Classical Music in 2010: Joyful Noise, Troubled Silence

Sunday, December 26, 2010

In 2010, some of the most memorable moments in classical music were marked by silence, not sound: Joan Sutherland passed away, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike, classical radio stations went dark and several orchestras faced continued financial troubles.

No force had as big an impact on arts institutions and audiences this year as the country’s economy, which has led to a flood of red ink, cutbacks and conditions that cultural leaders say are the most challenging they've ever seen.

Deficits are up, individual and corporate donations are down, ticket sales are weak and anxiety is racing through the corridors of culture like an especially virulent infection. What is particularly striking about 2010 is the parity of the impact: even top-tier organizations have not been spared.

Major Presenters Cut Concerts

January brought a particular chill when the chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra suggested that bankruptcy was possible as the venerable ensemble saw average turnout fall to 65 percent of capacity last season and revenue plunge. Just days earlier, the Cleveland Orchestra went on a short-lived strike when players balked at management-proposed pay cuts.

Both orchestras regained their footing; in Philadelphia, leaders were forced to assemble an emergency bridge fund of $15 million to cover projected deficits. But their problems were not unique.

The orchestras of New York, Atlanta and Detroit ran multimillion-dollar deficits, as have the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera. Meanwhile, Carnegie Hall reduced the number of concerts it presented this season by "10 to 15 percent," a preventative measure that, according to Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, “enabled us to get through.”

“We’re nowhere near where we were before the recession, in terms of revenue streams,” Gillinson continued. “I don’t think the world is, and I don’t think the arts are. Everybody is going to be building back much more slowly than it went down. But equally, I think everybody’s much more rigorous about their business because they absolutely must respond because otherwise they're gone.”

Carnegie’s cutbacks may be hardly noticeable to the average concertgoer, in part because hall rentals by outside groups have filled in some of the gaps. Elsewhere, programming cuts are far more apparent. 

Columbia University’s Miller Theater is presenting 35 concerts this season, down from as many as 60 concerts in the 2007-08 season.

Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series has just 33 concerts on its calendar in 2010-11, down from as many as 76 performances in 2008-09, and 62 in 2009-10. Instead, there are two thematic festivals -- November's White Light Festival and the TullyScope Festival which will run this February and March -- conceived partly as a way to appeal to single-ticket buyers as fewer people are investing in subscriptions.

In an email message, a Lincoln Center spokeswoman noted that the organization had balanced its budget this fiscal year and is on track to do the same next year.

Detroit as a Harbinger

Outside of New York, the recession’s impact on symphony orchestras has been extremely variable, said Jesse Rosen, the vice president of the League of American Orchestras. “Some, for whom their endowments were a critical part of their income stream, the recession has had an impact," he said.

Orchestras that were already experiencing financial strains reached a tipping point in 2010, notably the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony, which folded in December; the Louisville Symphony, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two weeks earlier; and Long Island Philharmonic, which has only one concert scheduled this season and is without an executive director.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians walked off the job in late September after negotiations broke down over a proposed contract calling for the salaries of veteran musicians to be cut by nearly a third. Along with cuts in salary, pension and health benefits, their jobs would be redefined to include more education activities.

It is feared that where Detroit goes first, other cash-strapped orchestras may follow. "The Detroit Symphony situation is widely looked upon in the business as just a harbinger,” said Greg Sandow, a consultant, blogger and author of the upcoming book Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. “Basically, in the field, everybody thinks that orchestras are headed in that direction. There will be cutbacks and there will be salary cuts and musicians will have to go out in the community or the jobs won’t be there.”

Finding Ways to Adapt

No one believes that 2010 will be the year that classical music starts to disappear for good. Yet many people in the field acknowledge that orchestras, opera companies and presenters need to do more to confront deeper concerns about aging audiences and shrinking cultural relevancy.

