Confusing The Issues

Much has been written throughout the blogosphere since The New Republic published Richard Taruskin’s 12,000 word narrative entitled Books: The Musical Mystique – Defending classical music against its devotees. I’ll come right out and admit that I have not read the entire work, which if written for different genre would classify as a beefy short story, but based on what others are writing it seems that the issues from Richard’s article are getting confused with an entirely separate discussion…

Simply put, the issue of classical music’s sustainability is being intertwined with the sustainability of classical music’s business model. It is tantamount to saying critical reviews of the film Schindler’s List and a financial audit of the movie’s expenses is one in the same.

Chicago based music critic and author of the blog Deceptively Simple, Marc Geelhoed, published what I think is one of the best passages about why classical music will survive when he wrote about Richard Taruskin’s article on 10/26/2007:

“The only way to persuade people to listen to classical music is to have them listen to classical music. It sounds tautological, but the music is the best argument for itself…Classical music doesn’t need saving from its devotees, it just needs curious people, like Taruskin was once, who will take a chance on something they haven’t heard before, and who then discover something they cannot live without.”

Personally, I enjoy both conversations and although there are a handful of points which overlap, the overriding parameters of each issue are separate. As for the discussion surrounding classical music’s merit and whether or not it is worthy, and even capable, of surviving into the future I say “yes.” All you have to do is listen to it and I think you’ll come to a similar conclusion. After all, if classical music can repeatedly find its way into mainstream video games and traditional concert stages alike, I doubt it is going anywhere anytime soon.

As for whether or not the business model for performing arts ensembles with budgets in excess of $25 million is viable over the next several decades I also say “yes.” That doesn’t mean the current models won’t evolve but to say that the business is so rigid that it is predestined for extinction is a fairly extreme position. At the same time, I would agree that the business has a significant amount of catching-up to do and some groups might stumble or fall along the way.

Nevertheless, orchestras which pay a living wage to musicians and managers alike aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. A more productive discussion than whether or not classical music intuitions are doomed is whether or not they will reach their utmost potential.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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2 thoughts on “Confusing The Issues

  1. I read Richard Taruskin’s article. I respect it. He says a lot of good stuff.

    I read Geelhoed’s response. I respect it. He says a lot of good stuff.

    And now for the “but.”

    But I inferred from RT’s article the attitude that the continuing existence of classical music needs to be justified. Maybe it’s really not in there, but there sure has been a lot of it going around — and for a very long time.

    Back in the 1930s or ’40s, I read an advert of the Stromberg Carlson phonograph pointing out that listening to recordings of classical music improved the chances for success of young people. Since then, I have encountered the same claim over and over.

    Within the last year, I have heard arguments from alleged music lovers opposing public subsidization of symphony orchestras; the basis is that classical music appeals only to a minuscule portion of the population.

    So the message is that music lovers have got to offer damn good excuses for the continuance of their parasitical vice.

    Well, why? People have got lots of druthers — sports, reading, TV, Britney, Lindsey, drink, sex, gourmet eating, fast food, hot showers, bird watching, chocolate, religion, gambling, et al. They are free to enjoy them without justifying it. Municipalities spend millions of dollars building stadiums for athletic teams. Music lovers have to build their own damn halls. Double standard? You bet.

    So, repeat after me:

    -I enjoy listening to, learning about, discussing, and arguing about classical music. Therefore, it deserves to survive.

    -I will try to help others acquire that enjoyment. In order to do so, I will avoid all music-related activities other than snookering them into listening to said music in enjoyable ways.

    Paul Alter

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