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Heather Mac Donald
Classical Music’s New Golden Age « Back to Story
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Karl Hampton Porter, conductor February 01, 2011 at 10:27 AM
I wish I had read such excellent writing and thoughts before I had entered Peobody and Julliard to study bassoon/conducting. My friends and I could have saved a bundle of money not to mention the valuable time practicing and studying music in pursuit of a music career. We can never get that time back.
Keep your eye on a new television drama gaining
momentum in Hollywood. Sexy,smart and sophisticated not to mention physically breathtaking,this show swirls around compelling relationships set against the backdrop of a top-level classical orchestra.
might find of interest
Thank you, Heather, for making me feel better about the future of the world, for once.
As I read Heather MacDonald's piece on the current situation of classical music, one word kept popping up in my mind: reactionary. I suggest MacDonald listen carefully to the Bartok String Quartets. Her narrow conservatism needs a shakeup.
As I read Heather MacDonald's piece on the current situation of classical music, one word kept popping up in my mind: reactionary. I suggest MacDonald listen carefully to the Bartok String Quartets. Her narrow conservatism needs a skakeup.
Wonderful article. It reminded me how much I love mankind. We need periodic pep talks from time to time to bolster our humanism. Thank you, Ms. MacDonald!
Classical music’s new golden age, Heather Mac Donald, City Journal Summer 2010
Heather Mac Donald’s essay on the continuing viability of classical music fails to recognize that this musical form has to compete with a burgeoning number of non-classical musical styles which are also efficiently disseminated through the portal of the world wide web and satellite broadcasting. Although pod casts, web streaming and classical music CDs have made attendance at live performances somewhat redundant, thereby partly explaining declining audiences, these instantly accessible media also allow (competitor) contemporary music to prosper and cross-breed, giving rise to a polyglot of multi-cultural and cross-period music genres. There was never this level of competing musical diversions in the baroque or romantic classical periods for a contemporary audience that possess ever shortening attention spans-another threat to the health of classical music that was left unaddressed by Mac Donald.
Wonderful, wonderful piece. And overdue for those of us who have been thinking about some of these things. Here in Detroit, unfortunately, the DSO is under severe financial pressures, as is most of Southeastern Michigan's cultural endeavors. DSO and its Orchestra Hall are Michigan's, even America's, invisible treasures. I am often dismayed that so many educated people are oblivious -- if not hostile -- to classical music. But then, I've been told as someone who grew up working poor, that my musical enthusiasms were and are "inappropriate." Buffet and Gates both strike me -- with their grand Billionaire Boys Club campaign -- as deluded as to what their money can accomplish as well as oblivious as to what it can. What a shame a organizaton like the Detroit Symphony is in peril when there is money which will go to quixotic efforts in dictatorial lands. I do like "new music," Arvo Part, Gorecki, and Reich in particular. In a series of interviews in the London Financial Times some years ago, both Steven Reich and Terry Riley acknowledged their debt to and love for Bach. As a working class kid, I was eternally grateful for classical radio, records, and Father Al's music appreciation course at St. Bernard's...
"Music records the evolution of the human soul. To hear how the elegance of the baroque developed into the grandeur of the classical style, which in turn gave way to the languid sensuality and unbridled passion of Romanticism, is to trace how variously human beings have expressed longing, desire, triumph, and sorrow over the centuries."

So how come the evolution and development of the music itself, as opposed to that of its styles of presentation, hit such a brick wall in the modern age? Did our human emotions suddenly vanish?
"...El Sistema could not be a stronger rebuke to the multicultural dogma that currently governs American education and welfare programs." Not so - El Sistema's repertoire includes Western, Latin, and Venezuelan music. Students, whether in Venezuela or the US, should be exposed to as many cultural traditions as possible. That may be "multicultural dogma;" it is also the best preparation for a global workplace.
Nothing new here - the usual -Dudamel and Lang Lang ??? makes one laugh.
the same old baloney,
What a magnificent piece.....and an equally magnificent follow-up in "The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow."
Yikes! I wish I had time to read this.