One model for a nimbler, if ostensibly less lucrative, future is Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village nightclub that became a destination for a number of top-level artists in 2010, including Kronos Quartet and violinist Hilary Hahn. Along with its genre-hopping programming philosophy and casual atmosphere, the club eschews traditional funding models.

“You’ve created a situation where all of these festivals and all these ensembles are dependent on grant funding,” explained Ronen Givony, the music director at Le Poisson Rouge. “We said from the beginning, we never want to be in a place where if someone withdraws a $20,000 grant we can’t do something. We want to be able to do it without any help and we have always taken that as our organizing principal. The concert has to cover its own bottom line.”

Givony concedes that LPR has never been in the position to be able to pay musicians the kind of fees they receive at major uptown venues, let alone union scale. "We’re a 300-seat venue and we charge $10 or $20 per ticket. But people that I know that have to cobble together a living, that’s the existence they have always known." 

Whether recent conservatory graduates or veteran performers, diversification proved to be a key to a viable career in 2010. Consider Eighth Blackbird (right), a contemporary music sextet founded in 1996 whose portfolio includes a variety of university residencies, educational activities and performances in art museums. In February 2011, the group will co-curate a "Tune-In Festival" in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.

Tim Munro, Eighth Blackbird’s flutist, says the group has been going through a process of diversifying its activities and funding streams. "Since the 2007-08 season, our traditional sextet bookings have dropped off slightly,” he said. “But in addition to that, we offer a specific stage program every year. We also offer a huge number of residency activities and we’ve expanded what we offer. We now have a new Concerto for Sextet and Orchestra [by Jennifer Higdon] that we’re now currently touring with. Diversification seems to be the way that we’ve been able to weather the storm.”


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Comments [19]

Jeffrey Biegel from Long Island, NY

True, there are shifts in every facet of life--comings and goings. We have become accustomed to what we had, and, in losing them, we feel as though the world is shrinking. There are, however, so many good doings worldwide. Not to sound promotional, one project I have created is connecting orchestras worldwide, and people as well, to be part of the commissioning process for a new concerto. As artists are finding, being entrepreneurial is one key to open many doors to survival, and, to keep the flow of our craft in momentum. With technology in a growth pattern, there will be continued ways to spread and share this craft through recordings, videos and performances. Take a look at the following links to see one example of how we can connect countries in a single commission:
and bringing everyday people into the effort:
Using every idea and innovation at our fingertips will take us into the 21st century, in positive steps to assure the future of classical and new music.

Jan. 12 2011 08:48 AM
Gene Murrow from New York, NY

Large-scale symphony orchestras populated by well-paid musicians in stable careers and heard/supported by musically literate patrons may be, like many other sectors of the American economy, a 20th-century aberration from the norm. Historically and in most other genres, neither musicians nor audiences had it so good. Those of us who work in "early music" (pre-Romantic era) know that there is a viable alternative. Our artists very rarely enjoy regular salaries or even payments for gigs at "scale," yet they remain committed to producing art of the highest caliber that is enjoyed by a growing, knowledgeable, loyal population paying far less than the going rate at the big palaces of culture in American cities. Many of them are making supportive careers for themselves. I love Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Copland (not to mention Nico Muhly) as much as the next guy, but I am equally or even more deeply moved by a Josquin Mass, Monteverdi Vespers, Bach cantata, or Biber sonata. The "old" repertoire remains fresh through the creative interpretation it requires, and the inquisitive nature of artists and audiences alike in our field. Early music ensembles and concerts have multiplied dramatically in NYC over the past few years, in contrast to the shrinking offerings of the "mainstream"-- check it out! Visit or for listings and info.

