Podiumsdiskussionen über "Publikumswandel: Herausforderungen für die Kunstmusik in der ganzen Welt" im Konzerthaus – Beitrag von Richard Letts

Am 10. November fand im Wotruba-Saal des Konzerthauses im Rahmen von Wien Modern die von mica-music austria organisierte, in 3 Panels ablaufende Podiumsdiskussion “Publikumswandel: Herausforderungen für die Kunstmusik in der ganzen Welt” statt, mit Diskussionen auch des (dortigen) Publikums. Sie wurde gemeinsam mit dem International Music Council (IMC) und der – nicht zu vergessen in Salzburg 1921 gegründeten – Internationalen Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (IGNM) abgehalten (wieder kräftige Lebenszeichen mit neuem Team). Im Anschluss lud das BMUKK (MinR Mag. Hildegard Siess) zu einem Empfang ins Schubert-Saal-Buffet.Richard Letts ist geschäftsführender Direktor des Australischen Musikrats und Präsident des Internationalen Musikrats.

Richard Letts, president of International Music Council, keynote “changing audiences. Challenges for art music all around the world“Every so often one sees a headline for a newspaper article: “Classical Music Is not Dead“.

For lovers of classical music, this is only slightly reassuring.

The very fact of the denial says that classical music’s survival is somehow in question. In the Vienna of 1908, I am sure that such a headline never appeared. Classical music was assured of eternal life.

Last year, a colleague gave me some rather alarming statistics. The number of applicants for student positions in one of the most prestigious conservatoires in Scandinavia had decreased by 69% between the years 2000 and 2007. The decline for double bass was 43%. This might seem bad, but for oboe it was 83% and flute 86%. Note that we are talking here about the number of applicants, not the number of enrolments. The number of applicants can decrease but still be large enough to fill all the vacant positions.

I contacted Martin Prchal, who heads the Association of European Conservatoires. I asked him whether he had statistics for other institutions. Martin said that he did not, but that he had received many unquantified reports from around Europe of a decline in the number of applicants. There were sometimes accompanying stories about a decline also in the quality of applicants.

I’ve talked about this phenomenon with quite a few colleagues. Most are quite sure they know the reason behind it, but this total certainty is somewhat confounded by the fact that they all have different reasons. A manager of an orchestra thinks it’s because young players look at the prospect of a lifetime in an orchestra, maybe in the back rows of a string section, and think it would be just too boring. Well, that doesn’t explain the decline in applicants for wind instruments. Another thinks that the young are finally unwilling to make the financial sacrifice involved in being a musician and are choosing more lucrative careers. Another thinks that maybe the cuts in Europe in subsidies for music send a chill wind.

Another, and that’s me, wonders whether the kids are imagining a future without classical music. It’s not a pleasant prospect and I find that my colleagues almost universally are unwilling to contemplate that theory. Of course, one can look at other statistics.

In my own country, Australia (I just came from Spain where someone asked me what do we speak in Australia – German?). As I was saying, in Australia, things are going pretty well with classical music audiences. The number of people attending classical performances excluding opera grew by 40% from 1995 to 2006. I am finding it difficult to interest the classical music people in the question of its death.

Interesting, though, most of the increase came from the age group 45+. Indeed, the increase for that group was 74%. The increase for the 15 to 24 age bracket was only 4%, and ages 15-34 was only 5%, not keeping pace with overall population growth rate. For opera over the same period, by the way, there was a decline of 36% in attendances.

Elsewhere, the story is mixed. We have statistics for attendances in a number of European countries. Over the period 1990 to 2005, attendances at classical concerts in a majority of countries fell but opera attendances in a majority of countries rose. According to this information, Spain performed best with an increase in classical concert attendances of 24% and in opera attendances of a massive 114%. On the other hand, in Macedonia, classical concert attendances fell by 65% and in Flemish Belgium opera attendances dropped by 45%.

