Thursday, July 08, 2004

I'll bet Beethoven was a Chevorlet kind of guy

There's been a bit of Blogistanic debate the last few days about classical music and elitism; see Alex Ross for the starting point, and then his follow-up with relevant linkage (including a link here, which is pretty generous since this is my first comment in this space on the subject -- my previous participation was in comments to Lynn Sislo's post). The debate seems not to center around whether classical music actually is the highest of musical arts, but whether classical music should be marketed as such in efforts to keep it from ultimately withering on the vine.

I make no secret that I fall in Alex's camp here, in the "populist" approach to promoting classical music. I don't like the "Listen to classical because it's good for you" approach, as though we classical music lovers are parents trying to talk the kids into just tasting the broccoli or the Brussels sprouts. And I don't really think of what I try to do as selling classical music, the way we'd sell a Lexus (to invoke Lynn's metaphor). What classical music needs, in my view, is not marketing or selling, or even "populism". What it needs is evangelism.

Now, some forms of evangelism work better than others, but I don't think that this is the time for the "fire and brimstone" approach, which is what ACD seems to advise. But neither do I think that we need to "dumb things down". What classical music needs right now is what astronomy once had in Carl Sagan (or, better yet, an army of them): someone who can explain in fairly accessible terms what is going on for the lay people, of course, but more importantly someone whose passion for classical music is not off-putting but infectious.

This is one reason it drives me buggy when the "classical elitists" look down on film music. The simple fact is that film music is likely to be the best way to expose large audiences to the language of the orchestral world. Over the last few months, composer Howard Shore has conducted sold-out performances of his Lord of the Rings music all over the world, and I've seen more than a few messages in various film music forums from fans to the effect of "I haven't been to an orchestra concert in years before this". If just a few of those -- mere handfuls, even -- get "bitten by the bug" and realize just what an amazing experience it is to hear an orchestra perform great music in a live setting, then maybe there's a convert or two. But at each turn, I read similar messages from classical elitists complaining that Shore shouldn't call the program his "Lord of the Rings Symphony", since it's not a Symphony in the traditional sense. Yeah, maybe not; but then, neither is Berlioz's Romeo et Juliet, and anyway, there are three thousand people buying tickets to hear the thing anyway. Maybe, just maybe, a small few of those will want to come back to hear the orchestra play something else. Maybe even something by one of them dead white guys whose marble busts adorn Schroeder's piano.

As I noted in Lynn's comments section, my problem with marketing classical music to people who want "only the very best" is twofold: firstly, I'm not at all convinced that classical music actually is "only the very best", and secondly, when one markets to that audience, that's really the only audience that responds. When I look around the concert hall (and I myself go there far, far less than I should), I don't want to look at a bunch of Lexus-drivers who are there because they're in on the secret. I want to also see a bunch of Chevy drivers who are there because they just want to hear some good music.

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