Sunday, June 25, 2017

Classical, Smassical

The Los Angeles Times has another one of those think-pieces on the future of classical music. At risk of plowing already plowed fields, let's have a look.
Classical music may be the art of the sublime, liquid architecture and all the rest, but it has nonetheless always been a long-suffering kingdom of kvetching. Born to serve the church, Western music became in the Middle Ages an ideal medium of sacrilege, and the art form has continued over the centuries to bite the hands that have fed it, be they the aristocracy, ruling powers, philanthropists or the public. However high-minded, the history of classical music is riddled with worry and an obsessive desire for reinvention.
That's a pretty generic opening. Classical music is a rather particular art form, not really like any other, but most of that opening paragraph would apply to any art form. But this next quote hits the nail on the head;
Technology is ever the elephant in the room. The history of sharks out to cheat musicians is long and dishonorable. Today it’s Silicon Valley’s ability to redirect profits from the creators and producers to the likes of Apple, Amazon and Spotify. Equally troubling is the power of technology in the form of virtual reality, holograms and things we may not yet know about, to suck the life out of live music making.
Classical music has not made an easy transition from aristocratic patronage, to middle-class support to becoming a tiny niche in a world dominated by pop music. The visual arts have somehow found a way to become a high-end commodity, while the economics of classical music remain desperate. If we just glance at the material foundations of the art forms we get a clue why: a contemporary visual artist can make art out of pretty well anything from high-tech installations to oil on canvas to slapping a little paint on his own unwashed bedsheets. The costs can be high, as in the case of Damian Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull, or they can be low. And yes, you can be impoverished or not. But the production of visual art is not necessarily expensive while the production of high-quality classical music is always very expensive. Take the performance of The Golden Cockerel I just saw. It required the services of two different casts of vocal soloists capable of singing in Russian, plus chorus, orchestra and then the whole production staff: design, lighting, costumes, set, props and so on. Not cheap! There is an article on the subject at The Guardian, which, even though a bit old, gives some information. Most of the important numbers, such as artists' fees, are confidential, but:
One observer's educated guess is that the biggest stars, such as Pavarotti, Bartoli and Alagna, command between £12,000 and £15,000 per performance. But however expensive singers may be, they will not form the main cost of mounting an opera. Production costs - set, props and costumes - will always be the chief expense. "We have capped the expenditure on a new production at £300,000," says Padmore. "But you don't get a great deal in a house of this size for much less than £180,000 or £200,000." At ENO the average cost of a new production is £150,000.
I suspect all these numbers are higher now. But they haven't mentioned the biggest cost of all: the opera house itself. Opera requires a building custom designed and built for its very special needs and the cost of a new one is likely in the $300 million dollar range, though, again, these numbers are not readily available.

One significant cost is the orchestra in the pit. A typical fee per service is $150, multiply that by 80 musicians, multiply that by four rehearsals and you get a total of $48,000 before you have even had the opening night performance!

But getting back to the LA Times article, the occasion for it was a two-day conference on the topic of the evolution of classical music. One speaker had an interesting take:
For his part, Sam Bodkin asked what the world needs and rapidly answered his own question: “It needs more substance, beauty and intimacy, and classical music checks all those boxes.”
Frankly, that's the only kind of approach that interests me. All this other stuff, music streaming, holograms of Yuja Wang, virtual reality tours of the orchestra, all that has a faint whiff of BS about it, the elevation of shallowness and spectacle over real substance.

Let's have an envoi of substance. Here is the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg with Frank-Peter Zimmerman, violin and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Daniele Gatti, conductor:


Will Wilkin said...

Mine is a genteel poverty, I "mooch" off the Yale School of Music and the Yale Divinity School's Institute of Sacred Music, enjoying world-class class orchestral and chamber music for free or a few dollars per performance. I just heard the Berg concerto in Woolsey Hall a few months ago, probably paid $5 for a student ticket and sat right up front with my 17yo son. Yale Opera is also great, though usually just a piano rather than an orchestra, but always in a small intimate hall with great singing and convincing sets. And due to a well-connected friend, I get 2 tix free to all the NY Met Opera HD simulcasts in the local cinema --the tix would normally cost around $26 each. I'm sorry about the poor state of classical music finance, but I'm in no position to help fix it. And Bryan I appreciate your insightful comparisons to the finance of visual art and pop music. I will say only that I think modern painting and sculpture sound better than contemporary pop music.

Bryan Townsend said...

We certainly don't give enough credit to the wonderful concerts put on by major music schools, often free or for a modest ticket price.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of oversimplifying, I'll say that all of the great classical music repertoire was subsidized by the State (or courts and churches, which are essentially the same thing). In America, we've been experimenting with something entirely new, which is commercial sponsorship. This has largely been a failure. Why is it a surprise that something that has never worked in 1000 years should, all of a sudden, work?

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting point! I think that there is an important difference between patronage from the aristocracy and patronage from the state, which is that aristocratic patronage was based on the taste of individuals, some of them very highly educated, while state patronage tends to be determined by political factors or ideological ones.

Yes, there is a lot of experimentation going on and hopefully not all of it will be a failure! One acquaintance of mine used Kickstarter to fund a recording project that was reasonably successful. I don't think the problem is lack of capital, there is lots of money sloshing around, rather it is the difficulty in making aesthetic choices, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Back in the day, the aristocracy *was* the State. Francis I showed exquisite judgment in hiring Leonardo to be his court painter, but it was a State decision in the end. The State supported the arts in the Soviet Union, and it can be argued that's the only thing they did right. On the other hand, you told us that Canada seems to have a knack for wasting state money on crappy art because of political reasons. This only goes to show that State sponsorship can be good or bad, depending on the State actors. In Europe it's still mostly good, which is why classical music is much more vibrant there than in America.

Corporate sponsorship, on the other hand, is only good by accident, because its sole purpose is to maximize profit. Sometimes, accidentally, good art does that: from the Beatles to the film La La Land, you can see good art that sells. But more often than not, it sponsors garbage.

Of course, the State sponsors the arts in the US to a much larger extent than it is given credit for. Via the tax code, the US taxpayer foots up to 20-50% of the bill of most orchestras. Those who decry State patronage of the arts should ask for an end to this.

Bryan Townsend said...

Excellent analysis! In Europe there seems to be a whole body of administrators that manage the state patronage AND who know what they are doing. I'm really not aware of how the tax code supports, for example, orchestras in the US. Any details come to mind?