The final cry of the defeated status quo
Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic and former music critic of the Washington Post, reported on this summer's annual meeting of the League of American Orchestras in a recent article in the New Republic. "America's Orchestras Are in Crisis," reads the headline of Kennicott's article, and unless you're either out-of-touch or an incurable optimist, it would be hard not to agree. But then comes the sub-head: "How an effort to popularize classical music undermines what makes classical music great."
Go ahead and read the article before I tell you why I think why Kennicott has done us a huge favor by summing up in one handy package exactly the attitude that has done much to lead orchestras, indeed classical music in general, to their present precarious situation. No need for straw arguments or multiple citations of previous writings here; this article provides me with everything required. Let me list the negative labels that have frequently been stuck on classical fans and practitioners, often unfairly, but which Kennicott demonstrates in spades.
Snobbery. "The worry about leaning toward pop and courting audiences has a long and complicated history," writes Kennicott, as he begins his brief survey of the history of American orchestral tastes from the mid-19th century to the present day. Drawing on the writings of Mark Twain, Kennicott contrasts the free-for-all atmosphere and diverse programming of mid-19th century American concerts with the more serious deportment of German audiences, and notes how things got better (i.e., more like Germany) as American orchestras improved and their audiences got quieter over time.
But it's been a struggle, according to Kennicott, who fears the gains may be undone if our true barbaric nature were to reveal itself again. "Americans tend to draw the line between connoisseurship and fatuousness at a level just slightly higher than their own degree of appreciation," says Kennicott about you, me, our fellow classical fans, and countrymen. First of all, does that description sound like you, or like the audiences you're a part of when you attend concerts? Or don't you, like I, feel rather patronized by this characterization? Then Kennicott goes on: "Cultural authority rankles, as does anyone wagging an admonishing finger in the concert hall or art museum." You bet it does. And this time, Mr. Kennicott, you're doing the admonishing, a strategy guaranteed not to result in warmed hearts or changed minds. There's a word for what Kennicott demonstrates here: snobbery.
Elitism. Later, Kennicott makes it clear whom orchestras should cater to: "Almost none of this (i.e., orchestras' attempts at outreach and diversification of programming) is of any interest to serious listeners (emphasis mine), including those with diverse musical tastes who prefer the real thing to the local orchestra’s attempt to imitate jazz, ethnic, or pop forms. " OK, I'm on board so far, agreeing that lots of things orchestras do under the banner of diversity can be quite silly, as well as musically unsatisfying. But as he continues, Kennicott turns the "serious listener" into the real victim of orchestras' attempts to reach a larger and younger audience:
"As always, there is an economic explanation for the marginalization of the serious listener: interesting repertoire takes more time to rehearse, it is difficult to market, it cannot be repeated with the frequency of more popular fare. And serious listeners are resistant to the basic ideological sleight-of-hand behind so much programming: they do not believe that trivial music is worth the same investment as the core repertory, and so they vote with their feet and stay home. This gets them marked as fickle supporters of the civic institution."
So, who do you think gets to decide here whether an audience member qualifies as "serious?" The audience member him/herself? Of course not. It's Philip Kennicott who will decide on your seriousness as a listener. And basically, if you like the same mixture of ultra-serious old masterworks and "interesting" (i.e., complex and difficult) new works he does, and shun the same "more popular fare" (a description used pejoratively, you should note) that he shuns, you're in. Otherwise, you are not worthy, and should go away until you've proven yourself.
Never mind that there aren't nearly enough of his "serious listeners" around to sustain orchestras or any classical institutions any longer, and that their numbers are declining. And never mind that many of the supposedly "unserious listeners" orchestras are trying to attract are extremely intelligent, highly educated, and devoted connoisseurs of many other kinds of art and literature, e.g., plays, novels, movies, high-quality TV. Unless you raised a cheer when former Boston Symphony conductor James Levine decided, in one of this first moves with the BSO, to do an Arnold Schoenberg festival, you can't be serious. There's a word for this, too: elitism.
Resistance to change. So, to wrap up his article, what does Kennicott point to as a prime example of wrongheaded, unserious programming? A Beatles medley? Symphonic Star Wars? Nope. It was a performance at the opening session, by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra of American composer Ingram Marshall's "Kingdome Come." Here's Kennicott's description:
The quarter-hour symphonic mood sketch uses recorded sounds from churches in the former Yugoslavia to dramatize the Bosnian conflict. Over an electronic soundtrack of bells and choral sounds, the orchestra performs in a simple post-minimalist style, somewhat akin to the music of Arvo Pärt. The piece checks all the currently fashionable boxes for new classical works: it is harmonically and melodically accessible and socially topical, it mixes media, and it draws on musical cultures outside the concert hall.
"Harmonically and melodically accessible." "Socially topical." "Mixes media." "Draws on musical cultures outside the concert hall." To Philip Kennicott, revealingly, these are bad things. Cynically bad, too, since by Kennicott's reckoning, composer Marshall merely "(checked) all the currently fashionable boxes for new classical works," rather than composing what he heard and felt. I suppose the more abstract and modernist composers Kennicott presumably prefers never followed a trend, like serialism, spectralism or any other -ism. But when over the next week we give a few plays to Marshall's work, described by a very serious listener and composer friend of mine as "one if the most beautiful, moving pieces of orchestral music I know," one with he "can't listen to it often, because I always end up in tears," let me know which side you're on.
And by the way, if you take the time to tune in to NEPR's classical music, you're a very serious listener in my book. Especially if what you're looking for is serious pleasure. Let's face it, folks: Mr. Philip Kennicott and his critical ilk (send for a free list!), with their unyielding adherence to "serious" classical values, are with each passing day becoming more marginalized and less relevant, as classical music institutes the long-overdue and badly-needed reforms they decry. May Kennicott's bitter article be the last whimper of their defeated cohort.