by Gary Graffman
What kind of a world are we sending our conservatory graduates into?
Recently I had the pleasure, for the second time, of addressing the American
Symphony Orchestra League at its annual conference. To prepare, I dug up my old
notes from the first occasion--back in June, 1981--and discovered that my
thoughts about the state of serious music performance in the United States,
particularly as it pertains to orchestras, are still pretty much the same. Among
other things, the imminent doom of classical music, predicted at that time, is
still being predicted.
My vantage point, however, has shifted: In 1981 I was--and had been for the
three previous decades--a full-time performer whose interest in orchestras was
largely based on how often I played with how many. But since 1986, when I took
over the directorship of the Curtis Institute of Music, my focus has been
centered rather on how to help the remarkable students in our all-scholarship
school to achieve their dream of being full-time performers. And since 108 of
our 160 students play orchestral instruments--and five more are conducting
students--it is clear that the continuing health of American orchestras is a
major concern for us.
It's well known that about half of The Philadelphia Orchestra is composed of
Curtis graduates. Twenty-five of them have entered that orchestra during the
sixteen years I've been director. And, of course, many more are now playing in
other orchestras: Among the musicians in the largest 25 orchestras in the U.S.
and Canada, 235 are Curtis-trained, with 75 holding principal chairs. Curtis
alumni occupy more than one-quarter of the principal desks at the New York
Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and
the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as, of course, The Philadelphia Orchestra,
where they have pretty much taken over these positions.
It is true that many of our students would prefer to be soloing in front of a
major orchestra rather than playing in it. But besides wind and brass players,
for whom an orchestral post is the usual goal, I believe today's string players,
too, are becoming ever more realistic in understanding their professional
options. Many are enthusiastic about playing in orchestras--especially since a
number of them now provide opportunities for members to play occasionally in
chamber ensembles as well.
It goes without saying that no small part of this enthusiasm is engendered by
the steady income offered by an orchestral post. For a Curtis student who has
been receiving financial assistance (in addition to the full-tuition
scholarship) throughout many school years, going directly into The Philadelphia
Orchestra is a bit like hitting a weekly jackpot--with benefits. Which brings me
to the subject of problems our orchestras now face. How long can they provide
these jackpots to musicians, considering the difficulties that confront them?
I'm reminded daily of these difficulties by the constant media barrage
describing gory details in every area of the classical music business. Disaster
is always just around the corner.
One advantage of having reached the age of pontification is that I actually
lived through experiences identical to those which are now considered unique to
our present philistine condition. As an example, I'll quote from an article that
appeared in The New York Times within the last couple of years. Headlined "BMG
Trims the Classics," the story indicated that the recording company intended to
"analyze the commercial strengths and weaknesses" of such performers as James
Galway, Evgeny Kissin, Evelyn Glennie, and the Canadian Brass, and if necessary,
terminate their recording contracts--which, in the cases of the latter two, they
Reading this article gave me an eerie sensation of déja vu: A similar purge
took place when I was under contract to BMG's predecessor, RCA Victor. I was one
of the artists scheduled to be purged, and at that time I was playing regularly
for Vladimir Horowitz, who was also with RCA (although, obviously, on a far more
exalted level). We spoke almost daily about almost every imaginable subject, and
so when I told him that my recording contract was about to be terminated, he
replied, "Yes, me too!" This was hard to believe, but Horowitz went on to
describe his Byzantine negotiations with RCA, during which he was told that his
contract would be renewed only if he agreed to record an album of popular music,
including a tango tune called "Jalousie." He told me that his wife, Wanda (the
daughter of another RCA recording artist, Arturo Toscanini), had grabbed the
phone and snarled at the RCA executive who was attempting to produce only
saleable merchandise, "Better you should open a whorehouse!"
This scandal, which at the time was widely claimed to mark "the death of
classical music," occurred in 1961--41 years ago.
It is true, of course, that society's enthusiasm for cultural activities
waxes and wanes during the course of any era. The pendulum swings back and
forth, and at present its swing certainly appears to veer away from those of us
who care deeply about the arts. But each time the swing goes in that direction,
we are told definitively that "classical music is dead." (I've been around long
enough to live through two or three of these round-trip swings.)
I believe, however, that at least part of the worry about declining audiences
for classical music has been caused by the unrealistic expectations of
administrators in the classical music field. Carried away by their success in
the recent past (when the pendulum was swinging the other way), many of them
have come to believe that their potential audience is limitless. As a result of
this insatiable hunger for expansion--ever more concerts in ever larger
auditoriums--musical activities have gradually been stretched far beyond the
demand. I think it's most important to keep in mind that the demand for this
kind of music is--and in my opinion, always will be--quite finite.