Orchestral audiences in the USA fell by 14% from 1998 to 2003, and were holding at that level in 2005. This was despite considerable increases in number of concerts, box office and operating expenses. In other words, it was not for want of trying. On the other hand, opera audiences increased by 29% even though the number of performances decreased by 19%. That sounds like a healthy financial situation. Unfortunately, I cannot offer numbers showing an age breakdown.

We are used to thinking about the phenomena of western music as they occur in the western world. We need to start to include Asia. The IMC conference was in Beijing last year. I was talking with the chief conductor of the Beijing Symphony. He told me that a million Beijing children are learning the piano – and another million are learning the violin. At the instrument expo in Shanghai, a leader in the music publishing industry told us that 34 million people in China are learning the piano. Japan, South Korea, now China, are taking western classical music very seriously. We begin to see virtuoso soloists from China on the international circuits. In China itself, perhaps there is not yet the custom of concert going which would give essential market support to classical performances. The manager of an orchestra that toured China told me that essentially the audience was made up of invited guests of government instrumentalities rather that a ticket-buying public. Nevertheless, clearly there is burgeoning development.

It would be deeply ironic if the music of Vienna were to survive as a living art form only in East Asia!

But I was just at the WOMEX conference in Seville, where in a seminar one of your Austrian colleagues observed that Austrian children are growing up not knowing classical music.

As I understand it, school music education throughout the west not so long ago was based almost universally around a classical music curriculum. But now, in the great majority of schools, it is based on the music that excites the children, and that is pop music. (Let us remember that pop music is pop music because it is popular in the first instance with teenagers. It is a circular proposition.) In my country, the schools that still have classical music curricula are mostly those located in towns or suburbs where children have been introduced to classical music in the home. So generally speaking, these are homes and schools in upper middle class or wealthy neighbourhoods. Those who have, get. If you already have classical music, you can get more of it, in the school. But most kids don’t have it in the home, and won’t get it in school either. Any meaningful contact is down to luck.

When I was a kid, Frank Sinatra was king of pop. Frank was backed by the Nelson Riddle orchestra, repeat, orchestra. He sang songs that had chord progressions. Remember those? The orchestrations were very sophisticated in some ways. The point is that Frank’s songs were based on the same musical precepts and used a similar sound world as classical music. At the time, there seemed to be a moat between the two. From the perspective of the popular music of 2008, it seems like it was, at most, a puddle. A child growing up with pop music of today might be surrounded by electronic sound, or computer generated sound, might not actually recognise a clarinet or a trombone. Add to this a plethora of other life assumptions that are very different to those of his or her parents.

OK, so say most kids do not have anything but an accidental experience of the classical music mainstream, and for many that would be not only very much a foreign language but worse, possibly a music from their parents’ generation. Just so not today. Well, what about contemporary classical music?

Well, let’s discuss that. Let me say first that I trained to be a composer. In the USA I directed two music schools and in each, one of the most important things I did was organise the faculty into contemporary music ensembles. When I returned to Australia as head of music for the national government funding body, I got policies adopted that would give some composers a full time living for the first time, and directed a lot of money to new music ensembles. And when I left there, it was to become the director of the Australian equivalent of the Music Information Centre of Austria. So my allegiances can hardly be doubted.

That said, so far as the survival of classical music is concerned, I think that the path taken by contemporary music following World War 2 was pretty disastrous. I do not argue that anyone should have acted differently at the time. There were various imperatives and they seemed undeniable.

The people in this room have no doubt been a part of the discussions of these matters that have gone on for a few decades. Nevertheless, they can hardly be left out of consideration here so I offer my own version of the events.

You will remember that in the decades following world war 2, there constantly was talk about innovation and experimentation in music. And of course, we had music being composed under the formulas of serialism and various sorts of number theory. For some, there was a justification of music’s seriousness through presenting it as a sort of science.