Must work on a piece of music, though, and in a broader sense, need to work on finding work.

I said flippantly, "have to be a strong argument to move me from Sandow's corner." And this may be that strong, but I don't have the energy right now to read it, as I'm trying to fund a trip to Cuba for 6 months.

So I can be immersed in affordable musical culture.
You fail to realize that no cornerstones of the 'classical' repertoire have been created since the early 20th century. I think Haydn and Mozart wouldn't recognize their music if they heard 21st century performances of their music. I'm no fan of the early music movement either, but I'm also not a fan of the 'prettiness' with which we play music today. Listening to the latest virtuoso who can play the most difficult work without a single mistake is impressive, but only just that. Musicians today are so focused on the technical aspects of playing and the beauty of their sound. In Mozart's time, the beauty lied in what was SAID with the music, not how pretty each note was.

Yes, the musicianship was poor up until recently, but this music was a living, breathing part of peoples' culture back then. With our repertiore made up of dead composers and no Modern Mozart to save the music, we are living in the past just as much as the early music movement is. The way most people hear classical music today is via recordings- cold snapshots of real performances, most of which have been heavily engineered and edited for mistakes.

It is extremely difficult to find a young musician today who can play quarter notes in a MUSICAL way. Listen to Joseph Joachim and even Heifetz and compare them to Hillary Hahn or Joshua Bell. You'll hear that which is pretty and precise, and that which is musical and human!

Ms. Mac Donald has left out one source for the boom in her otherwise admirable article: the demand for classical musicians and classical scores in film. A local classical station plays these scores without embarrassment, and one can envision the day, not far off, when these works escape from the ghetto of "pops concerts" and are heard in the musical along with the masters of old.
What drivel! So-called 'classical' music is a dead thing, and the endless performances of it, at the expense of living music, is a disgusting form of necrophilia. Music has become either background noise, or somnolent comfort-zone pap. That Mac Donald refuses to acknowledge the exciting new music being created by young composers, many of whom are hardly spoken to by the music of the 'great' composers.
It is encouraging that some modern composers are gaining the courage to produce modern tonal classical music, as indicated in some of the previous posts. Janet Dunbar is a composer whose music I find very interesting, melodic and well-crafted:

I've certainly listened to a lot of 20th/21st century classical music, and personally don't find it as appealing as what was composed prior to the 1900's (in general). What I do find is that young people (as well as older, die-hard rock fans) are often very taken with pre-1900's classical music when they are exposed to it in a significant way. This is part of the tragedy of the gradual loss of classical music being played in the main-stream venues such as the public schools, restaurants, retail stores, and even advertisements -- it takes something such as a music appreciation class or a friend bringing you to the symphony for many young people to be exposed to classical.
It is encouraging that some modern composers are gaining the courage to produce modern tonal classical music, as indicated in some of the previous posts. Janet Dunbar is a composer whose music I find very interesting, melodic and well-crafted:

