May 17, 2010

Mulling over the future of classical music

What’s going on in the classical music field — and what shape it could take in the future — is a common topic around Slover Linett. But a recent visit from classical music guru Greg Sandow inspired lots more talk than usual, and we’re eager to keep those discussions going (see invitation at end of post).

We were lucky enough to welcome Greg Sandow to Chicago recently for a talk he gave on the “Rebirth of Classical Music” at the Chicago Cultural Center (co-hosted by Slover Linett, the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs). It was a really active, thoughtful discussion, spurred by Greg’s remarkable expertise in the field and kept lively by questions and comments from the audience of classical music professionals. In fact, most of us had no interest in stopping the discussion after the allotted 90 minutes, which gave me an idea that I’ll pose at the end of the post.

But first, I’d like to share a couple of the thoughts and questions that have been tumbling around my brain since the talk. This is in no way an attempt to summarize Greg’s own points.  (Check out this article from the Trib for an overview of his thinking.) These are just some of the issues and curiosities that I’m eager to keep thinking about and debating.

I found it refreshing that the perspectives and references Greg brought to the discussion weren’t limited to the insular world of classical music. In fact, he emphasized that if classical music poses itself as the antithesis of pop/“low” culture, it will only ensure its demise. Instead, what classical music needs to do is reclaim its relevance and learn from the diverse ways that people are engaging with art, cultural expression, social issues, etc. — including mass-culture sources like Project Runway, Radiohead, and The Wire.

(A quick aside: I’m a huge fan of all three of those things, but they’re among the most mainstream of the mass-culture phenomena that “high-culture” people tend to think are acceptable to reference.  There’s a whole lot more innovation and newness out there that we can learn from.) ...

One tangent to this point that we didn’t discuss much is that opening the field to new influences on, and new ways to experience, classical music doesn’t need to erase the traditional orchestra hall experience. Greg believes that classical music needs a “revolution” in order to survive and thrive. But I think the revolution comes when we allow all audiences — current and future consumers — to choose how they want to engage with classical music and define on their own terms what role it plays in their lives.

Maybe the austerity of tuxes and shushing at a large concert hall is what’s keeping some people from engaging with classical music. But I also think it’s possible that doing away with the “old school” approach entirely — without the impetus coming from current audiences, anyway — could leave us with something just as limiting and narrow as today’s conventional rules.

Sure, some of today’s classical music audiences are demonstrating an interest in new ways of experiencing the art. But the lesson I’m seeing there is about the need for a plurality of types of experiences and forms of presentation, not a wholesale replacement of what exists now. Innovation is important to introduce, but does a strong and viable future for classical music require a revolution at every concert and in every performance space?

Or is broadening the definition of classical music in the minds of the public what will really inspire its “rebirth” (to use Greg’s term) — and not just changing the definition to fit another narrow and singular “answer”? 

To paraphrase Greg, changes and possibilities that sound radical to the classical music world don’t sound radical at all to people outside of that world. So, where should the real revolution come from — entirely within the classical music world? Entirely outside of it? From both places at once? 

There are no quick or singular answers to the riddle of the future of classical music. But, if you’re like me (and my colleagues here at Slover Linett), the possibilities for the shape(s) that classical music could take in the future — and for how we actively shape and guide that future — are really exciting.

So, we thought we’d put a feeler out to see if there’s interest in having a quarterly get-together among Chicago-area arts practitioners to discuss these topics on an ongoing basis.

Of course, these meet-ups can take many forms, in-person and virtual, so we’d also love your input on what you’d find most interesting and useful. Speakers? Roundtables? Case studies of innovations in the field?  Online discussions that can include our non-Chicago friends?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, or email me or Peter. (We recognize that there are some groups already convening arts professionals in Chicago and we’ll also investigate how we can complement those efforts.)

Eric Stassen — May 18, 2010

This sounds terrific -- count me in!

I've been an admirer of Sandow's writing for some time, and have benefited from his counsel regarding my recent entrepreneurial project, Symphonic Voyages. I wish I could have been in town for his recent visit to our city.

Anyway, I enjoy your blog as well, and would be more than happy to get together, quarterly or otherwise. There's so much going on here in Chicago, I'm sure there are plenty of us who would benefit from a gathering such as you have proposed.

Anne Arenstein — May 25, 2010

I'm about 250 miles away but can I be an ex officio member??

Mike Hanus — June 15, 2010

I second Chloe -- in today's world, audiences should be able to choose their musical experiences, particularly because they choose everything else! This means fragmentation, instead of wholesale evolution of the experience. This is the only way to please everyone because, believe it or not, there are plenty of people, even younger people (though perhaps not as many as their used to be) who enjoy getting dressed up and listening to a 3-hour orchestra concert in silence (This coming from the guy who rolls his eyes when audience members unwrap candies!)

That doesn't mean I'm not open to completely different ways of experience music -- I just don't want it forced on me.

Megan Browne Helm — October 10, 2010


If the performers are joyful, the audience will catch it. Everyone needs more joy.

Think Dudamel at Proms in 2008. So much athletic energy on stage.

Where is the JOY. The unbridled JOY in the concert hall?

(psssst. Children and Teens!)

This is an old post so no one will read it but I still stand by my assertion.

Chloe Chittick Patton — October 14, 2010

Megan -- thanks for the comment. It's always great to hear reactions that are sparked, even on an "old" post. The ideas and conversations are just as rich a couple of months later.

You’re so right that the energy and musical expression happening on stage is a huge part of what determines whether an audience connects with – and thus cares anything about – the music and musicians. (Whether that’s joy, or passion, or pain, or whatever.) Such a great reminder that classical music – as with anything else – only HAS a future to the extent that musicians/performers/institutions work hard to connect with the audience on a deep emotional level. Joy is a great positive motivator, but I think there are many other emotional undercurrents that can have the same effect on the audience. But I agree that the bottom line is that there needs to be some sort of palpable energy to “catch”…. Thanks again for sharing!

(Apologies if this comes up as a repeat; internet was interrupted after I posted a comment so I am trying this again.)

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.