By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Anne Fishbein|
CLASSICAL MUSIC IS DEAD ONCE AGAIN, AND ITS CORPSE HAS never been livelier. The villains have been variously identified, and the saviors as well.
Audiences dwindle. One faction says the defection has to do with too much worn-out, familiar repertory. Elsewhere, the defection is blamed on an overdose of 12-tone, electronic, minimal, Stravinsky. Musicians, too, are on the wane -- or so we're told now and then. Illustrious string players, extolled for their Bach and Beethoven, defect to the ranks of Appalachian fiddlers. Distinguished performing organizations curtail their valuable services as audiences and, therefore, funds dwindle. The Los Angeles Opera, buoyed through the beneficence of zillionaire opera buff Alberto Vilar, has barely squeaked out of a deficit -- reported as close to $2.5 million -- bequeathed by the previous management. Typical recent casualty: The small but worthy Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra, obliged to cancel programs last spring, starts up again this season but with a drastically cut-back schedule.
Bad enough? Consider this: Police officials in Seattle recently devised a method for clearing public spaces of gatherings of undesirables (druggies, homeless, composers, etc.). They set up loudspeakers and play classicalmusic at high volume. The news item (NPR, August 14) didn't say whatmusic, although Beethoven was mentioned as a generic term for "classical." It did say that the areas cleared presto con moto. So there we go: classical music as surrogate for the fire hose.
Still, not so bad: Well beyond 10,000 listeners poured into the Hollywood Bowl the week I wrote these words, not for show tunes or Rachmaninoff, but for all-Beethoven. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, after a couple of lean years, reports a 15 percent rise in ticket sales last season over the season before. The reborn and fizzy Orange County Philharmonic Society, with its daring programs full of adventure, nevertheless ended its last season with that rare arts commodity, a six-figure surplus. While record companies here and abroad pull back their activities on behalf of classical music, a recent survey by the RAND Corp. turns up the news that opera, considered by many the most unapproachable of all classical arts, currently boasts the highest attendance gain of any entertainment category. Best of times, worst of times: Ol' Charles Dickens had it right.
Death and rebirth: It was ever so. On my desk is a recent screed from England's Daily Telegraph, wherein Norman Lebrecht, possibly music's most voluble proclaimer of gloom 'n' doom, celebrates his "Requiem for the Classical Record." That goes on the shelf next to the same author's Who Killed Classical Music? (1998), Tim Page's Pulitzer-winning The Way the Music Dies(1996), a sheaf of reviews from the premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps . . . all the way back to Onos Lyras ("When the ass hears the lyre"), an eloquent defense of music against its naysayers penned by one Marcus Terentius Varro sometime in the first century B.C. "The death of classical music," writes the pianist/scholar Charles Rosen, "is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition."
Is the death rattle louder this time? Maybe so; certainly the roster of destructive forces is longer and more fearsome.
The record biz: Once a seemingly indestructible archive of everything noble in our musical culture, the industry that proclaimed and preserved the art of Caruso, Heifetz, Toscanini and Lenny totters on the cusp of self-destruction. With deadly, biblical accuracy, the fat years have led to the lean years. When a prospective customer is faced with some 80 Beethoven Fifths -- including 10 by the same conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler -- it's easy to understand why he might retire in confusion. It's just as easy to understand why major retailers -- most famously Tower, with its 229 stores in 17 countries -- are currently beating a retreat from the full-catalog inventory on which their customers once relied. Major producers -- including the once-noble RCA (now BMG) of Caruso and Toscanini fame -- cut back their recording activities to next to nil. Tower -- with others sure to follow -- reduces its stock of the small independent labels that once made a visit to a record store a voyage of discovery. Blame some of this on the deadly competition from that amorphous monster known as the Internet, where some customers are transformed into armchair shoppers with access to the web of mail-order dot-coms, and others are lured, via Web browser and desktop CD-burner, into downloading mere abstract content, bypassing the traditional thrill of material possession.
The edifice complex: Music's managements project grand new temples to house their product but must distribute free tickets by the ream to paper the old temples it already owns. The prevailing marketing philosophy, since New York's Lincoln Center opened in 1962 -- followed two years later by the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the first component of the Los Angeles Music Center -- has been to sell music by the container rather than the content. The resulting paradox is that the grand new buildings, most of them too large, create a cold, unwelcoming atmosphere. The Music Center is a case in point: a glum spot, badly lit, with lousy, inadequate food places, and the absurd design that elevates the whole site above Grand Avenue and stifles any possibility of street life in the area. Walk along the Grand Avenue block that borders the Music Center, and you might as well be on Skid Row for all the cultural emanations you detect. The same sterility obtains at the fancy new performing-arts center in Costa Mesa, which has no sense of site at all, only buildings separated by grass. The same at UCLA, where Royce Hall is miles from any food except the overpriced pastry they sell inside and the nearby vending machines. All this stifles the joy in music-going, and also stifles the chance to drive to one place, park, eat (or even dine), then hear some music, and then hang out and schmooze afterward. (You want emanations? You want schmooze? Try Manhattan's Broadway alongside Lincoln Center and eat yer heart out.)
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