Classical Music is Dead - Long Live Classical Music!

By , Columnist
Every once in a while, someone in the music world finds it convenient to proclaim that classical music is dead or dying, provoking others to argue that it is more vibrant than ever.

It's a fun little debate to have; there's ample evidence for all possible sides, and a ready raft of arguments to be made and re-made, kind of like the question of whether there is a God. Plus, it satisfies two opposing yet basic human needs: the need to wax nostalgic for the good old days and decry the relative inferiority of the present, and the need to rebel against an entrenched establishment and advocate newness for its own sake. These two stances typically pit age against youth, but anyone old enough to see a favorite trend fall out of fashion has probably felt both ways at one time or another.

On more than one occasion, I have personally witnessed professionals who earn their full-time living in classical performance make the statement, "Live performance is dying. It's dying, I tell ya!" (Okay, I admit, I made up that second sentence.) I first heard this pronouncement several years ago, and last I checked, the person who uttered it still makes a full-time living in classical performance. Which just goes to show that this debate addresses that other universal human need: to complain about one's life, regardless of the circumstances.

Now, there's no denying that classical music, on the whole, is not a lucrative business.  And the pro-autopsy arguments lay bare the financial side, emphasizing declining ticket sales, the deterioration of the classical recording industry, and the shuttering of classical radio stations. There are other statistics to support a rosier view - but you know what they say about statistics

Two comparisons occur to me. Restaurants close all the time, but I haven't heard anyone declare the demise of dining out. When a movie flops, no one calls it curtains for the film industry. We musicians do have a flair for the dramatic, don't we?

For the most part, I've been able to take the whole debate with a grain of salt, but one recent salvo from this circular firing squad came close to breaking my heart. In what I personally feel was a stunning act of professional irresponsibility, a prominent arts executive claimed that that arts in general are in trouble because "there is simply not enough excellent art being created" now (the "good old days" argument writ large). As a musical colleague of mine responded, "BS, go out and hear something!"

My wish, futile as it is, is that the discussion of whether classical music is dying (which, like the God question, seems profound at first but is ultimately pretty pointless), would itself die a quick death. Classical music isn't dying; classical music is changing, in ways both good and bad. I would like to focus on what can be done - and what is being done - to improve the state of the profession, instead of indulging in drama and hyperbole, however cathartic that may be.

Because in spite of the gloomy economic picture, season after season, classical music groups large and small continue to mount performances - and as a frequent eyewitness, I can attest that we are awash in artistic excellence, contrary to what the classical-world equivalents of Statler and Waldorf will try to tell you. What's more, the classical landscape is more varied and diverse now than ever; in the words of one reviewer, "Dogma No More: Anything Goes."

I am lucky to live in a city - Boston - with a very active and bustling classical music scene, and my experience of it is best characterized by the phrase, "drinking from a fire hose." But exciting things are happening all over. I'll share a sampling of them in future columns (and I'll still barely scratch the surface), so stay tuned!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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