Classical Music: Not Dead Yet

Stories warning of the imminent doom of classical music are common. They cite flagging record sales and aging audiences. But there's an alternate view of a genre that has been transformed and kept afloat by a loyal following of music lovers.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Most obituaries are written only once. But stories about the death of classical music have been circulating for decades. The industry might be struggling, but the picture is not as bleak as some would have you think.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair examines the state of classical music.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: There's good news, bad news and old news. First the old news. There's a lot of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: Old news would also include those empty seats in concert halls. And people who still insist you not clap between movements.

HENRY FOGEL: It's just nonsense.

BLAIR: Henry Fogel is the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. He says most people don't realize that holding applause between movements is a 20th century convention.

FOGEL: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mahler expected applause after movements of their pieces. And it was the absolute norm until the 20th century. Suddenly, there became a kind of attitude of one group of people showing the less knowledgeable, well, I know that this piece isn't over yet.

BLAIR: So maybe if those old attitudes adjusted, more people would find the concert experience and classical music more inviting. At the same time, there is healthy support for classical music. That's one of the findings of a recent 10-year study by the Knight Foundation. But the study also spotted some problems with orchestra delivery systems and their efforts to increase ticket sales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: The classical music landscape is changing in the recording industry, in radio and repertoire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: The good news for orchestras is that most of them have finally gotten rid of their deficit but not necessarily because more people are buying tickets. The Knight Foundation report found that some outreach programs, like free concerts, don't turn people into regular ticket buyers.

Reliable data on the classical music audience is hard to come by. It's believed the average age is around 54. That doesn't bother Henry Fogel, but he does think orchestras need to adapt to an audience raised on T.V.

FOGEL: We are now seeing the first generation of people who grew up with a different expectation of some kind of visual stimulation and also, perhaps, with an impact on attention spans. Orchestras have to think about the issue of an art form that, in its presentation, basically hasn't changed for over 100 years.

BLAIR: One thing that has changed is the way classical listeners are getting recorded music.

KLAUS HEYMANN: Online, on iTunes, classical music is selling better than in the physical market because people cannot find what they're looking for in the shops.

BLAIR: Klaus Heymann is the founder of the independent label, Naxos. He says downloading represents about 18 percent of his company's sales. That number is likely to go up now that Tower Records has closed. Naxos is considered by many to be a pioneering force in an otherwise risk-adverse industry. The label churns out high quality recordings at budget prices. Heymann thinks his company's success is largely due to the fact that it's privately owned.

HEYMANN: That means we don't have to make a profit every quarter and we can do a lot of experiments other people cannot do.

BLAIR: Like releasing a six-CD box set of the national anthems of every country in the world performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. One of the most recent additions: the anthem from post-Saddam Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF IRAQ'S NATIONAL ANTHEM)

BLAIR: The box set might not be flying off the shelves, but Naxos did recoup its investments by licensing the recordings to the Olympics. Naxos makes a lot of its money through licensing to T.V. shows like "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos."

These days, you're less likely to come across classical music on the radio and that worries Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, which recently studied the radio market.

DANA GIOIA: In the commercial field, the number of stations has really shrunk substantially in that you have a lot of large cities now that do not have a commercial classical music station and that for public radio, the position of classical music has really retreated a lot in the last ten years. It's a smaller share of the overall programming.

BLAIR: Gioia acknowledges that satellite radio is partly filling the gap, but he thinks good old-fashioned radio was a dependable way for people to discover classical music. Those classical stations that do exist probably play a recording of old Viennese favorites by violinist Robert McDuffie.

ROBERT MCDUFFIE: The way the format is now in classical commercial radio at least, they love these three and four minute ditties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: From where McDuffie sits, classical music is flourishing. He's starting a strings conservatory at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. McDuffie makes a very good living by touring and recording and playing the U.S. national anthem at major sporting events. And he doesn't shy away from the work of living composers like Philip Glass's Violin Concerto.

MCDUFFIE: It really does something to all audiences. You can be playing in front of an audience of a big five orchestra or out in Tulsa, Oklahoma and you have the same reaction. They just go crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: Twenty-first century music can sell concert halls, at least in Los Angeles. Deborah Borda, head of the L.A. Philharmonic, says they've been able to do it with unconventional programming like Glenn Branca's "Hallucination City" for 100 electric guitars. And Borda is convinced other orchestras can do the same.

DEBORAH BORDA: There's a hunger, there's an interest in what is contemporary, of what is our time, of what resonates within, you know, the heads, the hearts and minds of somebody who is going to live more of their life in this century rather than the last.

BLAIR: There's another way music becomes more important to people: through hands-on experience. The Knight Foundation report found that exposure isn't enough. There is growing evidence, the report says, that people who play an instrument or sing in a choir will turn into ticket buyers later in life.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.