I've certainly listened to a lot of 20th/21st century classical music, and personally don't find it as appealing as what was composed prior to the 1900's (in general). What I do find is that young people (as well as older, die-hard rock fans) are often very taken with pre-1900's classical music when they are exposed to it in a significant way. This is part of the tragedy of the gradual loss of classical music being played in the main-stream venues such as the public schools, restaurants, retail stores, and even advertisements -- it takes something such as a music appreciation class or a friend bringing you to the symphony for many young people to be exposed to classical.
It's true that China present a future for classical music performers, but being a different culture, certainly from the point of view of classical music, it's still unclear which kinds of performers they would like.
I liked a discussion on Pandalous on the question of music inside the frame and how Western music differs in an essential way from Eastern music:
The Golden Age of Music will remain that of Conductors: Nikisch, Reiner, Mengelberg, Munch, Furtwangler, RStrauss, Walter, Beecham, Barbirolli; In opera Sopranos: Flagstad, Rethberg, RPauly, Tetrazzini, MLawrence, Austral,- Tenors, Caruso, Gigli, Thill, Lemeshev, Lorenz, Tauber, Schmidt, Rosvaenge, - and more of that era. China will surpass the United States with instrumentalists and perhaps even singers as evidenced by their superlative Women's Chorus.
Very interesting article. It would have been even better had it not had the gratuitous side-swipes at contemporary music. It might interest Heather to know that the audience for contemporary music is quite enthusiastic and engaged. It might be smallish, but since the larger audience for older classical music is dwindling, maybe there's no room for smugness on that count.
well, yeah. lots of young gifted players dying to perform and lots of white-haired listeners in the concert halls. depressing for someone like me who worships classical music(my only religion). why no figures on cd buying?
Great analysis. I was totally unaware of the appetite for classical music in Asia. This gives me more hope that our civilization will survive the constant attacks from inside and outside that are battering us: Even if we forget Wagner, others will remember.
cool, I love you article, thanks!
While I appreciate Heather Mac Donald's perspective regarding the respect granted upon Classical music (such as performances on authentic period instruments, complete and authoritative interpretations of standard repertoire along with re-discovered old works, superb recordings, and audiences patient enough to 'sit still' and quietly absorb absolute music), I find her dismissal of 20th Century's dodecaphony and post-modernism as "inaccessible atonalism" to be ironically disrespectful in light of the current appreciation of concert music she so fervently admires and supports.

The millions of technically proficient musicians whom raise the standards of musical performance and interpretation also need to know how to perform compositions written from WWI through present day, as well as music from the Early, Classical and Romantic eras. While the BBC Symphony Orchestra may play the three Germanic Bs in one concert (Bach, Beethoven, & Brahms), for their next concert they might have the music of Elliott Carter, Toru Takemitsu, and Magnus Lindberg on the schedule. These consummate performers are required to master atonal music with the same level of professionalism on display as with their deliveries of the more socially-acceptable tonal music from pre-1900.

One wonders what Pierre Boulez's reply might be to Heather Mac Donald's adoring emphasis on Pre-Classical, Classical and Romantic music, all the while she's deliberately ignoring the contributions from the Second Viennese School and Darmstadt (and beyond)! Now that we are 1 decade into the 21st Century, one hopes that Mac Donald (and the people sharing her bias) will not persist in this day and age to subscribe to the outmoded notion that music with a tonal center is a gift from heaven to be placed upon a pedestal and worshipped, whilst she (they) denigrate(s) serialism despite its 100 year span helping to push forward into new directions/territories the sound of modern human expression.

Consider this, Ms. Mac Donald: would James Conlon ever have claimed that "the professional standards are higher everywhere" had it not been for the many decades (from the 1920s up to the present) during which the assimilation of atonal music facilitates the rigorous training for these young musicians of today (and the future)...

... Pardon me, Ms. Mac Donald, whilst I listen to some works by Luigi Dallapiccola. You go ahead and listen to some lutes and serpents; when your music stops, mayhap you'll hear Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler turning in their graves...
This is an article that I thought you'd enjoy reading. It not only covers classical music generally, but provides a good context for early music and its performance on period instruments as well. Enjoy!
I will always remember the Beethoven recital of pieces played on a pianoforte in a small church. Exquisite. I have no idea what Beethoven would have thought or if he would have preferred hearing his work in a large symphony hall played on a grand piano. If the music speaks to us, if it becomes part of our lives and experience, that should be the only aim. The idea of some "purity" avoids the primary purpose of art.
In my comments of July 21, I mentioned the contemporary composer Stefania de Kenessey. The articles cited below (the latter two by her) may be of interest to readers.

