may not be able to foresee its forms – but we can count on musical life.


For orchestras, times have changed dramatically since mid-century. Then, you could hardly make a living as an orchestral musician, even in the best orchestras. “The men,” as they were called, had to sell shoes, paint houses, and do other odd jobs in the summer, just to make ends meet. A fifty-two-week contract was only a dream; it is now an entrenched reality. To work in an orchestra is not to take a vow of poverty; pay in one of the big orchestras begins at about $100,000 a year; it soon rises.

Even aside from the top orchestras, there is an embarrassment of riches. Jack McAuliffe, (former) chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, reports that there are about 1,800 orchestras in the fifty states. Of these 1,800, about 600 are either youth, conservatory, or collegiate orchestras. They are “important for the development of both orchestras and audiences,” says McAuliffe, “but they aren’t necessarily a factor in discussing the economics of orchestras today.” Of the remaining 1,200 “adult” orchestras, “you have orchestras in which everyone is paid, and, at the other end, orchestras in which no one is paid. Of the 1,200, about 350 fall into the category of professional orchestras, where the majority of members are paid, and participating for professional reasons, not merely for the enjoyment.”

In the past couple of seasons – since September 11 – orchestras have had trouble, as many businesses and other enterprises have. But, as McAuliffe notes, the decade of the 1990s was “probably the best ever for orchestras, with record attendance.” About 32 million seats were filled in the 200001 season, up 16 percent from ten years before. “During the late ’90s,” that roaring time, “virtually every orchestra was showing at least a small surplus, with many in the process of building substantial endowments – and the ones that had them already were increasing them.”

Since 9/11, we have, again, been in a “much more challenging time.” Most orchestras are worrying, but they are succeeding – because they are knuckling down. “Of the 350 professional orchestras,” says McAuliffe, “we’re aware of eight that haven’t made it – that have either ceased operations or filed for bankruptcy. That is a failure rate of three-quarters of one percent per year. For most industries, that would be downright enviable.” But, if a couple of orchestras stumble, the media tend to play it in death-of-classical-music tones. To be sure, says McAuliffe, the failure of an orchestra is no fun for that orchestra’s community, but part of economic life is that some institutions fail – and then, perhaps, recover, get reconstituted, as has happened with many orchestras. In the late 1980s and early 1990s – another difficult period – eight orchestras went under (by coincidence, the same number that would succumb a decade later). In time, however, each of those eight communities gained an orchestra of approximately the same size and scope of the one it lost. For example, the Denver Symphony came back as the Colorado Symphony. The orchestra in Birmingham came back as the Alabama Symphony. In most such cases, the same basic group plays under a new name, and under different governance.

Quite recently, Pittsburgh suffered a bankruptcy scare. The orchestra there is superb, bearing a storied past. But through the years, the PSO was not supported much by the community at large – that is, with donations – because a few prominent citizens, most of them named Heinz, took care of it. Pittsburghers in general did not have the sense that they needed to contribute in order to have an orchestra. But the prospect of bankruptcy jolted them awake – and they responded with their contributions, utterly unwilling to see their orchestra expire, or even flag.

McAuliffe sums up: “Orchestras are still a robust part of the artistic life of an awful lot of communities. In fact, they are often centerpieces of that artistic life, forming the basis of opera companies, dance companies, music education in schools” (such as it is). Orchestras will never “just work,” without effort – “it really takes dedication.” But “interest in this art form isn’t dying; it’s just an expensive form of art to support.”


Not only are today’s orchestras robust, they have sturdy homes to live in – in many cases, new ones. Listen to Robert Harth, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall: “To those who would sing the swan song of classical music’s death, I would point out the fact that the most talked about building on the planet was built for classical music.”* Harth made that statement in October 2003, and he was speaking of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry. “It’s a magnificent building, a life-changing building, not just for the L.A. Philharmonic, but for that entire city. And that makes a dramatic and positive statement about classical music.” Jack McAuliffe would point to Newark, too – yes, Newark: “The New Jersey Performing Arts Center was built in the middle of nothing, and it has spawned all sorts of development. It is now a pleasant experience to go to Newark. I guarantee you that wasn’t the case ten years ago.” And “the New Jersey Symphony is thriving.”

Other new halls include the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the Max M. Fisher Center in Detroit (nicknamed the Max), The Meyerson Center in Dallas, Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Jacoby Hall in Jacksonville, and the Schuster Center in Dayton. Robert Harth adds, “Atlanta is building a new concert hall, and Toronto just redid theirs. Severance Hall in Cleveland has been completely revamped. This is ‘dying’?”

But Marilyn Horne sounds a cautionary note. In Greenville, South Carolina, they built the Peace Center, a fabulous performing-arts complex. (It is named for a philanthropic family named Peace, not for the concept.) The center “has a recital hall, a concert hall, and extraordinary acoustics,” says Horne,

but as the man responsible told me, “It’s easier to raise money than to put a body in a seat.” So what did he have to bring in to put bodies in the seats? Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with bringing those pieces in, but it’s not classical music, and that is worrying.

It is indeed: but in 200304, the Peace Center had not only Les Miz – and Seussical, for that matter – but the Emerson String Quartet (part of this chamber boom I mentioned).

A second cautionary note comes from Sedgwick Clark, editor of Musical America. He is concerned about the cost of all this music building. “We must take stock of what we’re spending, and control our costs. I look at Disney Hall, and it’s an extraordinary thing, but it’s going to cost an arm and a leg to maintain.” At Disney, “the cheapest seat will be $35. To sit in the orchestra will be $120. For a concert! Maybe I’ve just gotten old, but the fact of the matter is, $120 for a concert – how many CDs can I guy for that amount? This is a serious problem.” Our new orchestral halls are impressive, Clark notes, but “if they’re not sold out, or close to sold out, the orchestras have a terrible time.” There are those generous salaries to look after, and employee benefits, and pension plans.

