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A Sad Symphony With a Happy Ending

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 classical music at high volume. The news item (NPR, August 14) didn't say what music, 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.)  

Bloat: Our concert halls and opera houses are too big, compared to the European counterparts they pretend to copy, and compared to the dimensions of the best music they are meant to house. Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed, in Prague's largest theater, to a capacity audience of 750. The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, like comparable houses in San Francisco and New York, seats over 3,000. Slickly confident that if they build it we will come, management tells us little about the new kinds of music, or the new performance values, that will inundate the new halls with the sense of their own century -- not merely the cultural values of bygone centuries superficially modernized. Will there be new music for new audiences in the new halls -- in the Music Center's Walt Disney Concert Hall now beginning to gleam in the afternoon sun, in the other new one a-building in Costa Mesa, in the soon-to-be-gutted-and-rebuilt Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center? And will that new music be, as it deserves to be, newly defined? No news is bad news.

The failure of the media: Between the magnificence of our musical culture past and present, and the outside world that might seek admission to its mysteries, a vast information gap looms. Two radio stations pretend to serve the classical-music "needs" (their word, not mine) of this area: one listener- and tax-supported, the other commercial. Both are alike in the narrowness of their definition of audience tastes; both recoil from the notion of broadcasting music of less than mass appeal: no modern dissonance, no arcane medieval motets (or anything else vocal aside from a single paltry serving of opera once a week), a no-brain kibble in which masterpieces are often boiled down to single movements and Boccherini outpoints Boulez. One of the two stations, at least, generously supports local cultural activities with preview programs and informational talks. The other ignores its community, rejects the idea of arousing interest in, say, the Philharmonic's weekly programs with free spot announcements and previews, and, indeed, originates much of its programming at out-of-town affiliate stations as far distant as Denver and Boise. You might think that the first of these would be KUSC, the local public-radio station, and the second would be KMZT, the citadel of crass commercialism. Actually, it's just the opposite.

On the labor front: It can't be the shortage of good performing talent that leaves time and space on our stages for the likes of David Helfgott, Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church; something in the panorama of performance-arts audience passions is drawn to the physical or psychological anomaly that these misguided practitioners embody, and so tickets get sold. But the situation among orchestras in the past few years, especially on the East Coast, points up an even more anomalous situation: the inability of the most prestigious, famous and high-paying orchestras to attract and hold on to the conductors they and their audiences deserve. The New York Philharmonic has made the most ludicrous choice in hiring the 70-plus, aloof, only moderately musically interesting Lorin Maazel as the latest accessor to the podium of Mahler, Toscanini, Walter and Boulez. The Philadelphia, badly in need of a little flamboyance in the successor to the solid, stolid Wolfgang Sawallisch, chose instead the solid, stolid Christoph Eschenbach. And Boston, where Seiji Ozawa has overstayed his welcome by 25 years minimum, appears headed to settle for a fraction of James Levine's corporate loyalty while he also remains at the Metropolitan Opera and the Munich Philharmonic. One promising new conductor -- an American, for God's sake -- came over from Paris (where he is an authentic culture hero), made a series of debuts with East Coast orchestras, was seen and was lavishly praised: the exceptionally smart, charming and imaginative David Robertson. He deserved any one (if not all three) of those podiums, but he returned to Paris empty-handed. Out here, Esa-Pekka Salonen comes on strong, and so does Michael Tilson Thomas. It's getting so I have a waiting list for my guest sofa, as do my friends in San Francisco, for East Coast refugees starved for the sound of a symphony orchestra under exciting and musically honorable leadership.  

* * *

Music is designed to express feelings. These are the sole subject of its communication, the only inner reality it deals with. And the difference between one state of feeling and another, as expressed in music, is largely a matter of shape -- shape of melody and shape of larger form . . .

--Virgil Thomson, 1961

The product: The wisdom holds, in the calm of Beethoven's pastoral countryside, in the exuberance of a rapper's romance with the power of words. "Feelings," "communication": Thus far, at least, the performing arts are alike.

There is no definition of "classical" music that comes from within the music itself. The term is confusing. It can refer to music from a specific period -- the "classical" era in which a revival of fascination with the designs of classic architecture permeated the other arts as well -- or, more generally, to music become "classic" through familiarity, meant to be heard politely by a silent audience conditioned to applaud only in the right places. It is music written down by its composer, and therefore meant to be performed within its given outlines every time, give or take the enterprise of a specific performer. It is music that is marketed by being surrounded in a cloud of mystery. Descriptions of it are meant to be read with heavy emphasis on its foreign terms, preferably with an affected tone. Practitioners include radio's Karl Haas with his prissy overpronunciations, Mona Golabek (currently into your headphones on American Airlines widebodies) with her honeyed purr that wraps TLC around artsy blather, and -- remember? -- the immortal Milton J. Cross, master of the singsong rhetorical plush at the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in their gaseous heyday. Being performed in expensive, overlarge halls perpetuates the inscrutable aura that keeps the helots at bay and welds believers into a secret fellowship.

It is the one art, above all, that involves the outside world as participants in its very existence. It involves the performer, who contributes a level of virtuosity (of intellect, of fingers, of the throat) as an overlay to the work itself. And it involves the rest of us, the listeners, and it sets the ground rules of that involvement. You can walk past a painting, or take in the architectural details of a building, at any speed you choose. You can't do that with music -- not with classical music, anyway. More important, it involves us -- at least to the extent of the indulgence we are willing to volunteer -- in its process.

It's that process, the composer's stipulations on the placement of landmarks along the predetermined time frame of a piece, that sets classical music apart from -- you'll notice that I didn't say "above" -- the other kinds of music with which our universe throbs. Classical music -- a Bach fugue, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, a Pierre Boulez electronic escapade suspended in both time and space -- takes up time, in carefully measured segments. The components within that time frame seem to move -- toward us, away from us, perhaps both -- in a sequence of statement, contrast, tension, relaxation. A three-minute fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier states its subject, plays it off against itself in counterpoint that increases in complexity, and resolves the process comfortably and with high imagination. Some of the same process occurs in the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" at four times the duration: a mysterious buzzing, a solo horn call as if from a distant planet, a new tune as beautiful as human mind has ever fashioned, an alternation of these contrasting elements, a resolution. Our reaction along the way -- the interplay of tension, surprise, delight, release, more tension, more release -- represents our participation in the process. There are different landmarks in the progress from death to resurrection over the 90 minutes of Mahler's Second Symphony, and in the passage from void to cataclysm over the 17-plus hours of Wagner's Ring. We may bristle at the abrasive interplay in a contemporary masterwork like Pierre Boulez's Répons (see box), but we still can't avoid the wonder of its communicative process, and we know after its 42-minute expanse that we've been somewhere, and have returned.  

The process, the interaction of hearer and creator, remains the same, Bach to Boulez and beyond. What makes this kind of music "classical" is that the interplay of substance and structure has usually been laid out in advance. The great jazz people make their music new every time, and that, too, is wonderful.

* * *

Who listens? The public concert space where ticket buyers assemble to hear music performed is a fairly recent arrival: 220 years, more or less, out of the millennium or so of music we think of as accessible. Before, say, 1780, there were the patrons, the duke or prince with a music room for invited guests, a cathedral to support a choirmaster and in Italy first, and spreading northward -- the opera theater with its flocks of prima donnas of all genders and its flocks of aficionados likewise. By Beethoven's time -- 1825, say -- the new leisure class demanded larger halls and larger orchestras making louder noises in longer symphonies. For the next century and more, a community's prestige was defined by its musical amenities. In the Boston of my youth, almost everybody knew at least two things: where the Red Sox stood in the league, and what the Boston Symphony was performing that week. (They also knew that the concerts were invariably sold out.) Even if you didn't have a ticket to a live concert, you knew to anchor your weekly plans around the Met's opera broadcasts on Saturday and the New York Philharmonic's on Sunday.

Then came movies, then television, the LP, the CD, the Walkman, MP3, then everything else in the way of agreeably distracting alternatives to the notion of sitting well-dressed in a formal concert hall respectfully absorbing the message from onstage. The gray generations that filled Boston's Symphony Hall in its golden days -- and bustled out in anger at the first strains of Stravinsky or Shostakovich -- gave way to the newcomers who pegged their musical territory to embrace Dylan along with Mahler, Machaut alongside the Stones, and who found the proscenium arch an unseemly barrier between them and us. (Some of the best news about Walt Disney Hall, by the way, is the in-the-round plan for the performance space.)

However splendid the musical offering, the fact remains that the public concert is an exercise in artificiality. A pianist performing Bach's "Goldberg" Variations on the Music Center stage -- to a full house of 3,000, if it's Murray Perahia -- is still caught up in music meant for a single harpsichordist playing for an audience of one. A gritty new orchestral piece spatchcocked between the overture and the romantic concerto on a symphony night is taking up space in a room designed for music of a far different time and place. It is, of course, good that these things happen. Murray Perahia deserves his sold-out houses, and the new composer deserves the chance to fight his way toward recognition for his originality, or to flop in full view for his banality.

Our concert halls are too large for the expectation of ticket sales, and too large for the shape of the music even in a sold-out house. (More of the good news about Walt Disney Hall is that there are roughly 1,000 fewer seats than at the Pavilion. But that's still larger than most of the best European halls.) Since it's a given that no major musical event breaks even from box-office receipts, even at the disgraceful $148 top for some of last season's threadbare L.A. Opera offerings, it makes no sense to belabor the equation that seat sales equal profits. The one local exception, of course, is the Philharmonic's Hollywood Bowl, whose nearly 18,000 seats serve as cash cow for the orchestra's indoor activities. Nobody suggests, of course, that the concert format at the Bowl could also serve as the way things might run in Disney; you have to admit, however, that even on a slow night in Cahuenga Pass, with the expanse of empty seats big enough to accommodate the Indy 500, the 5,000 who do show up could drive an indoor-concert manager green with envy.

* * *

Music matters: Classical music's major encumbrance is its reputation as highbrow and inaccessible. The evidence is all around, just in its language: andante con moto, rondo capriccioso. The older audience uses this erudition as a shield against nonbelievers. The younger audience, when it gains access to the sanctum, is viewed with alarm. Its members are not always well-trained, by the standards of their elders; they applaud in the wrong places, and even cheer. The elders scowl as the opera houses install screens to project translations of opera texts, crippling the out-of-reach reputation of what Samuel Johnson once referred to as "an exotic and irrational entertainment." Yet the installation of supertitles, even at the Met, where they were opposed the longest, has brought on a huge boost in opera-going and, more to the point, opera-understanding. In the aforementioned RAND report on the state of the performing arts (theater, dance, opera, classical, other), opera was the only category that showed an income upswing over the past several years.  

The highbrow thing is on the wane. If the last century began as a time of defiance and invention -- Schoenberg, Stravinsky, those guys -- our present and our future seem engulfed in a new wave of synthesis. Classical composition at its most abstruse crested about 1980, in the gnarled working-out of complex puzzle making as propounded by Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. Even as this style seems to have subsided in favor of the born-again tonality of John Adams and Philip Glass, I detect some of that old-timey complexity still hanging on, not among the latest graduates of Princeton and CalArts, but in the advanced workmanship of some of the newer rockers -- Radiohead, Sonic Youth, back to the well-nigh unplayable patterns of Frank Zappa. On this side of the bridge, the best music by a so-called "serious" (useless term!) composer I've heard in recent months is the Passion According to St. Mark by the Argentine/American/Jewish Osvaldo Golijov, in which one of the archetypal musical forms -- the Passion oratorio of Bach and before -- is merged into a wildly exuberant Latino street celebration. Classical? Pop? Highbrow? Lowbrow? All of the above?

John Seabrook came up with a pretty good answer in his latest book's title, Nobrow. Seabrook, a leading light among New Yorker staffers, is thus in a position to witness the process he so rightly names from close-up, as his own publication retreats from its famous nose-in-the-air stance and becomes more relevant in the process. But "nobrow" as practiced at The New Yorker isn't the same as the dumbing-down that also afflicts the classical scene, the evil wrought by those who would speed the transition from high- to no- at an unseemly rate. Exhibit A, the lurid marketing circus called The Three Tenors, is followed close on by the blatant falsification of the classical life in movies like Shine, and in the exploitation, bordering on cruelty, of such sideshow creatures as Shine's David Helfgott and the pretty-voiced but hopelessly adrift Andrea Bocelli. The dumbing-down process even spawns its own literature, tomes with names like Who's Afraid of Classical Music and It Isn't As Bad As It Sounds offering assurance to the tone-deaf-by-choice among us that their number is legion.



Photo by Anne Fishbein


Music will survive as long as people want to listen to it. There are ways that this can be made to happen, and they all come under the heading of Making Music Matter, also known as Making People Care. The Philharmonic's Stravinsky Festival last February triumphantly demonstrated the process. For a full month, awareness of Stravinsky's achievements and importance were deeply impressed on the local consciousness. Museums and universities participated. Banners flew. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, video footage of Stravinsky unfurled before each concert, almost as though the old boy himself were there to welcome us. It helped, of course, that Esa-Pekka Salonen wields a strong baton on Stravinsky's behalf. Major critics from New York and overseas knew enough to come by for these events, and they now do so regularly. The term "cultural desert," once regarded as synonymous with Los Angeles music, seems to have vanished from the vocabulary. Local newspaper criticism is no longer the trapeze act of virtuoso negativism it once was, and I don't need to name names.

Down in Orange County, territory once looked upon by highbrow Angelenos as dumdum land, the O.C. Philharmonic Society's "Eclectic Orange" Festival, about to start its third run, has proved itself hugely adventurous and, thus, hugely successful. You may have squirmed a bit at the Philip Glass Fifth Symphony last year, but it took bravery beyond the call to bring the work in soon after its headline-making premiere. (The Golijov Passion, by the way, is on next season's agenda.) The operative word in both instances is, of course, "festival." It's anybody's guess whether the magic will rub off on another of our local heroes, Arnold Schoenberg, whose music is being "festivalized" by both the Philharmonic and the Opera this season. If it doesn't happen, it won't be for lack of trying.  

The corpse, in other words, continues to twitch.

On the Cover

Located a few short steps off Cahuenga Boulevard and remarkably soundproofed from the whir of traffic is the elegant oasis known as Robert Cauer Violins. (See "Ten Who Care.") Clients are greeted in a Victorian-furnished waiting area, and the adjoining rooms are lined with neatly ordered stringed instruments. The few privileged enough to see the guts of this operation enter an extensive back area in which the needs of restoration and repair sprawl into several specialized rooms. It is here that Cauer and his staff coax impossible tangles of twisted strings and wood like the one pictured on the cover back to musical life.

--Anne Fishbein

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