"Everything Old Is New Again: As If the Twentieth Century Never Happened," NewMusicBox, September 1, 2001 --

"Music of the Derriere Guard," Stefania de Kenessey, Expansive Poetry & Music Online, nd --

"Notes From a Composer," Stefania de Kenessey, Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, February 13, 2009 --

Regarding this last piece, I wonder about de Kenessey's characterization of Romantic nineteenth-century music as "overripe" and "overheated." For many listeners, including me, it's just right!

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) --

Excellent article, right on the money in regards to the wonders of the historical revival we are living through. Never have so many riches been available to so many listeners. Could have done without the gratuitous dig against unionized musicians, especially since it is clearly contradicted by other parts of the article.
Great article ... covers a lot of ground ... wonderful explanation of performance practise ... hard for me to imagine playing junk between 2nd & 3rd movements of Beethoven's 9th.

Bill Drissel
Grand Prairie, TX
After I wrote a brief comment, I read Alban Schoeberg's comment and it inspired me to say more. Everyone knows that each age has its own unique view of the music being composed in it. I would say that Heather expresses what this age thinks about the music being composed now. But still, opinions diverge and Schoenberg's seems to be the view of a very small minority. Nevertheless, as the case with all views, his must be respected.

Recognizing that both atonal (cerebral) and tonal music is being composed today, I have general comments holding for both and for each individually. Music today may well suffer from poverty of inspiration. The creative spirit is diverted into areas that didn't exist in previous lives (ages) - technology, advertising, the movie industry and so forth. Both tonal and atonal suffer. Tonal music is often movie music, the salon music of this age. Furthermore, a good movie usually results in a popular film score. But no composer ever composed a wondrous score for movie that flopped (like Schubert's Rosamunde).

Both tonal and atonal music is forced off on us by those who decided what's on concerts. Our concerts are deemed to have a balance, even if most the audience doesn't want to hear modern stuff and players would rather no play it. Audience enthusiasm tells all.

Finally, the area where real freedom lies is in recordings. How easy is it to sell contemporary recordings, exceptign film scores?

I love what Heather had to say and quarrel with nothing of significance in her article.
Your beautiful article changed my mind; I am also a musical optimist from now on!
Think of it as mankind (the arts) having a collection of past (& future) lives parallel to the way an individual has.

Think of it as positive, hope in a world gone mad with poverty, disease, global warming, oil spills and on and on.
Cultural anchors such as literature, drama, art and music, have all been dislodged or otherwise weakened in the world's modern cultures.I am remeinded of a drama teacher in an Arizona state college who was not allowed to present Shakespear, but was required to use plays written by ghetto refugees who wrote in the street vernacular. He failed to get promoted ,and quit in despair. The intellectual value of classical music is lost to teachers and students alike. Pablum is preferred to body and mind-building steak , so to speak. Lowest common denominator standards prevail in most areas of current public life. The worlds of the nineteenth and earlier centuries are unknown to the vast public that simply take up space and then die.
Thank you, Heather MacDonald. In a world where The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra forbade applause after a Beethoven symphony so they can get right into a modern disjointed "composition" it is enlightening to learn that the philistines and the innovators have been at work for centuries.The belief that the new is superior has had a destructive impact in many artistic fields. In the 19th century many beautiful artistic works of architecture and in stained glass did not survive the work of the "preservationists." In the 20th century there is no shortage of examples of the inferior "new" challenging the "superior" old. Compare the classical music venues of Carnegie Hall to Avery Fischer at Lincoln Center. Thanks to Isaac Stern and others the beauty of Carnegie is still with us and providing the best of settings for the classical music so many enjoy.
Alban von Schoenberg July 22, 2010 at 9:35 AM
Interesting article, but flawed. While there are some good points here, the author once again dumps on "nasty dissonant modern music" in the reflexive manner of conservative cultural critics.

What this ignores is 1: tonality never actually went out of style and plenty of modern composers write in a tonal style; 2: dissonant modern music does have fans, but they tend to be younger, from less traditional backgrounds, and less likely to patronize traditional concert formats; 3: a number of contemporary composers (examples: Adams, Reich, Part, Messiaen, Schnittke, Ligeti) get played quite often and sell quite well; some of them even make inroads into popular culture (as any viewer of "2001 A Space Odyssey," which uses Ligeti's music, will recognize).