Gene Murrow
Executive Director, Gotham Early Music Scene

Jan. 11 2011 03:05 PM
leo zanderer

I do think the take-over by NYC dumbed down the original QXR. It is good that we can hear again Clayelle Dalferes, if that is the spelling, and exasperating that she is not listed. Offensive too is the new night line-up which gives no old time fanfare via music and Big Ben chimes to Symphony Hall and via McKnight and McLaughlin the "cool" need to slip in jazz artists who are good but have nothing to do with preserving classical music. I feel McKnight has a political backing of some sort, qua the standard for such a sudden positioning in the lineup of a revered old station. His introduction of himself was urban cowboy at best, Mr. Dude. More Jellinek seems right. The takeover was just that and the whole "join the family" thing was and is sophomoric and Godfreyish(remember?) as was too the street slang dummies who talk up Mozart, etc. Mcknight's course I would avoid since it seems he leads with multi-culturalism which again is not the hand to play if the interest is in preserving classical music. Your comical dumb guys are a ploy which lost its edge when the great Jimmy Durante died.

Jan. 08 2011 12:17 PM

I have been listening to WQXR on and off for 30 years ( yes, I am a greying baby boomer). One reason I and many of my fellow classical music friends switch stations during our morning and evening commutes is the often mindnumbing choice of music in the course of the day. In the morning I cannot stand slow depressing chamber music and in the evening tired from work I am not willing to take in 'challenging' or to be precise, grating orchestral music. The program planners also seem to harbor a a real hatred of the human voice. Except for the Saturday opera performances there are no vocal recitals of any kind during the day. What is also missing is talk about music, programs like George Jellinek's, that put music and performers into cultural contexts. There is nothing worse than being inundated by music even of the finest quality without someone commenting on the work or the performers!

Jan. 07 2011 11:51 AM

I have some ideals.

1. Co exist with the Crossover artists like Sarah Brightman, Andre B. and yes even Jackie Evancho.

2. Their are Modern Composers that are great. Howard Goodall, Karl Jenkins and John Rutter are on the short list. Leave the 12 Tone Garbage within the walls of the colleges.

3. Don't be so serious. Look at how Christopher O'Reily is with his young classical "friends" on his radio show From The Top.

4. Be open to another arrgements of pieces. Not just composer intent. Musicans love to improvise. Their is a place for it.

5. Don't frown on Classical Musicans if they like Z100, CBS-FM or something other than Classical.

Jan. 02 2011 11:22 PM
Ted Brown

Back to basics. I really feel if we go back to the warhorses - the
Mozarts, Beethovens, Brahms, etc, we will bring people into the halls.

Dec. 31 2010 08:40 PM
Sibern from Brooklyn

Talk about declining audiences - the
New York Phil brings in audiences
when the music is played on pots and pans
and other related junk. LOL. Must be
the magnetism of Alan Gilbert.

Dec. 30 2010 09:04 AM
Alan from NYC

You make me chuckle Michael. This is 2010. The New York Philarmonic, which allows its composer-in-residence to search junkyards for "instruments" with which to give concerts has done its share in debasing our culture. Maybe that explains why it is running deficits. If it goes under, it will be because of the contempt that it shows for the public in its attempt to shove this trash down the public's throat. What happens to the orchestra if it loses the support and goodwill of the public and public funds are not available to support it?

Your post expresses a kernel of truth. Modern music has been a phenomenon of Academia and professionals without public support. Outside of Academia and some music professionals and radio stations, which is to say the vast majority of classical music lovers, if Hindemith's music had been buried with him, there would have been no loss.

Dec. 29 2010 07:13 PM
Michael Meltzer

Honorary membership in the167-year old NY Philharmonic Society is a very special honor conferred on only 65 persons in its history. I was present at Carnegie Hall in 1960 for Hindemith's induction. That evening he conducted his new "Pittsburgh Symphony," in retroslpect a minor work, and his Cello Concerto, a major work with soloist Aldo Parisot of the Yale String Quartet.
The house was packed. I was a new student at the Manhattan School of Music, where sonatas by Hindemith were in many, many briefcases and the Mathis der Maler Symphony was in the repertoire of the school orchestra.
I believe Hindemith's contribution as a composer to the musical life of the 20th century to be outstanding. I believe Alan's public opinion poll to be less than perfect, subject to change on a moment's notice, and caution against rewriting history.