Fundraising in music is a special art. Beverly Sills knows quite a bit about it, and about fundraising in general. “I raised $100 million for the March of Dimes,” she informs me,

and hundreds of millions for other charities. Medical causes do better than music. If you have some disease to cure, you’re not going to want to fork over millions for another production of La Bohème. But I say in all my speeches: “Art is the signature of civilization.” We dance for joy, our hearts sing. When we’re little children, we take crayons and know immediately how to scribble. When my husband and I moved into a new apartment, the first thing we did, poor as we were, was paint the walls and hang up Mama’s pictures. In the car, we want the radio on. We don’t want to be in a silent ambiance.

So she tells her audiences that the arts are not a luxury, and they – at least for her, a woman hard to turn down – come through.


Mention of Beverly Sills leads us to the opera. It’s not easy to be gloomy about this slice of music, no matter how hard you try. Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, supplies the essential facts: In the second half of the twentieth century, opera in the United States grew enormously – it was practically a boom. Opera America now has 115 member companies there are companies in all but a handful of states. Aside from these, “there are many smaller, community-based endeavors, and lots of university and conservatory opera programs that put on performances for paying audiences.” Of the 115, fully three-quarters have been established since 1960.

Understandably, opera is “the most expensive of the traditional performing arts,” as Scorca says. “One of the reasons we see opera-company formation as a relatively recent phenomenon is that the financial and infrastructural requirements of opera are considerable: It takes a long time for a community to have a critical mass of audience members and donors prepared to sustain a company. You can’t put on an opera very spontaneously.” No, you have to have a chorus and an orchestra; you need technicians, stagehands, a costumer, a stage designer – and that’s not even mentioning the soloists. Plus, opera “is traditionally performed in a theater with an orchestra pit, and not every community has one of those. You can put on a play with two characters in a store front. You can have a dance program in a loft, as long as it doesn’t have too many pillars. But opera is a formidable undertaking.

Therefore, the public must want it, for these companies to be born and to succeed. Scorca explains that opera is “a multimedia art form in a multimedia world.” It includes texts, visual images, drama, often dance – “and these components are very much part of our popular culture.” Opera

doesn’t ask you to sit and enjoy a purely auditory experience. It involves you in every way that other contemporary entertainments involve you. As people seek a classical-arts experience that is still based on the multimedia sensory experience they have enjoyed in the popular culture, opera is the classical art form they can respond to.

One boost to opera was the advent of titles – supertitles, seatback titles, those lines of words that help an audience member understand what’s happening onstage. Says Beverly Sills, “I worked very hard to bring titles into the opera. Jimmy said, ‘Over my dead body.’” (That would be James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera.) But titles came to the Met, to the satisfaction of almost everybody, and with Levine still breathing in the pit. Marc Scorca confirms that titles made for “a huge improvement in reaching out to new audiences.” Before, there was always a severe language barrier to overcome. Now people do not sit flummoxed (except by plots and other operatic strangeness). Some traditionalists maintain that titles break an important visual connection to the performer – and they are right – but most of us judge it a sacrifice worth making.


The reigning house in America, of course – and in the world – is the Met. It has no real rivals, as its (former)general manager, Joseph Volpe, points out (not boasting); it is a unique institution. There are other companies as renowned – La Scala in Milan, Convent Garden in London, the Staatsoper in Vienna – but no one company that does so much. Volpe notes that La Scala puts on seventy or eighty performances a season: “To be general manager there would be a semi-retirement job”! The Met has a full-time orchestra and a full-time chorus, and “it’s important that they work” – more or less continuously. In Vienna, “they’re known for putting on a production with no rehearsal at all, or just one rehearsal. They’re also known for having one leading cast member,” with the rest plucked from the company. “We are, and have been historically, noted for having top singers.” But, Volpe continues,

as the season expands, this becomes more and more difficult, particularly considering travel. A lot depends on the dollar. Our fees are lower than in the European houses. In Italy, they’ll pay $30,000 for a single performance. They’ll deny it, but it’s true. Our top fee is $15,000. So, what’s going to happen is, some singers will spend more time in Europe than in the United States.

Volpe cites Bryn Terfel, the beloved bass-baritone from Wales:

He has three children, and it’s easy for him to jump on a plane and fly to a city in Europe, sing, and go home. To come to the Met is a larger commitment. You end up here a long period of time. You can’t fly home to be back with the family, as you can in Europe. The days of great singes staying in America are over.

Like everyone else, the Met has taken a financial hit in the post-9/11 environment. Ticket sales and donations are down. But the institution is fundamentally sound. As Volpe observes, a house that survived the Great Depression can survive a lot. You just have to roll with events, and not panic.

A particular concern in recent days has been whether the famous Met radio broadcasts will continue. They began in 1931, and in 1940 came under the sponsorship of Texaco. In 2003, that company – now ChevronTexaco – announced that it would quit sponsoring the broadcasts. This was no small matter to the Met, because, as Volpe points out, radio is responsible for a good deal of its national and international reputation. Three million people listen to the broadcasts in the United States, and seven million listen in forty-one other countries. “That’s very important to the Met’s image.” It takes about $7 million a year to produce these radio broadcasts. At this writing, the Met has not secured permanent sponsorship, but Volpe and Beverly Sills – who is chairman of the Met’s board – are confident that they will. There is little reason to doubt them.

About the prospect of making records again, it’s hard to be as confident. The recording industry is now stagnant, as I have mentioned. Opera CDs coming out today, says Volpe, tend to be produced in Europe, “with orchestras that are paid a very small fee.” Unionized orchestras in the U.S. would have none of that. “What’s been happening in our country is that record companies have been saying for years and years and years. ‘We can’t afford to pay what the musicians demand, and we can’t make any money off of classical music.’ So business has dried up.” And, “frankly, how many Rosenkavaliers do you need?” (Back to the glut problem.) Continues Volpe, “The only way the Met will get back into recording is if we produce recordings live, without paying fees, and then have some kind of revenue sharing with our people.”

The general manager recounts a conversation with Renée Fleming, the celebrated soprano, who opened the 200304 Met season as Violetta. “Renée was unhappy because there was no television for her Traviata. I told her that we would broadcast on radio and that maybe, someday, there would be a recording of that.” In truth, “that’s the real McCoy,” the live broadcast, with no touching up, no corrective takes, “and I don’t think it’s so horrible” to present the company that way.

