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: