Saturday, January 13, 2007

Are symphonies doomed?

I've noted here that some folks in the classical-music world think that the ongoing struggles of a lot of professional symphonies and opera companies are solveable, perhaps by looking harder at the field's conventional wisdom, but it's worth noting at least one expert in the field who thinks otherwise. Former Wall Street Journal music critic Greg Sandow, himself a trained singer and composer who is married to a New York Times critic, thinks that "reasonably soon, the era of classical music will be over."

After a reader responded by noting the outstanding online sales results for classical pieces, Sandow replied that sales of recordings can't support the costs of producing the music. For me that reveals some shortsightedness in his thinking, but anyway some readers more knowledgeable than I posted some interesting thoughtful responses on that blog linked above. I learned of Sandow's writing from the Artful Manager, which I can't recommend highly enough to anyone with an interest in today's arts world.

Meanwhile I came across a couple of fun news items about innovation and creativity in the world of opera. The Metropolitan Opera in New York is doing some cool stuff like a free live simulcast of its opening night outdoors at the Lincoln Center. And in San Diego there are now several restaurants regularly holding opera open-mic nights which I'm guessing could be either fun or dreadful for patrons on any given night...but regardless it also seems like a good sign of grass-roots vitality for the art form.


Bonita said...

I think symphonies have a future, but, they have to do more marketing out in the boonies. I personally live in the boonies of a university town. People here will turn out for classical music concerts but the venues that will support a full symphony are very limited. Smaller symphonies willing to travel to towns like ours are welcome--smaller quartets and sextets from the nearby larger towns are a better size for our venues and are great advertisements for the larger symphonies. Remember that for some of us, going to the symphony includes major drive time, taking time off work, and perhaps restaurant and hotels bills as well. But listening to a CD alone in a room, just does not equal the joy of packing up the van with friends and going to a concert and spending the weekend in the city with good friends.

Paul Botts said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Your last two sentences in particular seem to me to hit the key points dead-on, even for folks who live closer to a big-city symphony than you do. If correct then that's a mix of challenge and opportunity for symphonies and perhaps for some other specific disciplines as well (opera, jazz, dance, etc.).

What makes it particularly difficult for symphonies is that more than any of those others the core repertoire of the art form is written for performance by the full huge ensemble of artists. To provide even close to the audience experience that Beethoven or Tchaikovsky intended really does require 80 skilled musicians with all the overhead that implies. Not that staging a Verdi opera properly is cheap of course but it does scale down a bit better for traveling performance in a highlights version -- but you're either playing Beethoven's Ninth full-out or not at all.

But that takes us back to the marketing. The arguments that the there is no large _potential_ audience for live classical anymore simply don't fit the available facts. Meanwhile middle-class Americans demonstrably do travel to the city once in a while for the top-caliber arts experience whether from far suburbs or small towns, and they provably will pay in time and money for truly unique direct life experiences. Symphonies which move past thinking that simply doing high art _entitles_ them to an audience can take advantage of those facts to their great benefit.