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Looking on the Dark Side 

Wednesday, Jul 5 2006
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Please Send No Flowers

Old Sourpuss has been heard from again. “A large chunk of masonry fell off the music industry last week . . .” announced the London-based critic, observer, editor (of a book of mine, even) and all-around gadfly Norman Lebrecht in his Montreal-based La Scena Musicale, “. . . another step towards cultural oblivion.” The “chunk,” as Mr. Lebrecht saw it, was the closing down of classical operations at Warner Classic Recordings; his statement was followed within the week by stern denials. The classics, stated Warner executives in a rebuttal in Playbill Arts, “will remain a key part of the Warner music family.” Warner Classics, it turns out, is being incorporated into Rhino, which has actually managed the label in the U.S. for nearly three years. “We remain committed to classical music,” says a company statement, “and look forward to continuing to pioneer new ways to bring our content to consumers” et cetera, et cetera.

There are two sources of summer-reading diversion you can derive from all this. The one is the news that Mr. Lebrecht is alive, well and moving onward. There is nothing in the tone of his article to surprise his constant readers. His book Who Killed Classical Music? bears the publication date of 1997; both it and classical music are still going strong. Just before the start of this year, he greeted the oncoming Mozart anniversary with a piece titled “Too Much Mozart Makes You Sick,” which advanced the fear that the Salzburg darling would be so overperformed in 2006 that the truly important anniversary — the Shostakovich 100th — would be totally overlooked. “Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century,” he fulminated. “Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony. Listen to music that matters.” Beyond that last sickening suggestion, Mr. Lebrecht’s fears have so far gone unrealized; Mozart and Shostakovich have each, by midyear, received a fair share of adulation.

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There is another, more serious misapprehension in Mr. Lebrecht’s observations that just may have eluded him — the assumption that these record producers, whose demise he has come to equate with the collapse of classical music, matter anymore. Last March, when the L.A. Philharmonic made programming history with the “Minimalist Jukebox” programs, which opened new horizons, brought in new, young audiences, and redefined the excitement level possible at a symphonic concert in a large hall, some of these events were recorded for iTunes and, within days, made available on home computers. This was a pioneering venture by the Philharmonic, but only by minutes; the New York Philharmonic was experimenting with the same techniques, with less exciting programs (Mozart, Mr. Lebrecht). The sound quality at home could be superb; even an old duffer like me can twist a couple of cables and run sound from my computer into my stereo.

This old duffer, by the way, has lived through a lot of technology. I worked at a record store in Berkeley when LPs came along. We sold a dinky little player with a metal needle and for every three we sold we had to take back two and the sound was shrill and scratchy, but within a year there were good machines and the London “ffrr” discs, and collections of 78-rpm records were showing up in junk shops. When the CDs arrived, there was a scientist at Caltech who ran demonstrations on the superiority of analog to digital reproduction (as long as you had $50,000 to spend on equipment), but you don’t hear from him anymore.

My friend Adam Crane is the Philharmonic’s director of public relations and communications, and he is one of those people — I am not — who lives in music the way a goldfish lives in water. His goldfish bowl is his iPod, and he fills it constantly from iTunes on the Internet. Wherever he goes — any room in his apartment, his office, his car — he is never far from a port where he can plug in that iPod. I have wall upon wall of CDs; Adam has the same thing in his shirt pocket. Most amazing (so far) is that he has told me that the children of Esa-Pekka Salonen, oldest 14, cannot understand the purpose of Tower Records. They have no conception of a disc.

Right now the market is, let’s say, minimal. The Philharmonic will continue to record its concerts for iTunes — at least four next season — but will also produce discs. (One, the orchestra’s first recordings in Disney — Mussorgsky, Bartók and of course The Rite of Spring— will be out on DG in September.) So will the New York Philharmonic, and rumors abound of other orchestras — Chicago, for one — trying to climb onto one Internet service or another. Problems of copyright clearance and union players will remain. One interesting ramification: If you download a concert from iTunes into your iPod, you can purchase the whole shebang or only selected tracks. In the case of the Beethoven Fifth/Lutoslawski Fourth concert, Adam tells me, the statistics divided evenly among people who bought only the Beethoven, only the Lutoslawski, or the whole concert.

Those faint glimmers can make it look as if the dark demise that Norman Lebrecht has been concocting for classical music is still some distance into the glowing future. The folks at iTunes tell us that the proportion of classical downloaders has now risen to a remarkable 12 percent: four times the best figure compact discs ever attained. I ran into Philharmonic president Deborah Borda in the hallway at Disney. I wondered whether this new technology would someday make coming to concerts at concert halls a waste of time.

“Just the opposite,” she beamed. “You come to Disney, you go home and buy what you’ve just heard. It’ll enhance the concert experience. Not dying . . . thriving!”?

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