Dec. 29 2010 04:31 PM
Alan from NYC

Bartok's work has been popular for a lot longer than the past decade. Hindemith has been dead for over 50 years. Virtually nobody cares whether his work is played or not. Accessibility is not the standard by which to judge a work's value. It's just the bare minimum requirement to keep you from making a dash for the nearest exit. Accessible is the term reserved for modern works that have little or no musical or emotional value. The "horse" was never alive to begin with.

Dec. 29 2010 01:38 PM
Michael Meltzer

I don't think I'm kicking a dead horse. If the work programmed had been the Mathis der Maler Symphony or the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Von Weber, the audience would have stayed. Those are works they know and are of proven popularity over the years.
Twenty-five years ago, you could have made the same commentary about the music of Ives, Vaughan-Williams or Bartok, all have which have exploded in popularity in the last decade.

Dec. 29 2010 11:32 AM
Alan from NYC

If the Hindemith E flat Symphony is such a great work, why did it take the NY Phil. 47 years to play it again? Even if that were not the case, if it's a work of such great quality, why isn't anyone familiar with it? Let's face reality, the vast majority of classical music listeners don't want to listen to Hindemith.

Dec. 29 2010 11:10 AM
Michael Meltzer

(Hindemith wrote a Symphony in E-flat, not in E) If audiences walked out before a Hindemith performance, I would suggest it's just as likely from total unfamiliarity. WQXR, for instance, almost NEVER plays Hindemith's popular works. If his publisher, B. Schott, Mainz, were suddenly bereft of its Hindemith catalog it would take a staggering hit in international sales. And, as an influence, the many Hindemith students who have found success as composers in Hollywood and TV are testimony to Hindemith's accessibility and relevance of style and content.
Furthermore, works like his E-flat symphony are, at this point, not really modern, just a well-written romantic symphony with a 20th-century flavor. It lands on E-flat, not on Mars.

Dec. 29 2010 10:57 AM

BB Worm,

Can you imagine what would happen to classical music audiences if orchestras and chamber music groups started programming whole concerts of newly commissioned scores on a regular basis? How about a NY Philarmonic program devoted to the works of Ellen Taafe Zwilich or Jennifer Higdon? It would be lights out for classical music performance. This is the truth that the musical world does not want to face. New music is parasitical on old music and can't survive without it.

I don't think of Stravinsky as modern, but even when the New York City ballet programs works to newly commisioned scores, there are usually one or more traditional ballets on the program. I'm not sure how successful NYCB is with contemporary ballet, aside from the fact that the company's character as a classical ballet company is being destroyed.

With ballet, when you see a modern work, you have the dance values to enjoy. You are not just listening to the music. It's not a pure music experience. Same with an opera. There are non- music values to enjoy.

How many operas created in the past 50 years are in the Met's repertory? When it comes to concert music, the music is the whole experience. There are no non-musical values to prop it up.

The situation with classical music is the same as when you were 25. Audiences reject new works, because they are not worth hearing. They rarely get repeat performances because there is no demand. Listeners don't buy this music to listen to. It's not commercially successful.

For decades critics have lamented the lack of public support for such music, even for someone like Hindemith who is tame next to many others. The truth that the musical authorities don't want to face is that, at the present time, there is no vibrant classical music, music that can give us the kind of emotional experiences the Old Masters gave us. It's not the fault of audiences that contemporary music is so bad. We want it to be otherwise. We wish that there were contemporary composers of real ability and genius who could give us meaningful emotional experiences. Genius has been watered down and dumbed down to the point where anyone who composes a tonal work is now a genius.