In any culture, at any time in history, interest in the
arts has been evinced by only a small minority of the population. It is neither
a necessity for physical survival nor an instinctively inspired human response.
In most cultures this interest has been an acquired taste. Certainly everyone,
both young and old, should have an opportunity to become educated in matters of
the arts and thus, perhaps, acquire this taste. Without doubt, education in arts
and aesthetics should be a compulsory component of any school curriculum, like
math or history. This is absolutely a given. And until our states mandate that
public schools offer such studies to all students (something that exists even in
many Third World countries), we will never realize our potential in this regard.
But I think we must also 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
I wonder whether a good part of the current concern about the alleged decline
of classical music audiences is not actually a short-sighted view, like
obsessing over a "correction" in the stock market. How many of today's
management types actually remember what the music business was really like in
the so-called Good Old Days? I think that if things were put into perspective,
they would realize that we're now really way ahead.
When I started out as a performer in the late 1940s, the number of American
orchestras that played--and, therefore, were paid--for 52 weeks a year was
nonexistent, and the salary of an orchestra player was not a living wage. And
since there were far fewer concerts than there are now, opportunities for
soloists were a fraction of what they are today. There were only two major
concert managements, with a total of about 40 pianists between them, for
example. Well, last year's Musical America directory listed 624 pianists. So
maybe we should be worrying more about glut than decline.
In the 1950s, New York had only one large concert hall and--believe me,
because I was there--very few performances were anywhere near sold out. Yes,
Horowitz and Heifetz and Rubinstein performances were full. But for the
performances of most artists now considered legendary--such as Piatigorsky,
Milstein, and Rudolf Serkin--even though readily available student coupons
entitled anyone, not just students, to attend for practically nothing, still the
hall was not full.
I remember often sitting in a half-empty Carnegie Hall to hear New York
Philharmonic concerts conducted by Bruno Walter, Artur Rodzinski, and Dmitri
Mitropoulos. In those years (when the orchestra's administrative staff consisted
of about three executives and a couple of assistants and secretaries), nobody
expected the world to beat a path to Carnegie Hall. Marketing experts were
unheard of in the concert world, and the norm was a half-empty (or half-full)
Today, marketing experts have invaded our concert halls, and hype often
prevails. The administrative machinery of a major symphony orchestra resembles
that of a huge international corporation (or perhaps even the government of a
medium-sized monarchy!), and most of the marketing techniques employed for the
Selling of the Symphony have absolutely nothing to do with the symphony being
sold--that is, with presenting the finest music played in the most skillful
manner for an audience that wishes to listen.
An audience that wishes to listen. Perhaps that is the key.
In the mid-1960s, when the arts pendulum began to swing wildly once again
toward the joys of culture and large auditoriums were being built to accommodate
anticipated hordes of symphony-goers, the Ford Foundation gave enormous sums of
money to orchestras throughout the country. Actually, the gifts were matching
grants that were quickly matched. Great news, one would think. Not so, according
to a friend of mine, then the conductor of a highly respected mid-level
orchestra. "Mark my words," he said. "Now our troubles are about to begin!"
That sounded strange to me. After all, his orchestra would be lengthening its
season and increasing its subscription concerts from pairs to triples. How could
this be bad? "Simple," he explained. "At the moment we have just the right
number of concerts to accommodate our audience. Our pairs are well attended, and
most subscribers renew every year. But I think that if we go to triples and
extend the season, which we'll certainly be expected to do with these additional
funds, we'll still have the same number of attendees, but there won't be enough
demand for all of those extra available seats." So the obvious procedure would
be to promote the extra concerts in a way that would attract a brand-new
audience; as we'd say nowadays, to broaden the base of support. "But," said my
friend, "there just aren't that many more people in this city who want to hear
the kind of music we play."