In short: this looks like another attempt to prove one's politically conservative bona fides by promoting aesthetic conservatism. (Although the implicit praise for Communist China and Chavez's Venezuela in this article is quite funny and discordant.)
But who is creating the new classical music? We may have many new Horowitzes coming but where are the modern day Beethovens?
Well done article by Heather Mac Donald.
Classical music is in America, despite some bright spots, is in danger of becoming extinct in many schools and communities. Yes, we have a lot of classical music talent but as economic hard times continue many orchestras face the ax as they cannot pay their way. We have to face the facts that many orchestras are losing their audience. One just have to see all the white hair and a classical concert to know this is so. As compared to the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s classical music is now just a specialized taste for a tiny elite. Once knowledge of classical music was a prerequisite for middle class college going families. I don’t think this is true any more. Professor Daniel Asia has written about this decline of interest in and knowledge of classical music among the general public. Of course, Alan Bloom documented the triumph of pop-rock over “high brow” music in the 1980’s. However, I am more optimistic than professor Asia who states that “piano and song concerts…are a thing of the past.” But that is not true as the popularity of the Irish tenors proves; a singer like Anthony Kearns may not focus on classical lieder but instead traditional ballads (the kind that always rounded out the concerts of great tenors like John McCormack and the late Kenneth McKellar) but in this crossover classical world we see Broadway songs like “Til there was you”, melodies from films “Nella Fantasia” hymns like “Jerusalem” and “Nessum Dorma exist.
Classical music still is important in the movies as it is still the most versatile music to create mood and tension. But Ms. Mac Donald alluded to another phenomenon and the relative popularity of classical music and classical crossover music in Latin countries and in the Latin communities.
Another reason I am optimistic about this country and about the future of classical music is due to our immigrant communities from China and Latin America. Many thoughtful people fear immigrants because they think they are uneducable and that they lower the level of civic and cultural life in America. I disgree. I have never felt at anytime that immigrant students were uneducable or totally a negative culture, religious or social presence in the USA. Given the chance for an education most respond and I would say they are, on average more appreciative of their educational opportunities than the average American student. In addition, immigrant students often like classical music and this is reflected in their high participation in school bands, school musicals and choirs as well as in youth choirs in our local churches.
I have taught immigrant youth for over 20 years and would not say my students are exceptionally well tutored in classical music. But they are receptive to it and if I were to mention Plácido Domingo or Il Divo quite a few would recognize who they are and genuinely like them. By contrast I could teach native born English-speaking students for five years and never once find a student who knew who Shirley Verrett was or Renee Fleming was or even Katherine Jenkins.
Classical music is much closer to the style of popular music that Latins enjoy listening too and for that reason Latins are, in general , more receptive to classical crossover music and classical music than many American youth. We see in the popularity of groups like Il Divo. Gustavo Dudamel a world class conductor from Venezuela is rapidly becoming a household name and regularly appears on Spanish-language TV for interviews and he is active in community and cultural events. This year he even appeared on the Spanish AP tests!!! (Let me say by the way that Hugo Chávez does not deserve any credit for the success of José Antonio Abreu’s youth orchestra programs as he developed this program before Chávez took power. But I will give Sr. Presidente for life Chávez credit for leaving these programs to flourish).
Ms. MacDonald never wrote truer words when she wrote: “El Sistema could not be a stronger rebuke to the multicultural dogma that currently governs American education and welfare programs. Its premise is that all children should be exposed to the West’s highest artistic accomplishments.” I only wish she would realize that immigrant children could actually have a positive role to play in the revival of classical music in America.
There is no question that our heritage of classical, traditional and national music is an essential part of our civilization and if we neglect it we do indeed impoverish the souls and minds of our children.
“The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty,” Abreu has said. “From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor.” Yes, “shared gold goes not far, but a shared song lasts forever and delights forever.”
No one who learns to appreciate or produce the beautiful, dramatic, lyrical, rousing and sometimes hauntingly beautiful tones of classical music with its immense range can be unaffected spiritually and intellectually. Classical music will bring you closer to classical literature. Otello before it was a Verdi opera was a great Shakespearean play Othello, Lucia di Lammermoor was a Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermore and La Forza del Destino was a Spanish play (Don Alvaro o la fuerza del sino) by the Duque de Rivas. James Galway is renowned as a great classical flautist and yet he never severed himself from his early love of traditional music; he said famously “If it ain’t got a tune; it ain’t music.” Galway deplored avante-guarde and experimental music which he called “squeaky gate stuff.” On the other hand he glories in the simple lyricism of traditional and national music which he recognizes as the root of all classical music. And classical music should never be stuffy. It should be part of patriotic concerts and it can be funny –let us remember Victor Borge. Music can play a fundamental part in the narrative of our lives. I will always remember the music played at my parent’s funerals, at John F. Kennedy’s funeral -which I saw live on TV with my family- at my uncle’s funeral at Arlington and at the funeral of Kenneth McKellar at Paisley Abbey. I remember the music we sang at family gatherings, on the day of our weddings because music is an essential part of celebrations, rites of passage and farewells. I remember the music of the last classical concert I attended with my father. I remember the first time I ever heard Nessum Dorma in an impromptu concert next to my mother’s piano sung by Broadway star William Tabbert who was a friend of my parents. What I appreciated from my earliest days is that there were no artificial lines between classical, popular, national and traditional music. We enjoyed them all and I think Broadway tunes, Christmas songs, hymns and folk songs we sang were a causeway to the greater world of classical music, lieder and opera.
When classical music appeals to the everyday life of the people, their joys, their sorrows, their loves, their losses, their aspirations it can move and elevate. And I would argue once a taste for such musical thought enters the soul it cannot fail to take root, to charm, to lull and penetrate the heart with its unique undertones of harmony and its rising lyrical toccatas of passion.

