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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 exaggerated.

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 symphony concert?"

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?

Untapped Potential
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 primary reasons:

  • 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.

The 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 signal.

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.