Dec. 29 2010 10:46 AM

A note to alan --

If you closely observe the patrons who walked out on Hindemith, you will note that most of them are unlikely to be deterred from many subscription renewals by the grim reaper. If you trek to Bleecker Street to visit Le Poisson Rouge, you will find an audience 30 years younger. The Philharmonic, among many classical artists, is presenting new music -- often in unconventional sites -- in hopes of attracting patrons who will outlive you and me (age 65).

Opera and dance companies have shown that there is a significant audience for new music -- the Metropolitan Opera drew huge houses for John Adams' magnificent DOCTOR ATOMIC, for example, and the New York City Ballet has fared well for years with Stravinsky, Hindemith, and commissioned scores. Why should Fischer Hall look like a Medicare office?

More to the point, who said classical music died with Puccini?

Dec. 29 2010 03:06 AM
alan from NYC

An overlooked reason for the decline in support for classical music is the extensive programming of modern and contemporary music that the vast majority of classical music listeners do not want to hear. I stopped going to NY Philarmonic concerts years ago for this reason.

Listeners, including sophisticated listeners like myself, do not want to listen to this music, because 1- it is ugly and dehumanizing and therefore detestable and 2- following from 1, it does not provide listeners with the kind of emotional experiences that they want to have. Very little modern music receives repeat performances and there is no demand for it from the public, except for a tiny minority. Hindemith's Symphony in E was performed by the NY Phil. earlier this year for the first time in only 47 years and the house was mostly empty after the pre-intermission Brahms Piano Concerto.

This points to the main reason why the public did not support the old wnyc classical music station and why it failed. I would like to see wqxr survive for all the great music it plays, but I fear the same fate for the station and for the same reasons: management seeks to impose its own aesthetic objectives on a public that does not want it- the promoting of modern, contemporary and American masters. The amount of this kind of music that is played on wqxr is much less than what was played on wnyc, but it is significant enough to weaken the support of the public which has more options for listening than in the past- mp3s, ipods and internet radio stations. I question whether management learned from its previous failure with wnyc classical. If your business model clashes with the needs of the public you serve, you either change your model, or you go out of business. This is a lesson that current management has either not learned or simply doesn't care what the public wants, or both. Therefore, I am not optimistic that wqxr will be around in the future.

Dec. 28 2010 07:20 PM
David from Flushing

Culture is changing even when there is no decline in attendance. The Metropolitan Museum enjoyed 5.24M visitors in 2009/2010--the highest in a number of years. Yet the lectures at the museum are attended by the usual classical music crowd of mostly females over age 65.

The younger visitors now pause at a work of art only so long as it takes to snap a photo and then move on. Now some of these may be on a limited time schedule, but it shows a lack of interest in contemplating a work or studying it in depth as at a lecture. Art is still enjoyed, but only at a superficial level.

One cannot be superficial at a concert, but must remain until intermission. I suspect the younger crowd does like being captive in this manner, especially if one has to dress up for the event.

Other factors in audience decline are the scary urban venues of some concert halls and the disappearance of gay males because of the AIDS epidemic.

CD and DVD technology makes it possible to enjoy reasonably good sound quality with the advantage of no audience noise, better sight lines, and a pause button for refreshments and bathroom. I would rather see "The Ring" in the comfort of home than at any live venue at this point.

Dec. 28 2010 05:44 PM
Michael Meltzer

Typo correction: "upscale" & "recital-style." Sorry.

Dec. 28 2010 01:54 AM
Michael Meltzer

In recent years there has also been some movement toward salon-style recitals in upscales homes, where there is sufficient living-room space for recital-syle seating and there is a quality, well maintained piano for solo or chamber use. The Port Jefferson Arts Council is one of the better known efforts, there are others. Performing artists are decently if not well-paid.
What has stymied the growth of this is the fact that the younger generation of higher earners went to grade-school in the years after the terrible budget cuts in music education. For all their intelligence and ability, classical music is a language they never learned.

Dec. 28 2010 12:41 AM

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