The Future of Classical Music?

This article was written for Fine Music magazine, the journal of radio 2MBS FM, for publication in 2005.

I recently attended two concerts in the Sydney region. Both featured performers of outstanding quality, the selection of music was interesting and engaging, and in each case the audiences were obviously enjoying themselves immensely. In spite of these similarities, there was one difference – the audience demographic. The first concert was a performance by a local amateur orchestra in a town hall – at this concert, I was the youngest audience member. The second concert was a presentation of Australian Hip-Hop music at the Sydney Festival – at in this concert, I was the oldest audience member.

We have all read articles predicting the imminent death of classical music, sometimes near-hysterical tomes surely more applicable to the demise of the entire Western Civilisation. A solution often given amidst the gnashing of teeth is to expand the audience demographic, or more simply, to get more young people into the audience.

On the face of it, it’s puzzling that young people do not attend classical music concerts in greater numbers. There are thousands of students studying musical instruments each year at schools and universities. Surely there would be enough of them whose interest can be sustained through to adulthood, and consequently who may be interested in attending classical music concerts in their twenties and thirties. Who are these people? What are they doing now? Have their tastes changed so much?

Organizations like Musica Viva are trying to recapture this demographic’s perceived latent interest with alternative concert presentation formats. The Ménage series is billed as “an edgy new concept in music events staged in the hottest inner city nightspots… designed for the 18 – 35 set, who want something different to the ‘concert hall experience’ but still want to hear brilliant music with friends.”

So is it the Concert Hall that is unattractive to younger people? Why would people prefer to hear an ensemble play in a nightclub rather than in, for example, Angel Place? Are younger people are unwilling to concentrate silently for the length of a Beethoven Sonata without a drink of wine or an SMS from their friends to get them through “the boring bits”?

I think it’s probably more generally a wider aspect of presentation: of the expectation that young people will be surrounded by people from very different walks of life, as an ignorant ‘outsider’ unaware of tradition. Newbies to classical music concerts invariably ask whether they have to wear black tie, even to a local choral concert in a church hall, let alone to the Opera House.

For me, going to the hip-hop concert was certainly an instructive parallel. Would I stand out too much if I wasn’t attired in a baseball cap and a basketball singlet? Would it be OK to sit quietly once inside and listen to the music, or would I be expected to “mosh” near the front of the stage? The patient young ticket seller smirkingly answered my queries, and it brought home the feeling of ‘otherness’ that must be encountered by those not used to our own concert-hall tradition.

Let’s face it, when we attend a classical music concert, we’re doing it for one main reason: the music. And perhaps that’s one way that we can attract increased legions of attendees to art music concerts in general. Over the past few years many of the professional orchestras in Australia have broadened their offerings to encompass a wider range of musical styles: here in Sydney we have the SSO accompanying Harry Connick Junior and Warner Bros. cartoons. The performing musicians apparently hate these concerts, but on the other hand, my sister’s boyfriend, an environmental engineer more schooled in the art of Korn than cornets, couldn’t wait to go. He really enjoyed the music and the innovative presentation linking the music to the creation of the film, and even better, said that he’d be interested in going to another classical music concert, as long as the music “speaks to [him] now, not just some guy living in a castle 200 years ago.”

As a composer, I sometimes wonder where my role as a music creator fits into all of this. Is classical music inherently boring, stuffy, pretentious and even irrelevant to younger people? We’ve all heard plenty of music that fits the above description. Part of the problem, if it is a problem, is that composers by necessity need to write for themselves first. If not, their art will be second-rate. And most composers (and musicians in general) are geeks and nerds: who else would voluntarily lock themselves away for months on end just to write a single piece of music, music which may be only be heard once, by a small number of people?

Part of my interest as a classical music composer has been in bringing some aspects of popular music forms – in particular its energy, extroversion and virtuosity – into my own works. To me, music is a form of communication, and these particular facets of popular music I find intriguing. I find that if a particular musical content speaks to me, then it may we speak to other people as well, composer nerdiness notwithstanding. It’s worked for other composers for centuries: why not now!

So maybe the key to the whole thing is communicating the communicating power of classical music, presented and marketed in an inclusive way. We are not a nation of boof-heads. There are plenty of younger people out there with cash to burn, looking for satisfying and engaging experiences. It will be a dream come true when I go to a classical music concert, and I am the oldest person there – let’s hope that I don’t need to live to 100 to achieve this goal.

5 thoughts on “The Future of Classical Music?”

