Currents

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 ultimately did.

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.

Acquired Taste
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 symphony concert?

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) hall.

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 recovered.

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 stop them!"

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 music lovers.

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.