The thing about experiments, especially experiments in mathematics and the physical sciences, is that their success is internal. 2+2=4. This is so whether or not it causes someone a pleasurable shiver up and down the spine. Fundamentally, success with a musical experiment conceived along these lines does not depend upon the opinions of listeners, and especially not the lay audience. Audience demands could threaten the purity of the endeavour. So the audience became a hazard, indeed for many composers became the enemy. A composer that pleased the audience was suspected immediately of abandoning artistic integrity.

The audience’s role was to perform a duty: a) to turn up; b) to have faith that what it was listening to was worthwhile and would one day be recognised for its genius; and c) if it found sitting through a performance of a contemporary work to be gruesomely unpleasant, on no account to say so.

Examples were drawn, whether from Beethoven or Stravinsky, of how music that initially outraged audiences later came to be accepted and admired. Of course, this did happen with Beethoven and some of Stravinsky, though his ventures into atonality now pretty much stay on the shelf. Hands up whose mother goes home and puts on the CD of Agon. Schonberg, apart from the pre-serial Transfigured Night, is not performed much, nearly a century later. Boulez and Stockhausen have had a half century to make the charts but are still confined to the new music circuit.

The result of those decades of failing to carry the audience forward has meant, as we all know, that the mainstream has been driven back into mainly pre-20C repertoire, and audiences still have high risk aversion to contemporary works. And I don’t just mean old folks. I mean young folks too.

So except for a privileged few, the kids aren’t getting the experience of the mainstream classical repertoire, or are averse to it. And only a tiny number are in the tiny audience for new classical music and most would never have heard those sounds except by accident, in a film, say. Ultimately, the survival of classical music in the west will be a result of the decisions of these children, not only because they are the future audience, but because they are the future politicians.

And here is the crunch. In my view, the classical enterprise depends upon the symphony orchestras. It is they that offer the critical mass of employment for classical musicians and the critical mass of earned income and audiences. Include here also the opera companies, the only real source of employment for classical singers except in those few countries that have paid choirs. The orchestras and opera companies offer the more or less realistic career prospect that might justify a commitment to 20 years of pre-professional training.

The symphony orchestra is a 19C structure, very labour intensive, trying to function in a 21C economy. A very few survive from earnings playing a pop repertoire. Otherwise, to achieve the level of virtuosity needed for a fixed repertoire of mostly 18th and 19th century works and to meet audience demands for quality, they pretty much have to operate full time and cannot do so without subsidy.

Unless you are an American orchestra, the core subsidy most likely comes from the government. And ultimately, the government can subsidise only with the consent of the governed. And my perception is that that consent is increasingly at risk:

  1. We have an increasing number of young people without a classical music background and with life experiences and attitudes that may be unsympathetic to classical music.
  2. The ever growing dominance of the commercial music industry brings with it a philosophy that if something cannot succeed without subsidy, it has not justified its existence.
  3. I find increasing hostility in the non-classical music community to the subsidies received by the orchestras and opera companies
  4. I even find that in some government funding agencies, the bureaucrats that are in charge of classical music funding are musically illiterate and are basically hostile to it, and indeed,
  5. regard subsidy as a mistaken relic of policies from the past.

So, in brief summary, I believe that there is cause for concern about the future of classical music in the west because of changed experiences and attitudes of the next generations and the possible disappearance of the consensus supporting, or at least not opposing, government subsidies to the large performing companies; and also, because for the large classical music public, it has become mostly a museum art form.

There are many countries in which basic indicators of classical music’s financial viability are positive and there seems no reason for serious concern. I think this is a bit like the situation with global warming. You may not be convinced by the science. Unusual hurricanes in Florida are far away. Things are more or less OK at home except for the price of petrol and you were always suspicious about that, anyway.

But nevertheless, you can agree that the predictions are sufficiently serious that the prudent course is to take action to reduce greenhouse emissions. This might be redundant but on the other hand, it might save the planet. There might be no real cause for alarm about the future of classical music, but to develop a very vigorous strategy to involve the young cannot do any harm and may avert disaster.