  1. This is very topical at the moment! Arts companies all over the place are struggling with audience development (especially the under 35s) everywhere, and I think music suffers especially from this. I just wanted to add two recent experiences: last week I was involved in rehearsing and conducting (the chamber choir “Cantillation”) in the Sydney Symphony’s “Shock of the New” program. This concert was kind of like a live iPod in shuffle mode, cutting quickly from one section of a piece to another work. In this concert, the audience heard some real hard-core stuff: Webern, Stockhausen, Stravinsky and Varese. This was all mixed in with Beethoven, Elvis and Swingle Singers. There were some artistic pluses and minuses in my minds, but it was an interesting attempt at re-inventing the idea of a concert, and the audience (generally not your average subscriber) lover it!

    Another event was when I conducted Vokál for a Musica Viva “Menage” concert which Matthew mentions. Here a young, funky audience of about 200 turned up to Trackdown Studios to hear a concert of choral music (talk about nerdy!!) stretching back to the C11th through to music composed only a few years ago. This concert will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM in December, so watch out for it!

    I think in both these instances (and I hope I’m not being unduly immodest here), a combination of artistic vibrancy and a re-thinking of the concert mould had interesting results.

    Thanks for your article, Matthew.

    Paul Stanhope

  2. I am a year 11 student of questionable skill on the violin. Recently I moved to Adelaide from Sydney. My new school included regular concerts as part of the curriculum. Before long I was (suprisingly) actually enjoying hearing the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra play. I quickly developed a taste for romantic music (Dvorak in particular), as well as, well, stranger music like that of Stravinsky. I am so glad I was given the chance to hear classical music, as my own understanding of the violin and music in general increased greatly. I think you’ve got a point where you say the way the concent is presented is an issue. Going to concerts with a group of 10 or so students in my music class helped me overcome my anxieties, now I feel totally comfortable going to concerts, and am even taking some of my non-music class friends along. Classical music is a wonderful artform that isn’t as hard to understand and appreciate as most people think. Classical music isn’t dead, or even in ill health for that matter. As long as steps continue to be taken to encourage younger audiences, the future looks bright.

  3. As a student of classical music, it seems to me that what is lacking in the current profession–and something that has the potential to reclaim its attraction–is a sense of purpose. I find it rare that a fellow musician, when asked, “Why do you practice classical music?” will provide an intellectually and emotionally satisfying answer.

    Some are of the opinion that this purpose should be the broadening of classical music’s boundaries to include pop music and other art forms. I disagree. I think that the classical tradition–set down by generations of artists before us–has the power to attract the ears of the modern generation. The problem, as I see it, is that musicians have forgotten the art of emotional creativity–people have gotten into the habit of projecting their own personalities onto the music. If relearned, this art could enliven the tradition already laid down and turn it into something worthy of an adolescent’s attention.

  4. Thanks for your considered comments, Nigel. I do agree with the “sense of purpose” angle, particularly from its practitioners. At times I have noticed that many musicians just seem to be playing music because it’s their job. Contemporary chamber music performance seems to suffer from this quite a bit (in my experience) – as compared to, say, a typical rock band who really seem to have clear in their mind what they want to achieve, and how to go about it. When’s the last time you heard of a contemporary art music ensemble rehearse for the love of it?

    Re. the emotional creativity angle, like yourself I do wonder what composers are thinking when they write their music. But in fact it’s the aspect of projecting one’s own personality into the music which separates one composer from another these days. There is no longer a single common tradition into which composers delve – in Australia at least we live in a very pluralistic society and it’s only to be expected that music composition would similarly exist.

    Personally I’m not too sure that each composer doesn’t put their own “emotional creativity” into their music. It’s arrogant and purely speculative for us to say they wouldn’t. Some composers are better than it than others… or rather, the musical gestures generated by a composer may or may not align with that of an audience.

  5. I think that this question always existed.

    Classical music is essentially a by-product of the European patronage system. The ‘public’ was those that were schooled in its intricacies and were of sufficient financial standing to enjoy and partake in its privileges.

    As you say, I do believe the future of new music is not in classical music audiences, but in young people. But on the whole, young people don’t want to hear classical music (and its derivatives) anymore.

    Some things to consider:
    1. If your target audence is used to listen to the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), then why would they be interested in hardcore new music anyway, unless it is similiar to what they are used to?

    2. Popularising a classical concert as “an edgy new concept in music events” or otherwise is a risky business. Traditional classical music was and never will be mainstream, and it is difficult to make classical music into something that it is not. Pandering to the public results in softcore to hardcore classical listeners, and kitsch to those with no idea.

    3. Yes, I do believe the concert hall is unattractive to (most) young people. It’s stuffy, you have to be quiet, and it often lacks clever programming choices.

    4. To Paul Stanhope: Webern, Stockhausen, Stravinsky and Varese were hardcore over 60 years ago.

    5. And finally, to quote Leonard Bernstein, “There are no good pieces, only bad performances..” I am not trying to be mean, but more to highlight that highly committed new music performances are invaluable to the success of new music.

    Why not get more new music concerts where the people are, and in the ‘funky venues’? Where are the distorted guitars?

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