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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Classical music plays away

By Norman Lebrecht / September 19, 2002

Certain facts are mutually irreconcilable. Radio ratings indicate that, in 10 years since its inception, Classic FM has boosted its audience from four million to 6.8 million, some 400,000 of them teenaged or younger. Good news, surely, for those who long to believe that classical music is alive and humming, more popular than ever.

But hold the Pimm's a moment. Other summer surveys show that only one-in-eight adults ever attends classical concerts and four-outoffive schoolchildren cannot name a great composer. Go figure.

Statistics can, of course, prove almost anything and nothing at all, especially when tailored for public consumption by vested interests like the BBC Proms, an institution that rests on the enduring mass appeal of classical music. The Proms had a pretty good season, selling 250,000 tickets to 73 concerts. All would seem to be going rather well.

But for its Blue Planet Prom in the Park, the BBC felt obliged to engage the pop idol Will Young to persuade young viewers that classical music is not totally naff. Show me the rock festival that books Cecilia Bartoli as cheerleader and I'll begin to understand why one kind of music needs to steal from another in order to validate its right to a media existence.

The uncomfortable, underlying truth is that classical music is in freefall. It uses pop stars and wetlook fiddlers to catch the eye, but depends, in reality, on a thinning, ageing and increasingly agnostic constituency. The core is wearing thin.

You might expect me to say that. Six years ago, I was attacked as a prophet of classical doom when I warned, in a book called When the Music Stops, of a coming crash. My predictions were rapidly overfulfilled. The record industry replaced symphonies with lightly clad quartets; operas vanished from public television; orchestras, unable to sell seats, went begging or out of business. Tulsa, Oklahoma, lost its band last week; Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh are in deep deficit. Even the New York Philharmonic, America's oldest, is making nervous noises.

The Nineties were a nightmare decade. One big name after another died, starting with Karajan and Bernstein. The up-and-coming failed to fill the void, jet-lagged as many of them were by the pursuit of wealth and power on two continents. No pianist and violinist since Horowitz and Heifetz has attained true stardom. Bereft of personality in a celebrity-obsessed era, classical music lost its grip on the public mind. The latest US survey reveals that half the subscribers to 15 orchestras are over 65.

A new generation, its attention span shortened to a flicker and its hearing dulled by over-loud rock, lacked the patience to grasp symphonic structure and softness. The downgrading of arts education meant that most children had no means of being led towards the glories of Western civilisation.

Against this backdrop, Classic FM, along with its worldwide imitators, has contributed little of cultural significance. By playing classical hits in short bursts and mixing them with crossover and film music, Classic FM relegated good music to aural wallpaper. Its persistent exhortations to "Relax to Classic" are pervasively Philistine. Great music exists to stimulate the senses, challenge the mind and provoke selfcontemplation. Classic FM exists to numb the mind and induce a mood of self-satisfaction. It is not a prow head of classical progress, but a growing barnacle on the hull of a listing ship.

Nevertheless - and no credit to Classic FM - rumours of the death of classical music have been wildly exaggerated. In the paperback edition of When the Music Stops I asserted on the opening page that art forms do not die. They go into hibernation until a new period or part of the world uncovers their beauty and starts a revival. Now, amid the ruins of a haughty culture, it is slowly becoming possible to perceive the beginnings of a sustainable future for serious classical music.

The first stirrings are in the East. Around the rim of South Asia there is competition in the building of concert halls. First was Kuala Lumpur, next month Singapore, soon (I hear) Sri Lanka. Boom economies with young demographies, apparently, can't get enough of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

No need to reason why. Just accept that Western classical music has become an aspirational asset in many parts of Asia. Long established in Japan and Korea, it is now taking off in China, which, having banned the stuff during Mao's Cultural Revolution, is now importing it wholesale. The radio orchestra in Shanghai, I hear, has hired brass players from The Juilliard School in New York to beef up its sound.

British conductors find to their amazement a more knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience in Beijing than, say, in Bournemouth. There are reports of 30 new ensembles being formed in the Chinese capital alone.

This will yield little comfort to the classical-music industry, since few in China can afford big-label recordings, and most prefer to pirate them. They would, anyway, rather check on the progress of a home-reared Chinese violinist than turn out in black tie for Anne-Sophie Mutter.

It seems reasonable to predict that the classical audience will, over the next two decades, become increasingly Asian. In the US and Europe, orchestras will go under and concerts will become less frequent. That is no bad thing (except for underemployed musicians). Scarcity will breed intensity and make concerts more attractive to the questing young. Here, too, there is hope.

Faced with a totalitarian barrage of commercial mass culture, many teenagers are looking for individualised outlets for personal development. Classical music, with its great sweep and uncompromising logic, is a natural haven - almost a defiance against the world of instant gratifications. Classics have the potential to become cool, in an anti-cool kind of way.

Whether this potential coalition of Asian multitudes and US and European dissidents will sustain a viable economy cannot be foreseen. But it should provide the basis for long-term classical continuity - more than Classic FM, more than Will Young, and more than all the upturned ostriches who continue to proclaim in certain broadsheets that everything in the classical garden is blooming roses.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001