Let's just unpack some of those claims. First of all, is the celebrity-maestro model increasingly unworkable? I doubt that the many fans of Gustavo Dudamel or Simon Rattle or Daniel Barenboim would agree. These artists are celebrities because they are powerfully expressive musicians and that is a "model" that is in no danger of going away. But Ross says this because he has another ax to grind: "It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over." If the falsity of this were not shown simply by his quoting Theodor Adorno in support (someone whose ideology of music is famous for being wrong) then a few simple observations will make it clear. Why do orchestras play music by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and others from previous eras? Ross ends his essay by quoting the 20th century bohemian American composer Harry Partch:Not the least of the challenges that classical music faces is the increasingly unworkable celebrity-maestro model—a twentieth-century mutation, stemming from a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras. It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over. Conductors serve to generate the illusion of novelty: as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, in his “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” the maestro “acts as if he were creating the work here and now.” That top-tier conductors are almost always men is less an indication of institutional misogyny—though that certainly exists—than an inevitable consequence of the play-acting ritual: because the canonical composers are entirely male, so are their stand-ins. The modern orchestra concert is not entirely unrelated to the spectacle of a Civil War reënactment.If orchestra schedules were tilted toward living composers, there would be less of a need for podium prestidigitation. (I don’t deny that the magic can be real: Furtwängler’s recordings with Berlin are soul-shaking documents, and even as a prematurely jaded teen-ager I could feel the Bernstein spell.) No longer obligated to perform a mass séance night after night, conductors could adopt the role of organizer, instigator, mediator—a role that Alan Gilbert, in New York, has been playing expertly. Likewise, if opera houses were to embrace more contemporary work, there would be less pressure on directors to reinvent “Figaro” and “Tosca.” Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past. Imagine the condition of Broadway if it were restricted to dead playwrights, or of the publishing business if it endlessly repackaged Dickens.
It was Partch who said, “There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard of J. S. Bach.” No one has yet founded an orchestra on that principle.Ross thinks that this proves his point, but in reality it disproves it rather neatly! Ross, like most progressives, has entirely eliminated aesthetics and aesthetic judgement from his consciousness. He really thinks that the only reason orchestras are in "bondage to the past" is that they are irrational or conservative (two words that for Ross mean roughly the same thing). Ross sincerely believes that if someone founded an orchestra on ignorance of Bach--founded it perhaps to devote to the music of Harry Partch?--that this would be the solution to the "disproportional emphasis on the music of prior eras."
Let me inject a little common sense into this. Orchestras and their management and directors have a keen interest in having audiences at their concerts. Audiences tend to like good music if they have some familiarity with it. For this reason, audiences enjoy hearing music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Mahler and so on. It is good--well, great, actually--music and they have some familiarity with it. They like to hear some new music from time to time, especially if it is not too inaccessible, but they don't want a steady diet of it. And they certainly don't want to hear a lot of the aggressively avant-garde music that Ross and his guru Adorno would advocate. An orchestra founded on the principle of giving audiences a lot of Schoenberg and Partch would be a short-lived orchestra.
Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past.Yes, it is and, remarkably, this is its strength. But this is only partly true. Is not the world of theater rather strongly based on Shakespeare? Painting and sculpture also are deeply connected to their pasts as well, but it is less obvious because modern visual artists have seen impressive financial success, unlike modern composers. But it is still quite obvious to me that Damian Hirst is far from being in the same league as Rembrandt, which is why people still flock to museums to look at Rembrandts. Just as they flock to orchestral concerts to hear Mozart. Philip Glass has written some pretty good stuff, but he isn't in the same league as Mozart, aesthetically. And neither is Schoenberg. Or Boulez.
This is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mozart: Piano concerto no. 27 in B flat major, KV 595 with soloist Maria João Pires. The conductor is Trevor Pinnock:
UPDATE: Oh, that core assumption that we are barely aware of? Baldly stated it is that the ONLY aesthetic value progressives like Alex Ross recognize is novelty. New is good. Old is bad. But that collides rather spectacularly with the fact that most classical repertoire is a hundred or more years old (even the Rite of Spring, written in 1913). Just like most great paintings are a hundred or more years old and most great plays are a hundred or more years old. How do people manage to erase this from their consciousness?