Volpe and the Met are often criticized for producing too few new operas – for being a mere “museum,” if not a “mausoleum.” The GM protests,

If you look at the last ten years, our track record with contemporary works is probably as good as any opera company’s. But understand something: Commissioned works are very, very expensive. We have to fund the commissioning and fund the production. If we can do one every three years, that would be a nice pace. What we can do depends on our financial situation.

Sure, in the good old days, the Met produced one new opera after another. But “do you know what?” asks Volpe. “Composers would come in off the street, shove a manuscript into your hand, and say, ‘Here’s an opera. Wanna put it on?’ They didn’t start with, ‘First give me $350,000, then …’ And remember, we rehearse what we perform: We don’t put things onstage unrehearsed.” Rehearsal, like time – being time – is money.

The Met seems permanent, unbudgeable, like the U.S. Capitol. Will it be forever? “I think it will be forever,” says the GM,

because there are so many people who love this art form. The question is, What does that mean? The Met in the form of today? Maybe not. Does it mean thirty-two weeks of performances a year? Maybe not. So the question is – I hate the word “evolve.” When I first started out, I hated that word. I said, “Don’t tell me about ‘evolve.’ You’ve got to be in charge and decide things, not just let them evolve!”

But Joe Volpe is more comfortable with that concept now, as one is often forced to become.

* Mr. Harth died in January 2004.

Tending the Gardens of Music, Part II

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 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.

Interpretation: A Case for a Broad Perspective

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author. It first appeared on Reichel Recommends: The Arts in Utah and Beyond.

How wonderful it would be to be able to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony exactly as it was heard at its premiere! Or would it?

Let’s picture it. It’s December 1808. You live in a tidy hamlet a few miles from the center of bustling Vienna. Though it has been a few years since you’ve gone to a symphony concert, you enjoy the music of leading composers like Hummel, Reicha, and Weber. The loudest sound you ever heard was thunder from that storm in the summer of 1806, but that doesn’t really count. Your biggest manmade bang was the local 18-piece military band that plays on the town green on holidays.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

You’ve heard about this rascal, Beethoven! How he’s terrorized Viennese society with his erratic behavior and avant garde music. You’ve thrown up your hands attempting to play through one of his piano trios, and as far as his string quartets are concerned – well, forget them because they are incomprehensible.

But you’re curious and want to keep an open mind, and even though it’s a frigid day you’ve decided to make the hour-long trip into the heart of Vienna to hear the premiere of his Fifth Symphony at the Theater-an-der-Wien. As you enter the city center, the noise level increases along with the urban energy. The commotion of horses and carriages, merchants, and shoppers, upsets the tranquility of your accustomed existence but adds to your growing excitement. You arrive at the concert hall where there is a continuous, low hum of anticipation among the throng.

You find your way through the cavernous, candlelit hall to your seat in the balcony. In the unheated building it’s not quite as cold here as down below in the orchestra section where the audience, which will stand through the entire concert, huddles together for warmth. While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.

By intermission you’re exhausted and have to go to the bathroom. You’re inclined to go home, but because going to the symphony is such a rare event and you’ve paid royally for a ticket you decide to see it through to the bitter end of the program, which after the Fifth Symphony will include two more movements from the Mass, an improvisation on piano by Beethoven, and finally his Choral Fantasy.

With stolid determination, after intermission you return to your seat. To your surprise you see not only the usual musicians on stage, you see three trombonists, and, is it really? Yes, a piccolo player! To your knowledge none of these instruments has ever been used in a symphony orchestra! What could the madman have up his sleeve? You think optimistically, these are the instruments you’ve heard in the village band. Maybe this new symphony will have the marches and beloved landler you enjoy so much. Maybe this symphony won’t be so bad, after all. You lean forward in your seat, anticipating a downbeat as pleasantly bucolic as the beginning of the Sixth Symphony you heard only two hours before.

Those first four notes!! You are thrown back against your seat. No symphony has ever started like this. The strings, all in unison, playing with driven intensity. It feels like the loudest noise you have ever heard. Not just in a concert hall. Anywhere. In your life. The intensity. The power. The maniacal repetition of those four notes. The four notes that will become the most famous in music history. And on and on it goes. At times the orchestra almost has to stop playing because the music is so radically different and difficult. As you will find out later, this is not really so surprising because the musicians had only one rehearsal.

Now, let us jump forward 200 years and compare our perception of classical music relative to the world around us now. Today, noise is our constant companion. Mechanical noise, industrial noise, crowd noise, workplace noise, iPods, YouTube, television, radio, you-name-it-noise. Noise from cars, buses, planes, trains, subways. Noise disguised as music surrounds us from elevators to supermarkets to sports stadiums in decibel levels corrosive to our hearing, tranquility, and mental well-being. Noise is non-stop.

And what has happened to concert music and musical instruments since Beethoven’s time? What is the single similarity in the evolution of every orchestral instrument from the piano to the violin to the flute to the trumpet? Answer: They have progressively become louder, with greater ability to project sound. (Many would say with a more beautiful sound as well.) Why? Because concert halls got progressively bigger in order to seat more people. And why were bigger concert halls necessary? Because composers, beginning well before Beethoven, wrote symphonies drawing upon more and more musicians and a greater variety of instruments. Berlioz wanted an orchestra of 400 musicians.  Mahler’s Eighth, “The Symphony of A Thousand.” And why did composers do that? Ah hah! Because that’s what listeners wanted to hear.

Let’s go back to our premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth and approach it from our 21st century perspective. Beethoven had an orchestra of 50 musicians, give or take. Their individual level of playing is somewhat spotty. Probably they sounded like a decent college orchestra. The horns and trumpets were valveless, meaning the ability to play all the notes of the scale were significantly limited and those chromatic notes that were attempted were difficult to play in tune and with full tone. The string players played on instruments that had significantly less power than instruments you hear today. (In a nutshell, virtually all string instruments that were made until the mid-19th century and are still in use have been substantially restructured in order to provide the projection and brilliance we are enamored of today. A new bass bar, a re-angled neck, a re-contoured and lengthened fingerboard and corresponding bridge, metal and/or synthetic strings constitute a few of these changes. Even the design of bows changed radically in the mid-1800s to be able to produce greater intensity of sound.) So in this regard alone, the shock and awe of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth would be reduced to milquetoast.