Can classical music solve our economic problems our social problems and our immigration problems? No, I do not think so. No but music can brighten the heart and kindle friendship, love and understanding. Music feathers the dart of philia love when she hums and when she sings her arrow of true love is sent home to the heart. No, music will not solve all our problems but I believe it has the power to inspire, to unite and to send forth ripples of hope. United by great music people can forget what divides them. Victor Borge "Phil the flutter's ball" Sir James Galway with the Priests James Galway and the Chieftains Marine Band Otelo Lucia Di Lammermoor La Forza del Destino Lara: Granada Il Divo.

Thank you for a remarkable article. You made sense out of a lot of (for me) confusing things about the music I hear. Your article made me want to spend more time listening to all kinds of music.
A religious scholar wrote a book that is entitled (or themed) "What you can't not know" (About the certitude of God.)

It is astonishing, but Ms. Mac Donald seems to can't not know about everything
that is important. She and a very few others may be from an advanced civilization of another planet.

This is a most heartenly essay -- best news of the past decade at least.
Just a wonderful piece, Heather. SF local Scott Fogelsong posted a similar piece just the other day: I'm happy to be reading some silver linings regarding the industry, especially since I am headed into what may be a gloomy ACSO conference for the rest of the week.
A most eloquent and informative review ...
Thank you

I intentionally listen to classical music to clear my head from all the African urban ghetto rap that fills the airwaves and TV commercials. I refuse to be Africanized in my America.