The result was as he predicted: The orchestra's management began campaigns to
entice non-symphony-goers with artificial gimmicks, adding pops concerts and
potboilers on normal symphony programs, thus lowering the standards for
everyone. The new audience didn't care to hear serious music, even when
sandwiched between Broadway show tunes, and the regular audience was infuriated
at the cheapening of the programs they had enjoyed. Eventually, the conductor
quit; and the orchestra began a downhill slide from which it never fully
I think the reason for our perception of declining audiences is simply greed:
It's not that fewer people are interested in classical music nowadays; it's that
we have still not learned to accept the fact that this kind of music will never
appeal to audiences of the size we are now trying so desperately to attract--of
the sizes we must attract in order to pay for the expenses incurred by all the
efforts to attract those larger audiences who had no interest in going to
symphony concerts in the first place. To quote the immortal words of the
legendary impresario Sol Hurok, "If the people don't want to come, nothing will
As a performer myself, as well as someone who is responsible for helping to
pave a path for future performers, nothing would please me more than to see
concert opportunities galore and sold-out series blanketing the earth. I would
also like to see created, by all varieties of educational means, the largest
possible audience for classical music. But I would not want to see this happen
at the expense of maintaining the highest standards of artistic integrity.
And by the way, I don't agree with the complaint we so often hear, "Audiences
are getting older. See all those gray heads out there? What will we do when
they're no longer around?" The answer, I think, is that we'll replace them with
the next generation of gray heads. Concert audiences have always been composed
mostly of older folks. It stands to reason that by the time people have the
means and the time to attend concerts, their heads are gray. I'm reminded of a
famous chamber music series that flourished in New York during the 1950s called
The New Friends of Music. You could tell when you were at one of those concerts
just by observing the audience: Generally quite elderly, they looked terribly
intense, spoke German, and often carried scores. They were devoted to Schubert
and Central European performers and thus were nicknamed by us youngsters (a
definite minority in that audience) The Old Friends of Schnabel. Well, one would
assume that a half-century later these gray-haired music lovers would have long
since departed for their eternal heavenly quartet concert. But when I visit the
Marlboro Festival each summer, I swear--I swear--the auditorium is packed with
identical Old Friends of Schnabel, right down to the intensity, the miniature
scores, and the Central European accents.
The More Things Change...
During the last couple of years, while the
century was busy turning, I have often been asked--speaking of
pontificating!--to give my ideas about the changes we should expect to see and
hear in the music world during the new millennium. How are we preparing our
students for the brave new technological future, now that the symphony concert
as we know it is fast becoming passé ?
The only prediction I feel safe in making is that, just as a minority of
people today continue to be moved by Shakespeare, so will a minority of people
in the future continue to be moved by Beethoven. And so, as we need
Shakespearean actors today, I trust we'll need Beethoven players in the future.
And if there's anything to be learned about the future from studying the past,
then I can report that, in spite of what were considered revolutionary
technological advances at the time, nothing that classical musicians do has
changed all that dramatically since the 1940s, except that nowadays there's
more--perhaps too much!--of everything.
Musicians, as far as I can see, remain the same, even in the 21st century.
It's fascinating for me to watch our new students, some in their very early
teens, being turned loose for the first time on a symphony by Mahler or Sibelius
or Shostakovich--or Dvorák or Brahms or Haydn or Beethoven, for that matter.
They love all of it, in exactly the same way I loved listening to that same
music when I was their age, almost sixty years ago.
It is not my intention to make light of the difficulties facing many of our
orchestras today. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions. But I can only
say that I feel strongly that "dumbing down" is not the way to go. One of my
real worries is that, in the relentless quest for ways to expand and find new
audiences, our orchestras will, instead, succeed in driving away their true
We absolutely must face the fact that a symphony orchestra was never meant to
be all things to all people. As the Cleveland Orchestra's executive director,
Tom Morris, has written, "Identifying priorities is an essential prerequisite to
dealing with issues of change. You have to decide, 'What is it that you
represent? What do you believe? What's your point of view?' In the case of the
Cleveland Orchestra, we have a solid and identifiable artistic point of
view--our repertoire is based on the music of Schubert, Mozart, and
Beethoven--and everything flows from that." Other orchestras and conductors
follow other artistic points of view, and this is precisely what's essential, it
seems to me.
The last word goes right back to Shakespeare: "To thine own self be true."
The mission of an orchestra, I believe, is simply to present the best possible
music, performed in the best possible way, for the people who want to listen. I
believe that those of us who are involved with, or care about, the performance
of great music must approach life with the conviction that as long as such music
exists, there will always be people--albeit a minority--who will want to hear
it. Our job, then, is to continue that tradition without compromise.
An internationally renowned concert pianist, Gary Graffman is president of
The Curtis Institute of Music. This article is adapted from his remarks to
artistic administrators during the 57th National Conference of the American
Symphony Orchestra League in June, 2002.