Now is a good time for me to rephrase the original question: Do we really want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was heard at its premiere? Do we want to listen to 50 unevenly trained musicians, give or take, playing for four hours on weak instruments that are hard to play, in an unheated concert hall conducted by a deaf man on one rehearsal?

Let’s take a look at the issue from another angle: performance practice. These days there are a group of wand’ring minstrels (usually conductors) who travel throughout the world cloaked in a banner on which they’ve emblazoned the words “Historically Informed.” They give performances purported to be authentic reenactments of music from the 18th and early 19th centuries. We’re supposed to pay reverent homage to these musicians for their painstaking research and to feel the didactic thrill of their cause.

First of all, any professional musician worth his salt is historically informed, and for a small group to claim exclusivity to common knowledge about performance practice conveys a public misperception at best and is an insult to the majority of performing musicians at worst. One reason I have trouble with this brand of music-making is that purveyors of H.I. performances tend to cherry pick from the available historical record, satisfying their own personal preferences while claiming to be the real deal.

Here’s one example. For decades there’s been a heated debate over whether or not string players should play music up through the time of Beethoven with vibrato (the rapid oscillation of the finger on a given note, which provides a unique luster to the tone).  There was even one H.I. conductor I worked with who went so far as to say that music by a composer as late to the table as Mendelssohn should be played without vibrato whatsoever. (Just think about the Mendelssohn violin concerto for a moment.  What is wrong with this picture?)

If scholarship on this tempest-in-a-teapot issue was ironclad, then maybe the H.I. crowd would have a point. But the fact is that every contemporary tome from the period in question that I’ve been able to lay my hands on says not only that vibrato was used in those bygone days, but should be used! In 1542, barely a moment after the violin’s umbilical chord had been cut from its viol ancestors, we have the first documentation of vibrato, strongly suggesting that the practice was already a prevalent component of technique. [Silvestro Ganassi, Regola rubertina (Venice 1542, 1543) pt. 1, ch. 2]  The use of vibrato for expressive goals is described by no less a virtuoso than the 18th century Italian violinist and scholar, Giuseppe Tartini, composer of the great “Devil’s Trill” Sonata [Traité des Agréments, 1771].

And here’s a quote from Francesco Geminiani’s The Art of Playing on the Violin, from 1751. Geminiani, by the way was, along with Tartini was one of the greatest violinists in Europe and a first-rate composer, and he was invited to perform personal recitals for King George with no less a figure than George Frederick Handel as his accompanist. This is what Geminiani had to say about the technique and nature of vibrato:

To perform it you must press the Finger strongly upon the String of the Instrument, and move the Wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the Sound by Degrees. Drawing the Bow nearer to the Bridge, and ending it very strong, it may express Majesty, Dignity, etc. But making it shorter, lower, and softer, it may denote Affliction, Fear, etc. And when it is made on short Notes, it only contributes to make their Sound more agreeable and for this Reason it should be made use of as often as possible.

You would think it would be hard to dispute this clear documentation of the importance of vibrato. Nevertheless, once upon a time I got into a debate – okay, it was an argument – with an H.I. conductor du jour about vibrato. He kept insisting that we play totally without vibrato (which, for many reasons too boring to go into here, makes our modernized instruments sound pretty lousy). When I said to this erstwhile maestro that I had read in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that it seemed clear our 18th century colleagues played with vibrato, he told me – disdain clearly evident – that I thoroughly misunderstood Geminiani’s meaning, and that I needed to read it in its original Italian. Feeling chastened, I went straight to the primary source, and with more amusement than outrage, discovered that Geminiani, having spent most of his life in merry old England, published The Art of Playing on the Violin in English.

Many H.I. sorts gleefully point to Leopold Mozart’s admonition against playing with too much vibrato, which he called a “tremble:”

There are some players who tremble at every note, as if they had a chronic fever.  One should use the tremolo (vibrato) only in those places where Nature herself would produce it. [A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, 1756]

Question: Who is Leopold Mozart? Primarily, he was the sperm donor of Wolfgang, and, if not for this lucky break would have been relegated to the backwater of music history. Leopold Mozart was a capable court musician in the (then) cultural boondocks of Salzburg, Austria. He wrote a good amount of inoffensive music and a well-pored-over method book on string playing. He is also famous for relentlessly badgering his genius son not to compose music that was complicated, emotional, or thought-provoking for fear it would alienate the hoity-toity aristocracy, thereby preventing Wolfgang from obtaining a full-time position, thereby preventing Leopold from receiving a comfortable retirement plan. And who out there, may I ask, can confidently locate “those places where Nature herself would produce” her tremble?

So first of all, whose opinion do you trust?  The internationally renowned Francesco Geminiani, or the provincial country bumpkin, Leopold Mozart? Second of all, what does Papa Leopold’s admonition really mean? If he says that you shouldn’t play with too much vibrato, then it would strongly suggest that… Yes, you guessed it! Musicians played with a lot of vibrato. Grumpy old Leopold didn’t like its popularity because “when I was a boy…”.

Sorry to go on ad nauseum about vibrato. Time to move on to a different thought. How many of you have traveled through a hilly country like England or Italy? Have you noticed the change in people’s spoken accent when you wend your way from one village to another? Hell, you go from Brooklyn to the Bronx and it’s like another language. Now, go back two or three hundred years, when the sole possible means of verbal communication was person-to-person and most people rarely left the confines of their natal valley. Just imagine how much that linguistic phenomenon would be magnified! Don’t forget, it wasn’t until Italy’s unification in 1870 that they started thinking about a national language.

My point is, do you really think that there was only one way to play music in that day and age? Do you really think no one (or everyone) played with vibrato? My guess is that the variety of techniques and interpretations was much more vibrant, colorful, and creative than it is now, when easy international travel and instantaneous mass media give us a thoroughly homogenized concept of what well-played music is “supposed” to sound like. So much for the orthodoxy of the Historically (Mis)Informed.

