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What’s the Road Ahead For Classical Music?


By Mary Collins

A panel representing several divisions of the music biz debated the future of classical music in Boston and beyond. The Learning Community event at the First Church in Boston (possessor of thriving Sunday music program and host of many of the city’s musical offerings in its acoustically superb sanctuary) voiced guarded optimism.

FCB director of music Paul Cienniwa posed questions to pianist and Longy Conservatory Dean Wayman Chin, Emmanuel Music Executive Director Patricia Krol (formerly with the BSO); baritone William Thorpe, publisher at Thorpe Music Publishing Company; and Berklee College composition professor Francine Trester. All were optimistic.

Krol pointed out that if you attend a concert and the hall is not filled, it is often because of the number and variety of high-quality groups performing on any given night. The Boston audience moreover is not just one, but several. It also is layered. At Emmanuel, which presents Bach, they dig deep, with text translations, notes, and pre- or post-performance talks, while millennials’ tastes are broader and they also seek engagement in creative programming.

Chin pointed out that the recent openings of the Art of the Americas wing at the MFA and the expansion of the Gardner Museum demonstrate Boston’s capacity for reinvention. Mayor Walsh’s initiatives in planning for a comprehensive arts program for the city were mentioned as well, yet Trester pointed out that there has to be a societal shift if arts subsidization in this country is ever going to equal what it is in Europe, where young people are better-informed about the arts partly because of state underwriting.

Questions arose about the expectations of someone hoping to make a career here in music. Cienniwa used himself as an example of a freelance musician having to cobble that together with other positions, in his case a church job and university teaching positions. Chin agreed that social and economic exigencies mean for most students it is no longer the competition route, Carnegie Hall or bust. Excellence in performance is still a goal, but excellence as teacher or pedagogue is respected as well. Another suggested that, whereas wealthy patrons supported composers centuries ago, today higher education serves that purpose for most.

Composer Trester feels audiences should be transported by pieces, as well as challenged. To those who think performing music is its own reward, she emphasized that musicians must be able to make a living. Krol pointed to Emmanuel Music’s organization comprising a board, artistic and administrative staff, and musicians, all to support the mission and proper wages. The panel agreed that the role of the Internet and digital media in the music industry has both positive and negative repercussions. Trester noted it makes access more democratic, giving more people more of a voice. No one record company is kingmaker anymore. However, it can be disempowering economically. At Longy, students are taught how to curate and publish their own bios and output online.

Publisher Thorpe recalled that the real challenge to sheet music came about in the 1970s with the photocopier. He likened the rapid changes the iPod has spurred with the period during the Industrial Revolution when people were able to afford a piano and needed sheet music, as evidenced by Piano Row, the buildings that sprang up around the turn of the last century along Boylston St. Chin said he encourages students to own printed music, and Thorpe Music Publishing, though small, runs in the black.

There was discussion about venues, whether Boston Lyric Opera’s moving out of the Schubert, BU’s selling the Huntington, and Emerson’s possible closing the Colonial mean decline in the local music scene. Some felt that nontraditional creative spaces were probably the way of the future, for example BLO’s use of the Armory and the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. Lounges and bars may become venues. Longy students use the Regattabar and can rent the Lily Pad, a storefront in Somerville, for $100 for two hours.

In holding out hope, Thorpe mentioned there was more crossover today than when he was starting out, in the 1970s. He cited the type of thing Yo-Yo Ma is doing to bring together musicians working in all kinds of styles. Trester at Berklee, a school once devoted to jazz and popular music, tells her students to think beyond labels, believing there is a concentration of youth that can be reached through music of all kinds that respect craft. Chin spoke of concerts’ becoming more of a chamber or even house-concert experience as they leave rarefied institutional settings.

But don’t count out traditionalists. Krol cannot imagine Symphony Hall closing, and Thorpe concluded that Boston is an old city respectful of the past, and the presence of all of its schools means there are a high levels of intellectual and cultural curiosity to sustain all of the arts.

Mary Collins is curator of the First Church in Boston’s history website.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thanks for this report. Did the panel address the number one question (in my view) facing us today? I mean the ageing of the classical audience, and the relatively few younger listeners/attendees coming up “through the ranks.” I felt this most keenly a few years ago regarding a highly regarded concert series in a small German town. The elderly producer of the events fell ill, and the series had to stop, because there was noone younger to take his place.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 10, 2015 at 11:07 am

  2. I didn’t ask this question, and the audience didn’t either. From reading BMint, I have come to realize that classical music audiences have always been from the older half of the populace. According to previous discussions on BMint, it seems that older people have more disposable income, free time, etc.

    As a church musician, I could ask the same question about congregations. Aside from children, there tends to be a gap between the teen and mid-adult years.

    Churches and classical ensembles could attempt to attract those missing years. Churches that do, however, seem to end up cheapening their music programs. I suspect that classical ensembles do as well.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — November 10, 2015 at 1:23 pm

  3. “Trester pointed out that there has to be a societal shift if arts subsidization in this country is ever going to equal what it is in Europe, where young people are better-informed about the arts partly because of state underwriting.”

    First of all, subsidization in Europe is waning, and, frankly, that’s the result of increasing democratization in society, which on the whole is a good thing. Second, and more important, the best form of state underwriting that will insure the survival of information about, and interest in, music as artistic expression (I worded that carefully) is the restoration of music as core curriculum in the schools.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 10, 2015 at 4:19 pm

  4. Agreed that interest and subsidization in Europe is waning. The important thing is not so much comparisons with European models, but as you suggest, the restoration of music programs in American elementary through high schools. Democratization is a good thing…let’s hope it leads to our making good choices as a society.

    Comment by Francine Trester — November 10, 2015 at 8:00 pm

  5. >> the restoration of music programs in American elementary through high schools.

    I wonder where this notion of ‘restoration’ comes from to be so universally and regularly repeated in classical circles. Music ed in all public schools is in something like reasonable shape practically everywhere one looks, depending on your definitions, even if far from ideal or what any of us would wish in a better world with higher taxes and spending for public arts ed in general.

    Much to be dismayed at here, sure, but the charge of widespread absence / cuts / unavailability seems seriously unwarranted.

    Comment by David Moran — November 10, 2015 at 10:31 pm

  6. My experience with the concert scene is largely limited to the giants: BSO and H&H. Contrary to Mr. Cohen’s experience, which I don’t doubt, what I see now in Symphony Hall looks like a much larger proportion of young to old than was the case when I began to subscribe about ten years ago. Now if the young men would only be persuaded to wear jacket and tie and men of all ages would remove their hats indoors.*

    *True story: Last season during intermission at a BSO concert I was walking along the Mass. Ave. corridor of Symphony Hall. Ahead of me was a man wearing a hat. He turned into the lobby and left the building. As he stepped outdoors, he removed his hat! I commented to the ticket taker at the inner door that that was the first time I had seen a man take off his hat when leaving a building. He replied, “Times have changed.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 11, 2015 at 1:11 am

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