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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

After a decade on the cultural front line, it's time to say goodbye

By Norman Lebrecht / March 7, 2002

Norman Lebrecht bids a fond farewell to The Daily Telegraph. His weekly column will continue at La Scena Musicale Online

THIS is the time of year when I fly to Florida to refresh my cultural perspectives. Call it a reality check. The sunshine state is full of blessings. The weather is mild, the sea sparkles, the dates are fresh off the palm and everything in my hotel garden is coming up roses. Just don't go looking for culture.

The Florida Philharmonic is a basket case. Last winter, its British music director, James Judd, renounced his $300,000 (214,000) salary to resolve a wage strike. This year, Judd was ousted and Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto has been replaced with Rachmaninov's Second, so as not to strain anyone's brain.

One night, Miami's last remaining classical music station put on a rousing recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - then switched wordlessly to hard rock, having been sold for hard cash. It is a measure of how far we have advanced into a new century that old cultures can be discarded without a peep of protest.

The millennial momentum is too ferocious for many art forms to keep pace. When I began writing this column in January 1993, one could still buy spare ribbons for a typewriter, and only weirdos in wire specs used electronic mail. Since then, communications have been transfigured, yet the so-called "lively" arts still cling to the same format.

My first column warned of an impending wipe-out of live performance from terrestrial television. That quickly came to pass. Soon after, I likened the state of serious arts to that in the Weimar Republic, a culture that "danced on the edge of the volcano". Many forms have since fallen into the molten maw.

The recording industry, arbiter of high performance, has all but fled the field of play. An irony-free report last week from the British Phonographic Industry claimed a six per cent rise in classical sales. One glance at the charts showed just what this meant. The top ten consisted of chill-out albums, Russell Watson's beer-club beltings and the Gladiator movie score. Not an opera or symphony in sight.

Real classical output has dropped by 90 per cent. Household-name labels have disappeared. Great orchestras seldom see the inside of a studio. The LSO thrillingly won two Grammies last week for its self-issued recording of The Trojans by Berlioz, but it struggles to penetrate corporate distribution monopolies.

The state of play is no healthier on stage, where theatre, ballet and opera companies are shackled by convention and fear. As loyal audiences grow old, the forms lose relevance.

Public support for these costly enterprises has been fatally compromised. My first battle on this page was to save two London orchestras from an Arts Council tribunal headed by a hanging judge, Lord Hoffmann. The authorities, in those distant days, claimed powers of life and death over art. When the judge commmuted the sentence to hard labour, his verdict brought down the entire apparatus of Keynesian interventionism and left the funding mechanism floundering.

Governments, here and across Europe, began demanding payback for their tax buck. The arts were ordered to become a tool of social policy. The need to renew London's South Bank and invest in new media was shelved while policy was painstakingly formulated for a reality that was changing by the minute.

Dancing out of step with the music is always good for a laugh in a Frederick Ashton ballet, but the reality can be painful when exposed in cold print. Over the years, I have been threatened with lawsuits by vested arts interests and, by a long-gone BBC arts boss, with an airtime ban. Only this Sunday, The New York Times devoted the front of its arts section to attacking my analysis of the role arts played - or significantly failed to play - in responding to the September 11 catastrophe. The Jurassic Times, a protectorate for cultural dinosaurs, has often been left gasping by the pace of progress signalled in this conservative British daily.

Time, however, stands still for no man. After nine and a quarter hectic years, this columnist is off to become assistant editor of London's Evening Standard, with a brief to reconfigure its cultural coverage. Contrary to some of what you have read here, it has never been my belief that art is in decline. Several parts may be dying of sclerosis, but that is only half the story.

We used to call the dying bits "museum culture" - but just look at museums now. You can queue for hours to get into Tate Modern or the Guggenheim in Bilbao thanks to the contemporary art wave, a revival that has brought corollary benefits to national galleries and traditional arts. Old and new cultures are learning to co-exist. The fusion between them is prolific.

I have never felt more excited about the artistic future - at least for those arts that can open their eyes and master change while time remains.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001