It may sound like I’m arguing for gut instinct over study and scholarship, for loud over soft, for anything goes over good taste. Far from it (though it must be said that some of our greatest artists succeeded admirably by relying on playing “from the heart”). I’ve learned immensely from studying original manuscripts and early editions of Vivaldi and Mozart, of Bach and Beethoven. I’ve read invaluable books about baroque and classical music performance style. I’ve talked to experts about which ornaments are appropriate to French baroque music and which are appropriate to German or Italian. I’ve worked with inspiring conductors, including period music specialists like Trevor Pinnock, who are not only scholars but also exhilarating musicians. The point is that, as it was for my colleagues of yesteryear, good musicianship boils down to that indefinable sense of what will move the audience. You, as a performer, decide what’s special and unique about the piece you are performing, and about every note that comprises it; not whether it conforms to a certain pre-determined (and not necessarily correct) template of what is stylistically “authentic.” Besides, since the only recording technology from bygone days is the printed page, no one today can claim with certainty what “authentic” sounds like. You study the score in as many ways possible, you consider its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts, you consider the implications of the piece’s structure, its harmonic logic, its contrapuntal and motivic invention. You make thousands of judgments to determine what you think is the most compelling way to perform a piece of music, and if you do that beautifully and it grabs enough listeners, you’ll have done your job.

Ultimately, here’s the real question: Do you want to experience what the audience heard at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth, or do you want to experience what they felt? I’ll take the latter any day.

To Orchestrate a Renaissance

Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor.* —VIRGIL

Perhaps our modern world is not so far gone as yet, but it is easy for us to imagine the painful longing in Petrarch’s heart as he stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday in 1341. Looking around him at the cultural desolation of a land and its people ravaged by war, famine, civil unrest, epidemic, and economic collapse, he was nevertheless so sure of his vision, so inspired by his love of something greater than his self or his time, that the words he spoke that day come down to us as the first manifesto of the glorious Renaissance:

Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task.

There in the ruins of an ancient Roman Empire, Petrarch accepted his crown of laurels – the first offered a poet in over twelve long centuries. The tradition was all but dead. The age was indeed dark. The slopes of Parnassus were dauntingly steep and deserted. But from somewhere beyond the shroud of gloom that enveloped him, the Muses called to Petrarch and he followed, inspired by the love and the sweet longing of one going home.

It is easy for us to imagine because our modern age seems to be dimming before our eyes. We are reminded at every turn that the world is a new and alienating place, unfit for the traditions that evoke some past and irrelevant golden age or a society we no longer recognize. We discard or neglect the Canon’s great works when it is easier to do so than to dig for the treasures hidden therein; what is difficult or laborious to understand is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility to the modern mind.  Like Petrarch we marvel that

This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….

We allow our great cultural institutions to fall into disrepair and disrepute because, as we strip them of their reverential traditions and their arduous canon, we also strip them of our reasons to cherish them. We call them before the tribunal of public opinion to justify their very existence, as if we can no longer see through the smog to the heights of Parnassus, lonelier than ever because we have forgotten that it is even there. We attempt to chain the Muses to the machinery of our modern malaise, as if we do not remember that they exist to show us the way to transcend that malaise, to find our way home again, by way of that steep and difficult climb, to the bosom of art and learning.

It is easy for us to imagine that someday our symphony halls will be ancient ruins and the source of a painful longing for those who remember the wasted Muses, or who sift through the rubble for what was lost. We can even hear the howls of those who proclaim that it should be so, and we mourn the actions of those who obviously believe it. Yet, there are many more of us who recognize Virgil’s description of a deep and ardent desire because it urges us, too, to persevere against all difficulties in the name of the symphony orchestra. This is the mission and the purpose of the Future Symphony Institute: to orchestrate a new renaissance for live classical music, to ensure that the dawn breaks on symphony halls that rise like polished temples in our midst rather than like ruins on abandoned hilltops.

To circumscribe this immense task, we created seven initiatives that describe and focus our efforts. The first two are of a philosophical nature. We must, firstly and perhaps most fundamentally, reframe the way we understand and communicate what is being overlooked because it is immeasurable and immaterial – namely, the principle value of the symphony orchestra to society. By doing so, we not only orient our institutions with respect to mighty Parnassus and the dawn of a new renaissance, but we also arm them with an answer for the cynical tribunals who mercilessly impugn their relevance and their mission. Our second initiative focuses on the critical role of the orchestra as an educator – not just musically and not just of children, but in the way that high culture has always been that which teaches us what it most profoundly means to be human. We must build the foundation for and design the structure of this meaningful role for the orchestra – so critical and inspiring in an age that is increasingly digital and impersonal.

Some of our goals will require extensive and scholarly research. This will certainly be the case for each of the following three initiatives. Most immediately, orchestras need a concrete system by which to understand and quantify their audiences – one that goes beyond the limits of their usual and failing marketing methods. They must learn to identify their patrons not as demographic statistics but as human beings driven by internal aspirations and motivations that do not necessarily correlate to physical characteristics. They must find the real reasons people come to love the symphony, why they feel the sweet longing that urges them to our concert halls. The field of psychographics presents us with a way to understand and measure these drives – a more meaningful way for orchestras to relate to and reach their audiences, both actual and potential. Secondly, with a proper psychographic system and the research that supports it, we can construct a bridge between casual attendance and eventual connoisseurship. Much energy today is wasted on efforts to bring the uninitiated into the audience – wasted because there is no effective plan to make the uninitiated into the convert. And this is far from the only case of mislaid efforts. We must take the time to thoroughly and critically evaluate the oft-repeated theories and measures that have neither adequately explained nor delivered orchestras from their troubles. Much of the dogma that assails our orchestral institutions – and informs their failing policies – has not been tested by scholarly research, and doing so is our next critical initiative.

Finally, if our first two initiatives are entirely theoretical, our last two are purely practical. To begin with, it is essential that we develop a new architecture for our symphony halls – specifically, one that emphasizes the relevance of the symphony orchestra to its community. The trend of late is to erect halls that, frankly, resemble something from another planet; and when we look upon them, we feel a predictable sense of estrangement – a hesitance to approach what we have difficulty recognizing as human. The new halls must remedy this error and present themselves as neighbors and friends, both outside and inside where the offering of hospitality must equal the expectations of today’s cultural consumer. But among the most challenging of our tasks is the initiative we list last here: the development of a blueprint for future union policies and relations. In today’s business climate it is becoming increasingly clear that unions must understand their stake and their opportunity in shaping change before it is forced upon them. Change is as enduring a feature of society as is our need for traditions that endure change – indeed, that transcend and transform it.

