A recent piece in the New Yorker by William Robin rebuts the recent Slate article written by Mark Vanhoenacker that I mentioned in my previous post. As the title of this post reflects a viewpoint I’ve been advocating for all the Classical Music is in Crisis discussions, I’ll quote the section in Will’s piece from where it was taken:
The doomsayers also like to cherry-pick a few crisis-ridden institutions and use them to generalize about the art form itself. Classical music is the sum of all its institutions, performers, and listeners, plus a thousand-year-old cultural lineage; it can’t be snuffed out through any combination of bankrupt orchestras and mediocre album sales. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that the industry remains relatively vibrant in the face of an American media culture that appears so determined to marginalize it. The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture.
Interestingly, even Greg Sandow has distanced himself, whether admirably or ironically, from the hard-lined stance of the Slate piece:
But I do think it’s both wrong and unwise to say that classical music is dead. Unwise, because the statement is imprecise. Do we mean the music itself is dead? Or the industry supporting it? Has Beethoven lost all vitality and meaning, or is it just your local orchestra?
That’s a minor quibble, though. What matters most is that the statement is — so very clearly — wrong. Classical music may be in all kinds of trouble, but it plainly isn’t dead. The music still gets performed. Many people love it. Many people learn to play it. The institutions, troubled as some of them may be, still function. Even if you think that they’re declining, even if you think some of them will be out of business in a decade, they still exist.
To be fair, the title of Slate piece was an editorial decision (for a list of this and a number of other responses to the Slate piece, refer to my post from last Sunday) though Vanhoenacker’s piece almost reads like a postmortem description of the industry.
The important point is that, how we frame the institution can shape the types of conclusions we make about it. And those conclusions may have nothing to do with the institution, or the “sum of all its insitutions,” that is Classical Music. As I stated in a related Facebook conversation about the prominence of SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) defining the debate:
Your viewpoint about the prominence of SOBs makes perfect sense if they do have as much power within the whole field as you say. I just don’t think they have as much power to define the field as you seem to. Also, I think we all should keep in mind our own idiosyncratic experiences with Classical Music (hence the first post above about bias). Since I also spend a significant amount of time teaching, doing cello sectionals, coaching youth symphonies, presenting and performing at the k-12 level, that puts me in touch with a much younger population (the kids) and their parents. That and my occasional work with College age students and non-professional community players gives me a different perspective on those involved in the whole field that doesn’t just include the “big” players in SOBs which really only exist in larger metro areas so have little direct impact in the much more expansive smaller communities.
Once we start marginalizing sub-communities (e.g. see my blog posts about the ageism implicit in the Aging of Classical Audiences discussions) within greater sum of communities within the totality of Classical Music, it’s easier to claim this or that about the field. Unfortunately, those claims will only have relevance to that small subset of the whole, while the whole may be negatively affected by that singular focus on the subset by prominent public voices.