by Henry Fogel
Unanswered Questions: Confronting their past will help orchestras reshape their future.
About a year ago, an article appeared in these pages by the eminent pianist
and pedagogue Gary Graffman, who directs the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Under the title "Dead Again," he made an argument with which I agree, to a great
extent: that reports of the death of classical music have been greatly
In pursuit of this thesis--and tempering his optimism with a healthy dose of
realism--Graffman wrote that the economic growth of orchestras in the 1960s and
'70s forced them to expand their audiences beyond the core of pure, committed,
educated music lovers. This development, he continued, led orchestras toward
excessive marketing that cheapened their value and raised false expectations
that their art might appeal to everyone, or at least to masses of people. "We
must," wrote Graffman, "bear in mind that not every person, no matter how well
educated, will necessarily end up being interested in what is known as
'classical music.' Nobody is trying to get me to attend a wrestling match; so
why should I try to make someone who prefers wrestling to Beethoven attend a
It is hard to argue with the view that we have no justification for enforcing
what we think of as good taste on other people. But given that most of the
people who would say that they would prefer a wrestling match, a football game,
or even a night at the theater have not actually experienced the impact of
classical music in concert, can we really be so complacent? How is it that such
people feel able to make a comparison and to reach the conclusion that they'd
just as soon skip the classical evening? The fact is, we have managed to paint a
picture that makes people think they know what the experience of going to a
symphony concert is like--and they know that they won't like it. What they are
reacting to is not Beethoven. It is to the image of classical music that society
has painted--and the music world has provided the brushes for that paint job!
It is true that the economic structure of symphony orchestras changed in the
1960s. For one thing, we began to pay our musicians as the true professionals
they are. For the first time, it became possible for a musician in a major
American orchestra to support a family comfortably, without recourse to
additional jobs. The economics that permit such compensation depend on an
expansion of audiences beyond that which filled (or did not fill) concert halls
for much more limited performance schedules in the 1940s and '50s.
There are those who would argue that this is a bad thing, that we've
artificially inflated our concert halls with people who don't really care about
classical music, and then diluted or "dumbed down" the art form in order to keep
them coming. The usual extension of this argument is that, since most of our
schools have stopped teaching music seriously over the past 25 years, we'll have
to "dumb down" the presentation further if we are going to keep building
audiences in the future. (Not that the music appreciation courses were ever that
good; my wife recalls her sixth-grade music appreciation teacher claiming that
Rimsky and Korsakov was a composing team!) I would argue, on the other hand,
that exposing more people to this art--people who may not even know what it
could mean to them--is a good thing, not only for the art, but for people too.
Probably, in fact, even better than wrestling.
Here's a true story that illustrates my point. In 1986, not long after I
began managing the Chicago Symphony, a tour truck carrying our instruments from
Arizona to Texas turned over in the small town of Junction, Texas. Our
stagehands and I determined that we should supervise the delicate moving of the
instruments from the turned-over truck to a new one, so we chartered a private
plane to take us from Austin to Junction. Our pilot was straight out of Central
Casting--a silver-haired, tall, lean Texan. (In fact, he had been Lyndon
Johnson's private pilot in that former president's later years.) By the time we
took off in his plane, the story of the truck had made national news; he knew
all about it and began talking with us.
This gentleman told me that he had never been to a symphony concert, and
thought it was probably too stuffy for him. Besides, he added, he didn't know
enough about music to "understand" it. I told him that if we were able to get
our instruments together to play our concert that night in Austin, I'd like him
to be our guest. He accepted, hesitantly--and thus, somewhere around the age of
60, had his first experience of a symphony orchestra: Georg Solti, the CSO, and
Mahler's Fifth Symphony. He came backstage afterwards, almost beside himself
with excitement and emotion, and told me he'd had no idea that music could do
what this concert did to him. He had always thought of symphony concerts as
stuffy and boring. This man, who discovered orchestral music in his sixth
decade, became a subscriber to the Austin Symphony.
Rate of Response
I refuse to believe that by sheer coincidence, I
happened to find the only person in America who had been put off by the
trappings surrounding what we call "classical music" and had kept away from
it--but once exposed, found that he loved it. If there is one, there are many
more. I accept that the music we devote our lives to will never appeal to the
whole population. But--to invent some numbers just for the sake of simplifying a
point--if the percentage of the population who enjoyed and actively responded to
our music were six percent instead of three percent, or 30 percent instead of 15
percent--or whatever the actual percentages are--just think of the impact on the
health of the field, and of the art itself.
I don't make this point merely for the self-serving reason that a greater
audience would provide more money so we could all be paid at a higher level.
No--that's a nice side effect, but in fact it isn't the core. The core is this:
Those of us who work with classical music--whether we compose it, perform it, or
try to create the conditions that permit its presentation--truly believe that
this music represents the possibility of being a life-changing experience for
those with whom we share it. We truly believe that this art can, in fact, do
something for people that wrestling cannot. I'm not naïve enough to believe that
great music will make all people behave nobly; we've had some pretty nasty
people who composed and/or performed great music. But this art form can and does
have the possibility of creating a greater understanding across human
boundaries, a greater connection between peoples.
Just look at Daniel Barenboim's East-Western Divan. For four years now he's
put together an orchestra composed half of Arabs and Palestinians and half of
Israeli Jews--working and making music together and forming friendships. If you
need proof of the civilizing and humanizing impact that is--to at least some
degree--inherent in this art, there it is. That is why all of us involved in
music must be proselytizers for it. Not everyone will respond, but there is no
question in my mind that we have, particularly in America, surrounded our music
with trappings that have made it more difficult for novices to discover the
music itself, and what it can mean for them.