It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young. It is taken without question that the inevitability of change means and perhaps requires that we do not repeat the past, but any student of history or of its successive civilizations can prove for you otherwise. And so here we say, again, with Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance,

I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth.§

And over his shoulder we see our vision. We, too, are urged by a sweet longing that will not be deterred by the challenges or the times that face us. In our sights are the heights of Parnassus, and the dawn of a new renaissance. The fulfillment of both the youthful glory and the incandescent future of the symphony orchestra, the new renaissance is, like the one so long ago, the birth of a present more glorious than what came before it, but entirely dependent upon its rich and heroic past. And posterity will reap the bounteous and beautiful rewards.


* “But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus” (Georgics III, 291-292). Mount Parnassus, rising above Delphi in Greece, was the home of the Muses of Greek mythology, and in literary references it symbolizes the source of art, literature, and learning. It derives from the same root as the ancient Trojan word for a house.

From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.

Petrarch, in a letter to Lapo da Casiglionchio, 1355, translated in Richard M Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classical reading on what it means to be an educated human being, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.

§ From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.

The Mozart Effect

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of First Things, where it first appeared.

It can cure backache. And asthma. And obesity, writer’s block, alcoholism, schizophrenia, prejudice, heart disease, drug addiction, headaches, and AIDS. It makes bread rise better and improves the taste of beer. It can even make you smarter – so smart that in Florida it’s now the law that all child-care facilities receiving state aid include at least half an hour of it every day. The governors of both Tennessee and Georgia give newborns in their states examples of it along with cards reminding their parents of their tykes’ immunization needs. At a community college in New York, administrators have set aside a room in their library for it. Across the nation, professional educators pelt school boards with demands for its inclusion in the curriculum. An Indiana obstetrician even markets a device that administers it in utero.

What is this philosopher’s stone that can so dramatically change the world? It’s music. Or better, Mozart’s music, or so says Don Campbell in his best-selling The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit (Avon Books, 1997). In high demand as a speaker, Campbell addresses a different conference almost weekly, hop scotching across the nation from his base in Boulder, Colorado. Trademarking the name “Mozart Effect,” Campbell has even gone cable with infomercials for his book and its accompanying compact discs and cassettes. In the great tradition of P.T. Barnum and the “Veg-O-Matic,” Mozart has now hit the mainstream of American life.

The impetus for this remarkable turn of events was a modest letter by Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw, and Katherine Ky published under “scientific correspondence” in the October 14, 1993 issue of Nature. In their barely three-column report, these University of California at Irvine (UCI) researchers summarized the findings of an experiment conducted upon thirty-six UCI students. After ten minutes spent either listening to Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K488, to a “relaxation tape,” or simply sitting in silence, the students were given a paper folding and cutting test. (A piece of paper is folded over several times and then cut. You have to mentally unfold it and choose the right shape from five examples.) The students who listened to the Mozart sonata showed a 89 point increase in their IQ scores over their scores when they took the test after either a period of silence or listening to the relaxation tape. The bump in IQ was temporary, not lasting beyond the time required to sit through the experiment.

The researchers were testing the suspicion that there might be a kind of “music box” analogous to Chomsky’s famous yet-undiscovered “language box.” Might the symmetries and patterns characteristic of music be fundamentally connected to the symmetries and patterns researchers were tracking in brain waves? If so, might not music really be tapping into a structure inherent in the brain itself? And if this were true, ultimately might music be a kind of fundamental, or pre-linguistic – or even supra-linguistic – speech? The researchers tested Mozart’s music because they thought that if anyone was “tapping into this inherent structure for patterns,” it was Mozart. Who else was composing music so early and so well?

Although the researchers were professionally circumspect with their conclusions, the media that reported them were not. The story that “Mozart makes you smarter” made network news, and the wire services carried it to newspapers and magazines across the country. The Mozart Effect was born, and began its trek from the lab to the publishing house to the legislature.

Well, not born really. Reincarnated, let’s say. And it wasn’t so much a trek as a march along a well-worn path. The notion that music has properties and powers that can sharpen the mind and transform the soul is ancient. Such ideas formed the basis of Confucian civilization in China. In the West, they are attributed to Pythagoras and his followers and played a central role in Plato’s ideal state.

Greek intellectuals generally had little patience with the gods of mythology, preferring to view the world in more abstract ways. At an early date, they observed that the basic condition of their world was change (we grow old, rivers flow, winter becomes spring, etc.), and reasonably concluded that if so, the basic condition of divinity (or otherworldliness) would be the opposite of it – or changelessness. This changelessness they considered perfection. Such divine perfection they couldn’t see in the world around them, but they could observe it in the stars, in arithmetic, and in geometry. They credited Pythagoras with discovering that such divinity could also be encountered in music.

Pythagoras argued that music was divine because it was constructed of musical intervals that could be defined by mathematical ratios. Take a string and pluck it and you get a note. Divide it exactly in half, pluck it, and you get the same pitch an octave above it. Take that same string, divide it in thirds, hold down that string at a point two-thirds along its length, pluck the longer side, and you get a pitch a perfect fifth above the note you get plucking the whole string undampened. In a similar way each interval can be described by number. The octave by 2:1. The fifth by 3:2. The fourth by 4:3. The major second by 9:8. The major third by 81:64. And so on and so forth, every interval being described by an unchanging ratio. Because one, two, three, and four added together equal the Pythagorean perfect number ten, the intervals defined by these numbers are themselves also perfect (which is why we still refer to the octave, fourth, and fifth as the “perfect”).

The Pythagoreans believed that number was the core to the universe and that because numbers do not change they were of divine origin. Since musical intervals were an expression of number, they too were divine. But the Pythagoreans themselves had little or no use for real music – that is if by “music” we mean musical compositions, or actual musicians for that matter. At least according to Aristides Quintilianus, an early Pythagorean, listening to actual music just got in the way. Best just to stick to thinking about the ratios.

