Classical Enemy #1
Classical music, our beloved, beleaguered art form, has plenty of negative forces to contend with in America. Let's see, there's its aging and declining audience, its struggling, strife-plagued orchestras, its tiny and decreasing share of recorded music sales, its diminishing presence on the airwaves, and its general position as a genre that's seen better days, is coasting on past glories and works by dead people, and basically isn't part of the overall cultural conversation. Still and all, I remain enthusiastic about its current artistic state, and optimistic that after a probably rather nasty shaking out, classical music will find an stable and sustainable, if never again dominant, place at the American arts table.
But things have got to change before that happens. What things? It depends whom you ask. Some will say to get classical music back in the schools. Others (along with some of the same people) will push for more funding, whether private or public. Outreach and marketing could certainly be improved, new venues and concert formats can be explored, and new repertoires investigated. Whether any or all of these could actually do the trick, they're at least serious responses to a serious problem.
Or, you can try to change the things that bug Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin, as stated the end of his otherwise thoughtful analytical musing about how orchestras got into their current mess. What does the present spate of orchestral strikes, lock-outs and all-around bad news say to Mr. Dobrin? This:
Great things happen when a broad spectrum works toward a common interest, but we've become a nation of small-minded individualists. This sort of relevance may be cold comfort, but for once, the nation can look to the symphony orchestra as the perfect emblem of our time.
Ahah! It's not orchestras that have gone off-course. It's our small-minded individualist nation. I guess Mr. Dobrin is blind to the counterexamples to his bitter assessment of his fellow Americans that I see every day. Was the outpouring of help and concern for victims of last year's local natural disasters that of a "nation of small-minded individualists?" How about, for that matter, the typical New England Public Radio fund drive? Besides, I wonder how Mr. Dobrin expects his readers to react to his dire conclusion. Perhaps, if I may enage in a little snark, he expects them to say "thank you, sir, for pointing out our national shortcomings. I now plan to atone by subscribing to an institution which I had previously ignored, and by becoming a big generous fan of an art form for which I hadn't up until now shown any interest."
Or less snarkily, some percentage of the tiny minority of Philadelphia classical fans who are his readers will give him an "amen!" And the vast majority of Philadelphians who don't read him will go on with the rest of their lives, unmoved and unchanged by Dobrin's stern assessment of them. In other words, he would have changed no minds, fixed no problems, and not made a bit of difference.
But put enough Peter Dobrins together, give them enough airtime and column space, let them defend their artform this way to their heart's content, and they may actually make a difference. They'll take a bad situation, and make it worse. They'll reinforce every negative, usually untrue stereotype about classical music and its supporters: disdainful, out-of-touch, entitled, snobbish. They'll point their fingers at everyone but themselves and their fellow true believers. They'll blame "them" (meaning, in part, us). But will they ever look in a mirror?
So, my own perhaps enlightening, perhaps unhelpful advice: Be on the lookout for Classical Enemy #1. His crime? Kidnapping classical music, isolating it from the outside world, threatening to hold it hostage until the world complies with his preposterous demands, then eventually loving it to death — the fate which may indeed befall classical music if he and his co-conspirators get their way.
(Photo: James Cagney as Tom Powers in the 1931 William Wellman film The Public Enemy )