Tuesday, August 24, 2010


After reading Greg Sandow's complaints about that Heather Mac Donald article about classical music's golden age with the usual tongue-biting, I decided it wasn't worth the energy. But I feel compelled to link to Mac Donald's thorough rebuttal. (h/t Adaptistration who has links to all the posts)

(Just to be clear, Mac Donald is really an awful conservative hack on her usual beats of policy and cultural politics. Go to her archive at the Manhattan Institute, choose an article at random and just wait for your blood to boil. And yes, her article is clearly motivated in part by some wearisome bone-picking with postmodernism or 'identity politics' or whatever they think is destroying the country from the inside out.)

I will resist the urge to reargue her case, but will point to one illustrative passage:
As evidence of decline, Sandow weirdly offers the fact that a Spohr concerto for two violins sold 7,000 CDs in five months. Is he crazy? How many of us have ever heard of the Spohr double violin concerto, much less heard it performed? I unashamedly confess ignorance. If Spohr were apprised of these sales figures, would he say: Gee, how disappointing, only 7,000 CDs sold? Or would he say: What an unpredicted bonanza for my work, put in the hands of magnitudes more listeners than ever heard it during my lifetime, and who can now play it not just once, but over and over?
Which is to say: defining "success" for the classical music enterprise right now is pretty hard. Nonprofit organizations, donor funded organizations, the music recording industry, live performance, people with job security, and specially trained professionals have all been taking their lumps in recent years, and that puts classical music at the crossroads of a lot of negative forces. Its unclear what classical music will look like in ten years, and key elements of the landscape of the last 50 years will continue to disappear.

One the one hand, and especially from Sandow's business consultant's perspective, we might look at this enterprise in flux and blame its participants, ask why they insist on hurting themselves and tell them to get ready to swallow some bitter pills for the good of their bottom line. I get that. From this perspective, Mac Donald's article is like telling the horse and buggy makers that they should be really proud of themselves for perfecting the craft of buggy making and never mind that auto-mobile over there.

But Mac Donald is looking at this from the perspective of music lover rather than widget analyst. As someone who knows that classical music is a living institution subject to the whims, triumphs, and maladies of the society in which it exists. But who can also marvel at the fact that, after this century's endless cultural and technological upheaval more people than ever before (yes, that's in absolute numbers) are in love with performing and listening to and immersing themselves in the music of the past.

In public policy one must learn that, while projections are important, they should be taken with a grain of salt. History is rarely so mechanical as an Excel spreadsheet: small unanticipated shifts in one trend have huge effects elsewhere; the past does not perfectly predict the future; values and cultural norms have a way of reasserting themselves over unflinching budget numbers. Disturbing audience demographic shifts are clearly something to be cognizant of, and will potentially have a big role in what that "success" looks like in the future for classical music. But that doesn't imply we should summarily dismiss the evidence in front of our own eyes for classical music's enduring appeal, or rashly change the thing real people like now into something we think this projected future audience will like down the road.

That's not why we got in the game, baby.


Lisa Hirsch said...

You have a stronger stomach than me - I could not bring myself to read past Sandow's first response. That said, Mac Donald's original managed to overlook some very real problems, and of course I hated the casual (and erroneous) smack at everything written since, well, 1920, let's say.

P. S. Are you two coming to SF for Makropoulos? It opens November 10.

Alex said...

Indeed, a truly sensible article on the subject would fall somewhere in between. Overall I think Mac Donald has the better of this, but her reactionary agenda clearly shows in points like the one about contemporary(-ish) music.

Still shooting for Sunday the 28th for Makropoulos, but need to decide quickly, I see...will let you know!