In spite of this warning, tales developed of music’s supernatural abilities. Orpheus charms Hades by his singing. Terpender of Methymna is credited with calming a revolt by his music. The mighty Alexander the Great is driven to murder – and remorse – by the playing of a servant. Even David’s soothing of Saul’s rages is probably rooted in a notion of music’s supernatural nature being able to restore equilibrium. But no one makes music more central to his thought than does Plato. In the Timeaus creation myth, he makes music the essential stuff of the cosmos. In The Republic, Plato develops it into the notion of the “doctrine of ethos.”

Plato’s purpose in writing The Republic is to describe the ideal state. Since an ideal state cannot be made up of un-ideal people, a good deal of his discussion concerns how to educate boys into the kind of men who would lead such a society. Briefly put, he thinks that this could best be accomplished by stressing two things in elementary education: gymnastics and music. The ways in which gymnastics would train the body are pretty clear; similarly, music was supposed to mold the spirit.

Plato held that music does not merely depict qualities and emotional states but embodies them (this is the “doctrine of ethos”). A performer singing about the rage of Achilles, for instance, would not only be depicting the emotional states of anger and violence and the personal qualities of Homer’s hero but would be experiencing those things himself. And not only the performer – so too would the listeners. Plato believed that music encodes ethical qualities already found in human conduct and that music feeds those qualities back into the soul of the performer and his listeners. Thus certain sorts of music would educate boys into living highly ethical lives while other sorts could educate them into baseness.

Plato forbids music in the Mixolydian and intense Lydian modes for his boys (they are “useless even for women if they are to be decent”) as well as the music in the Ionian and lax Lydian modes (which are “soft, lazy, and fit for drunkenness”). Boys should be allowed to hear music only in the Dorian and Phrygian modes. In this way they might imitate the actions of a brave man “defending himself against fortune steadily with endurance.”

Plato’s ideal state was never established in antiquity. But his musical ideas weren’t forgotten. In 1570, as France was being torn by the wars of religion, Charles IX’s Catholic intelligentsia prodded him into creating the Académie de Poésie et de Musique. In the lettres patents which created the academy, the king declared that “it is of great importance for the morals of the citizens of a town that the music current in the country should be kept under certain laws, all the more so because men conform themselves to music and regulate their behavior accordingly, so that whenever music is disordered, morals are also depraved, and whenever it is well ordered, men are well tutored.”

It was the king’s hope that proper music-making would restore order to his land, ending the bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant, or, if not ending it, at least making the Protestants take their humiliations a little more quietly. Here we have the “Mozart effect” roughly two hundred years before Mozart’s birth.

Problem is, it didn’t work. French Protestants and Catholics did not lay down their arms and embrace each other upon hearing the strain of fifes playing music in the Dorian mode. Plato’s educational theories – on this point at least – are sheer nonsense. Do we really believe that training in ballet (which is really the union of gymnastics and music that Plato is talking about) is the best preparation for politics? Should Winston Churchill have spent more time in a tutu? The idea that requiring boys to listen to music in a particular mode will make them act with courage is perhaps the stupidest notion a great mind has ever come up with. Play whatever music you like for them – boys will be boys. And Pythagoras was wrong. The perfect fifth is not the temporal manifestation of supra-cosmic divinity sent to illuminate the land with transcendence. Moses did not come down the mountain with a tuning fork (nor, for that matter, did Muhammad or Jesus or Joseph Smith).

And the “Mozart Effect” is no effect at all. Soon after the original Irvine project, researchers at the University of Auckland tried to replicate Rauscher’s results. They were unsuccessful, and concluded that listening to Mozart had no effect upon short-term IQ. Although Rauscher has replicated her original findings in a subsequent project, the conflicts between the studies have yet to be resolved. In any case, the parameters of the study weaken under scrutiny. Did the students really listen to the Mozart, or were they just in the room while the music was going on? Did the students who listened with care – in other words, listened to the music as it is supposed to be listened to (following the change of themes, the modulations, noting the surprise deceptive cadence near the close) – perform differently than those who just sat back and let the music wash over them?

The researchers seemed surprisingly unaware of the music itself. When they suggested parameters for further investigation, they hypothesized that “[music] which is repetitive may interfere with, rather than enhance, abstract reasoning.” Yet the movements of the sonata they selected are themselves highly repetitive. And the choice of work is regrettable, since the second movement is probably one of the silliest things Mozart ever wrote. The very best thing that could be said of their experiment – were it completely uncontested – would be that listening to bad Mozart enhances short-term IQ.

Prof. Rauscher has since joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, where she is now studying the effects of music upon rodents. While her and her colleagues’ findings remain controversial, these folks are insightful scientists and did not exaggerate their findings. Don Campbell knows no similar inhibitions. Using Rauscher’s research as his base, Campbell has legally laid claim to The Mozart Effect™ and launched a commercial enterprise independent of the scientists whose curiosity initiated the investigation.

The claims that Campbell makes for music are of an almost rococo flamboyance. And like the rococo, just about as substantive. The ailments that head this article are part of a list of nearly fifty problems Campbell suggests that music corrects. His evidence is usually anecdotal, and even this he misinterprets. Some things he gets completely wrong. For instance, Campbell cites Georgie Stehli’s famous cure from autism as an example of music’s therapeutic effects. But in her autism, music, and indeed almost all sound, was a source of tremendous pain to little Georgie, not comfort. Her therapy was successful because it desensitized her to sound.

And the whole structure of his argument collapses under simple common sense. If Mozart’s music were able to improve health, why was Mozart himself so frequently sick? If listening to Mozart’s music increases intelligence and encourages spirituality, why aren’t the world’s smartest and most spiritual people Mozart specialists? According to the argument in Campbell’s book, the world’s intellectual and spiritual center, populated with our civilization’s most generous and healthful beings, ought to be where Mozart is most revered, studied, and performed; in other words, some place like the Metropolitan Opera’s canteen during the intermission of Cosi fan tutte. It isn’t.

The world’s greatest orchestras have a good number of people in them who passionately hate each other. (The principal oboe and flute of one of our major orchestras so detested each other that no one remembered a time when they spoke.) And far from being healthy, orchestral musicians are beset by ailments. Carpal-tunnel syndrome, back problems, high blood pressure, exhaustion, diabetes, depression; look down from the balcony on the orchestra and you’re looking on a group of men and women poised on the brink of physical collapse.

