Alex Ross

Alex Ross

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 2 1997 3:30 AM

Alex Ross

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       Who listens to classical music? Is its audience dying out? I went tonight to the New York Philharmonic--an all-Brahms program--and gave some thought to the audience. Walking through a crowd of hundreds in the lobby at intermission, I saw perhaps 10 or 15 people who were in their 20s or 30s. This is usual. I am just shy of 30 and am accustomed to traveling with a concert-going public that is two generations removed from my own. It's a world quite alien to me, this semiformal gathering of people from upscale professions who consider it a social obligation to make an appearance at the symphony no matter what is being played. It's always a shock to run into anyone I know outside the music business--as it was tonight when I saw Paul Berman and Peggy Kaye. Paul (who sometimes writes about music for SLATE) commented also that he never sees anyone from the literary world at concerts. "Elderly disgusting doctors" was his concise description of the audience.
       Yes, it would be good to see a more diverse crowd at concerts. Then again, the people who run organizations like the Philharmonic seem to know what they are doing. Classical music naturally appeals more to the old than to the young. Since there are more old people than ever, I'm not sure why an economic crisis is perceived. The pressure to "skew young" comes from advertisers who have figured out how to make short-term profits from people with disposable income. But classical music can't be sold in that fashion; it makes sense only on repetition, with experience, and it is not an impulse buy. Indeed, it has rarely shown a profit: The real concern is not with making it commercially viable but with figuring out how to maximize its private subsidies. (Most of the great peaks of the classical repertory rest on a foundation of aristocratic indulgence.)
       Is the end near? So thinks the English journalist Norman Lebrecht, whose book Who Killed Classical Music? recently received a bizarrely respectful review in the New York Times Book Review. Some of the chapters are titled "The Corporate Murder of Classical Music," "When the Music Stops ... ," and "The Day the Music Died." I've been reading it, in small doses, and I have one question: If classical music is dead, who'll buy the book? His high-toned jeremiad against commercial corruption quickly descends into gossipy anecdotes and blind-item rumors, half of them ridiculous and half of them trite. On Page 10, he announces that "the classical music business condones child-sex"; a few lines down he professes to be outraged that "the business manager of a top German orchestra allows a record company to pay his secretary-girlfriend's salary." Four hundred pages later, he sees a ray of hope in the dank, colorless music of Harrison Birtwistle.
       People enjoy being frightened, and Lebrecht is a virtuoso spook. (It's particularly strange that this portent has arrived from England, where the classical business is comparatively robust. There, record sales of classical music have grown 6.2 percent in the past year.) Here also, the outlook is not as bleak as all that; opera attendance has been rising, and top-rank orchestras like the Philharmonic draw impressively large, stable audiences night after night. To be sure, seasoned East Coast institutions like this one could easily find more ways to branch out, as West Coast ones have done; they could work harder to intrigue the general-intellectual New York audience that patronizes museums and arty rock shows and skips classical music routinely. But I'm not worried about the future of the art or about its demographic prospects. Classical music has survived the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the Holocaust; it will survive the focus group.

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and also a regular contributor to SLATE.