Does It Matter That No One Gives a Shit About Classical Music Any More?

Does It Matter That No One Gives a Shit About Classical Music Any More?

Early Luther orchestra, 1884-1885

Minneapolis likes to compare itself defensively to New York, which makes it all the more poignant that James Oestreich of the New York Times has just published a pained essay calling Minneapolis a “great cultural mecca” and lamenting the fact that one of our indisputably world-class cultural resources—the Minnesota Orchestra—has just lost its entire 2012-13 season to an “agonizing and seemingly inexplicable” labor dispute.

“Inexplicable” might be a little strong—the basic explanation seems to be the possibly insurmountable challenge of funding a world-class orchestra in a city that can’t match the audience size and philanthropic resources of a global metropolis, which is a challenge being faced by cities of comparable size around the world. If the Minnesota Orchestra goes completely out of business, it won’t be the first and it certainly won’t be the last.

But why, after decades of happily sawing away at Beethoven and Sibelius, are orchestras in crisis now? That question gets to the “agonizing” part of Oestreich’s comment.

The floundering of the Minnesota Orchestra is agonizing for Oestreich and other classical music lovers like The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, who wrote that in on one night in 2010, “the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” It’s even more agonizing for the orchestra’s musicians and management, and it’s surely agonizing for some other people in Minnesota. But who? Truth be told, I don’t know any of them.

That may peg me as a rube, but if I’m a rube, the world’s orchestras are going to have tough luck paying their expenses with the contributions of non-rubes. I’m a 37-year-old arts journalist with a Ph.D., living less than two miles from Orchestra Hall. I attend multiple ticketed arts events every week, and I do not know a single Minnesota Orchestra season ticket holder. In fact, I couldn’t even cite one person in my acquaintance whom I know to have purchased a ticket—even a rush ticket, much less a full-price ticket—to a Minnesota Orchestra performance in recent memory. That fact is evidence of what a wide swath of the population—especially the younger end of the population—has largely become indifferent to traditional, professional performances of classical music.

To be fair, classical music has never in recent history paid for itself; American ensembles have always been heavily subsidized by corporations, foundations, wealthy donors, and occasional government support. Even so, the evidence is clear: each succeeding generation over the past century has been less likely than the previous generation to attend classical music performances. That not only means a declining number of ticket-buyers, it means a declining proportion of the wealthy who feel deeply invested in classical music and a declining incentive on the part of corporations and foundations to fund classical music.

In 2010 I wrote a post called “Why we shouldn’t do a damn thing about the decline of classical music,” provoking various outraged responses. I wouldn’t be surprised to get some testy comments on this post, but from who? Who would miss the Minnesota Orchestra, and where are they on the Internet? They’ve been keeping pretty quiet over the past year. I’ve seen indignant posts defending the musicians on labor-rights and artistic grounds, but the New York Times post is a more impassioned cry for the defense of Minneapolis’s artistic excellence than anything I’ve seen coming from Minneapolis itself. There seems to be very little popular perception that the artistic excellence of Minneapolis specifically or Minnesota generally is closely tied to the rise and fall of the Minnesota Orchestra.

It’s not that classical music doesn’t matter any more—it’s not even that it doesn’t matter to young people. School orchestras (where they haven’t been ravaged by budget cuts and No Child Left Behind) continue to engage students of all ages. Community choirs are booming. Put a piano out at a party, and just wait to see how long it takes someone to sit down and start plinking out an étude. (Answer: not long.) We—and by we I mean Americans generally, but especially pre-AARP Americans—simply no longer believe it’s necessary for a respectable city to have a respectable professional orchestra.

In my 2010 post, I wrote that it’s not necessary to take extraordinary efforts to preserve classical music, because “great art takes care of itself.” That provoked a few grumbling responses along the lines of “tell that to the Buddhas of Bamiyan,” but music isn’t a delicate sculpture, it’s a living art, and all life must evolve in response to a changing environment.

If “classical music” must be defined as “dozens of highly-trained and highly-paid professionals sitting in tuxedos in a silent concert hall playing music composed 200 years ago,” then sayonara, Schubert. A few Minnesotans will miss you on the stage of Orchestra Hall, but I’ll look forward to seeing how your music continues to inspire and inform through recordings (the horror!), performances by visiting ensembles (what, imported?!), performances by amateur musicians (how gauche!), and in other ways that—unlike, say, a night at the symphony—are wonderfully impossible to predict.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Luther College Orchestra, ca. 1884. (Creative Commons)