Music academics are no better. The annual meeting of the American Musicological Society is full of displays of one-upmanship, conceit, and subtle and not-so-subtle public back-stabbing and professional murder. And our greatest musicians, the star virtuosi, are more than infrequently notorious for their cruelty, faithlessness, arrogance, selfishness, and stupidity. And in all of these areas, Mozart’s music only makes matters worse. His work is so technically demanding and his textures so lean that little less than a perfect performance will do. Almost any musician would prefer the gymnastics of Rachmaninoff to the delicacy of Mozart since with Mozart you always perform without a net.

In short, musicians – the ones who know Mozart best – are cantankerous, egotistical, selfish, stupid, cowardly, generous, even-tempered, compassionate, intelligent, humble, and kind in about the same proportion as Teamsters
– who, for the most part, hardly know any Mozart at all.

Music can do many things. A work song can coordinate physical labor. A march can keep an army in step. A bugle call can signal retreat and a melodic phrase can assist in the memorization of Torah. And art music, or that music which is intended to be primarily listened to for its aesthetic content, can be a powerful means for emotional self-reflection, self-illumination, and expression. But the one thing that music most certainly cannot do is overcome the will.

Music is not a drug that incapacitates the listener and produces a predictable result. A whole lifetime spent listening to Bach will not automatically make a woman love God. And – despite the warning of two generations of moralists – a lifetime listening to the Rolling Stones will not make a man fornicate. Particular kinds of music may express things that appeal to the listener, and the listener may select a particular kind of music because he finds that it resonates with his own pre-musical emotional condition, but the music itself can never cause the listener to act. Action is a function always of the will, and while music may prod, and it may suggest, it cannot force. We must indeed pay the piper, but we always choose the tune and decide whether or not to dance.

Poor Mozart. Where is he in all of this? Lost. Mozart’s magnificent dances, the terrifying thunder of Don Giovanni, the bliss of The Magic Flute, the harmonic intricacies of his symphonies, and the transcendence of the final works: the “Ave verum corpus,” La Clemenza di Tito, and the Requiem – all of this is lost in the rabble of Campbell’s traveling snake-oil show barker’s sales pitch. Mozart’s greatest music isn’t about being intelligent, or acquiring power. It’s about becoming a human being and living, as he signed his scores, in nomine Domini. That is what the Mozart effect is supposed to be.

The Concertgebouw Experience

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the author and International Arts Manager, in whose magazine this piece first appeared.

For a venue that is the epitome of quality and class – and famed as an elite institution for classical music – Concertgebouw is all about breaking down barriers.

It’s an ambitious paradox because when it comes to classical music, and the arts in general, the word “elite” is laden with negativity. Yet in a broader sense “elite” can also be representative of top-flight achievements, a resting place for the cream of the crop, a signifier of ambition.

Concertgebouw is an open book on this issue: yes, it is an elite institution when it comes to its world-class programs and splendor, but it has no intention of downplaying its history nor its raison d’etre. Instead, the institution aims to shun elitist doctrine in favor of ushering as many people into its hallowed halls as possible. Once there, regardless of free entry or a high-value ticket, the emphasis is on providing excellent customer experiences. To that end, attending a concert at Concertgebouw is a highfalutin democratic process.

Explains Director Simon Reinink, “Last season we took a year with the management team to think about the strategy: what we came up with was not an entirely new strategy, but one with a stronger emphasis. The title that we chose for this strategy is Sublime.”

“Our mission is to enrich and connect people with a sublime musical experience – that’s what we do. What this means is that it’s not only the music that should be sublime, but everything about Concertgebouw should be sublime.

“Sublime is now part of everything that we do: from the first contact with the website, which should function well and be very effective, to the way people greet you at the door, the approach of the people who serve you coffee, through to the concert itself and your departure from the concert hall.

“From the very first contact with Concertgebouw to the end, the whole experience should be wonderful. On a scale of one to 10, our customer visitor reviews average 8.5, which is fairly high. As part of this new strategy we said we should try for an average ranking of 9 out of 10. And so we try to measure every point of contact on the customer journey, from the first visit to the website, to the moment they leave the hall, and everything in between. If we can see what people think of us, we can be sublime in every single aspect of what we offer.”

Sublimity is embedded in Concertgebouw’s brand strategy, continues Reinink: “The most important thing, I think, is that as many people as possible love us. The more people that support us, the more sponsors we will find, the better the occupancy will be in the halls, and the better the sales will be at the counters. So we aim to be as lovable as possible.”

This approach is immediately obvious when you take a look at Concertgebouw’s content, materials, and offerings. There are dinners in the Mirror Hall, restaurant partners, free concerts, tours, and more. Accessibility is a primary focus: children aged three and over are welcome, there is a wealth of options for hearing- and sight-impaired visitors, and plenty of support for concertgoers with a range of mobility requirements.

“The challenge is to show the world that everyone is welcome at the Concertgebouw and to bring more people through the doors that haven’t visited before – but that would love to come irrespective of their backgrounds. I think at all times we should avoid thinking that we should change our artistic core to attract more audiences – eschewing, for instance, those fusion concerts and crossover concerts that seldom seem to work out well.

“The strategy is more evolution than revolution,” explains Reinink. “In the sense that you need to stick to your artistic calling. Naturally, you can change your programs by adding a little more pop, a little more jazz, a few more family or children’s concerts, but in the end Concertgebouw remains one of the best concert halls on the planet for presenting classical music. That’s what we do well. How this is presented may change per client, but we stick to our artistic core.”

This approach extends to Concertgebouw’s education offering for you people. Reinink is also a member of the advisory committee of the Nexus Institute – a kind of academic alternative to TEDx, promoting international debate on artistic, philosophical, and cultural themes and European values. To this end, he’s spoken passionately about providing pathways to classical music for schoolchildren.

“Since 2000 we have had an education and outreach program that reaches up to 30,000 children per annum – but there are more than 1.5 million primary schoolchildren in the Netherlands and we’ve been devising a strategy to reach those kids, too.’

As a result Concertgebouw is currently teaming up with various organizations in the country to share its experience and knowledge in order to stimulate music education across the country.


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