"Gee, I'd like to go to a concert some time, but I don't really know enough
to enjoy it." I've heard a variant of that thousands of times, and no other art
form is likely to generate such talk. People don't say that about plays, films,
books, or paintings. But we have used classical music in America to separate
people "in the know" from those who are not, providing the first group with a
sense of smug superiority. We've done it by printing jargon-filled program notes
that no layman could understand. We've surrounded our art with pretension. We've
treated people who applaud between movements as lepers, as if they don't know
enough to be allowed in our concert halls--which is fascinating, since
historically they are right and those who "shush" them are wrong! Only last year
I saw a concert where audience members who applauded after the first movement of
Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade were angrily chastised by a scowl and a
wagging finger from the conductor. Those who clapped were publicly humiliated. I
wonder how many times they'll pay for that privilege again?
The point I am trying to make is simple. While
it is true that not everyone, or even a majority of our population, will find
classical music appealing, there are, I believe, many people for whom it could
have real meaning. The only problem is, they don't know it. There are two
- Those who have been in charge of classical music for most of the
20th century have engaged in practices that distanced the music from people,
practices that created real and perceived barriers; and
- Our society is marginalizing it more and more.
inevitable result of A is B. Last summer my wife and I took a cruise, and some
of the entertainers were musicians who either sang or played a variety of music,
sometimes including operatic arias or piano pieces by Chopin or Liszt. Almost
every single time one of them performed something "classical" they apologized
for it ("We hope you won't mind now if we do something classical. Don't worry,
it's not too long!"). Anyone who thinks that is not a meaningful symbol of what
has happened to the art of which we are the custodians is missing a very clear
If you accept that that pilot in Texas is also a symbol--of a potential
audience that we have somehow frightened away and that could embrace our music
if its trappings would permit it--then he actually represents good news.
Unrealized potential is always good news--it means that there is something into
which we can tap. I'll agree classical music is an acquired taste, like
microbrewed beer or sushi, and that not everyone will acquire it. However, we
should not be putting up roadblocks to acquiring that taste by convincing people
that they're too dumb to understand what we do.
I would pose these questions for all of us to consider: Has our way of
presenting concerts become repetitious, stale, and predictable? If so, how can
it be changed without dumbing down the art? If it is true that there are more
concerts today, doesn't it follow that the format of presentation needs variety?
There are those who suggest that any change is dumbing down, but I don't believe
it. Why should performers so rarely speak to the audience? Why should most
mainstream concerts be played in an outdated costume that is in use in virtually
no other modern setting? Why should music critics demean people who love
tuneful, approachable works like Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Tchaikovsky's
Romeo and Juliet? Why should 25-year-old assistant conductors be called
"Maestro," a distancing word if ever there was one? Why should program notes
speak a private language, intelligible only to the already initiated?
I am 61 years old, and spent my childhood in the era when very few homes had
television sets. In those days, watching a TV program was a family occasion that
took place only a few times a week. People under the age of 45 or so, on the
other hand, grew up in homes where the television was a constant fact of life;
it shaped their childhood and therefore their tastes. Over time, I believe this
will be recognized as a hugely significant change in the way society perceives
things--and we need to think seriously now about what it may mean for how we
present our music.
The obvious retort is to charge me with wanting to have big video screens
showing close-ups of soloist and conductor at concerts, or to add laser lighting
effects to zip up the concert experience. That isn't what I mean at all.
Actually, I don't exactly know what I mean; that's the problem. I'm smart enough
to know the question, but not the answer! But I do know that we need to assemble
our best minds and give these issues serious attention. Perhaps we need to talk
with people from other art forms--theatre, opera, art museums--to see if, with
them, we can find some truly creative, inspirational, artistically based ideas
to bring into our concert halls. Our job, whether as musicians or
administrators, is to clear away any real or perceived barrier between the
listener (and potential listener) and the art we serve.
I haven't even begun to address the issue of diversity, by which I mean the
makeup of our American orchestras set against the population makeup of our major
urban areas. I realize there is no intentional discrimination now. But there
was, openly and actively, until about 40 years ago. Orchestras integrated later
than baseball, and later than the Metropolitan Opera (Marian Anderson's debut
was in 1955--hardly ancient history). Until about 40 years ago, most American
orchestras told African-American musicians something like, "sorry, but we don't
take coloreds." That's right--we were that direct. As we look into reasons for
why few African-American and Latino musicians choose classical music as a
career, perhaps we need to look at the fact that we blatantly excluded the
parents and grandparents of the current young generation of music students. We
need to be open and honest about our past, and much more proactive about
creating welcoming and diverse workplaces--workplaces that actually look like
the cities in which we are seeking support.
We also are not going to survive in the current world if our symphony
orchestras are seen as battlegrounds. The relationship between musicians and
managements in our orchestras must improve, and must be seen as something at
least reasonably healthy and functional. Better still, it should be
healthy and functional.
The music that we present truly is a universal language. It speaks to a huge
range of humanity, and says things to those people that words cannot say. What
we have to do is enable that musical communication to take place--by removing
whatever barriers stand in the way of people's hearing and accepting the music,
and then presenting it in emotionally communicative performances that hit the
listener in the gut. If we do that, we all have a healthy future to look forward
to. And so does our art form.
Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League,
headed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association from 1985 to 2003. This
article was developed from his recent remarks to graduates of the Curtis
Institute of Music and to students of the Aspen Music Festival and School.