It’s no news that our Charleston Symphony clings to tenuous life, thanks only to draconian budget cuts and changes to programming, or that Savannah’s orchestra has been defunct now for three years. These are but our own regional symptoms of a much broader malaise afflicting classical music nowadays, especially in America. Even broad-brush discussions of what’s wrong and what’s to be done are well beyond the scope of a single column, so we’ll cover a different aspect of the situation in a series of columns over the coming weeks.
The obvious omens include the undeniable fact that orchestras, ballet companies, and opera companies everywhere are hemorrhaging audiences, ergo financial supporters. All but a few of the best-endowed big-city institutions are running major deficits, and many have gone under. Why?
For starters, our schools have failed us. Most primary and secondary teachers are increasingly out of touch with the classics, and school music budgets are always the first to be cut (halftime marching bands excepted). Many among the brightest and best of recent American generations still can’t tell Beethoven from borscht.
Profit-driven media brainwashing has succeeded in molding public tastes and demand, and we’ve crowned pop culture king. “Crossover” music illustrates the pervasive dumbing-down of our great musical monuments: folks think that their Il Divo or Bond albums make them classical fans. Great music’s stuffy, elitist image makes it distinctly uncool to the masses. Small wonder that most classical audiences these days are predominantly gray-haired.
Media coverage of the performing arts has declined apace. Only prestige rags like The New York Times still hire staff critics; real estate in most newspapers has become too precious to waste on minority tastes (except in the City Paper, or you wouldn’t be reading this). Classical radio stations are an endangered species, largely due to the scarcity of farsighted corporate sponsors that still value great art over ratings and profits: witness Texaco’s recent abandonment of weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts after more than half a century. The government is no help. The current administration, at least, is indifferent — even hostile — to the arts: consider the drying-up of federal support to NPR and recent efforts on Capitol Hill to recast public broadcasting in conservative guise.
Then there are the depredations of the information age: the internet, in unholy alliance with CD burners and iPods, is laying waste to the recording industry. Classical recordings, long subsidized by pop profits in this country, are increasingly vetoed by uncouth executives mindful only of the ever-tighter bottom line. Digital gizmos of every ilk bombard us with cyber-garbage from all sides. We’re forgetting how to sniff the immortal musical roses that have sweetened life on our planet for centuries.
The picture is grim — but don’t despair, not yet. Classical music will never die; civilization will never turn its back completely on mankind’s enduring cultural achievements. At worst, it will simply fade into ever-geekier obscurity — defended only by academia, big-city artistic enclaves, nations that still have their cultural priorities straight, and classical nerds like me.
We who love great music must realize that the future of our art is in our own hands. If we can get our act together, starting at the grassroots level, the downward death-spiral that the music press keeps yammering on about can be slowed, and perhaps even checked — but expect further casualties. Let’s find some ways to make sure they aren’t local ones.
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