And, I enjoy reading Heather MacDonald, because she gives proofs that White Humanity is no longer responsible for black failures and pathologies.
I wonder if Berlioz' insistence on the subserviant stance towards the ancestral pantheon did more harm than good, creating a moribund little backwater. Thankfully such genuflection is not yet too endemic within contemporary (ie "popular") music, which (you neglected to mention) is no less artistic than classical music.
Thomas Derthick – – responds to my post of yesterday by asking that I define “avant-garde” as that term applies to music. I will not attempt an explanation here except to suggest that most readers, musicians as well as ordinary music lovers, know what I mean by it. Michelle Kamhi and I discuss the topic in some detail in Chapter 12 (“Avant-Garde Music and Dance”) of ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000).

I agree that such terms as “avant-garde” should be used with care and precision. But so should “contemporary” (a term Mr. Derthick uses) regarding music or any of the other arts. In artworld discourse the term "contemporary art" does not simply refer to work "of the current period," as ordinary usage would lead one to expect. In the visual arts, for example, it refers to postmodernist work and abstraction, but never to classical or academic realist painting and sculpture by living or recent artists. So, too, the term “new” or “contemporary” regarding music does not ordinarily apply to work by such neo-classical composers as Stefania de Kenessey -- / . These euphemisms are often used by advocates of such work in place of “avant-garde,” which carries with it negative connotations in the minds of most ordinary music lovers.

Commenting on Heather Mac Donald’s article, Tali Makell – -- says that it strikes him as “an amalgam of the writings of various conservative music critics one could find in various newspapers several decades ago or more.” Where has he been? Rupert Christiansen (2007), London Telegraph; Joshua Kosman (2005), San Francisco Chronicle; Bernard Holland (2004, 2003), New York Times; and Donal Henehan (1988), New York Times, have all written music criticism more recently that broadly reflects Ms. Mac Donald’s point of view in the present article as well as in “The Abduction of Opera” (2007). (All dates in parenthesis refer to the year the individual was given an Aristos Award -- .)

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) --
A little light reading for you my sweet.D
Classical music is dead. Its been dead a long time. I think the last great work was about 1953. It was the best, but its gone. All we have now is ... god knows what rubbish. Only a tiny percentage of people on this planet have any interest in it. Almost all living composers produce unpleasant garbage that nobody really likes to hear. Jazz is dead too, if that's any compensation.
The classics can be reinterpreted and played beautifully, but in the end, its just lipstick on the corpse. We will never again reach the heights of Bach and Beethoven but are lost in the swamp of the populist culture at its most sordid and banal. The barbarians have won and we have lost.
Fantastic article! You can either see Classical Music as dying or at the brink of re-invention. I hope the later to be true.
As a professional free-lance musician/teacher I have found myself more challenged than ever before on how to make not only a living, but in how to educate the public in the passion and hard work that goes into my day, much of which I don't make a penny to do. Yet, I cannot see myself doing anything else. We are considered crazy by many. I don't think the everyday person can ever grasp what our drive is all about. How we can tetter on poverty and still maintain our passion for something that may never have a financial reward?
What has value in a world obsessed with financial gain? I hope to think because of my choice and that of others, who do what we do regardless of the consequences, classical music will always have relevance!
With all due respect, this article strikes me as an amalgam of the writings of various conservative music critics one could find in various newspapers several decades ago or more. Again, "those nasty atonalists" are trotted out as the usual villains, the spoilers of American musical culture, when their music was never at any time the primary fare of most American concert venues. Conservative listeners have tended to find any music that is not familiar, or which was composed after 1900, as an affront to their eardrums. On the contrary, it is not really the musical fare offered at concerts that was ever the problem. It is that, increasingly, the traditional concert hall has become irrelevant, especially considering the way most people listen to music. The presentation of early music by performance-practice savvy instrumentalists is hardly the answer to this problem. A combination of music education in the schools, community outreach by musical organizations and the introduction of innovative ways of presenting music, which includes fostering an interest in new music, all strike me as possible ways to keep art music from becoming moribund, an irrelevant vestige of a bygone age, suited only for museum-like concert venues. So, "difficult modern music" was never the real problem. Rather, the fact that traditional means of presenting music needs to be upgraded and/or replaced by innovation strikes me as being nearer the mark.
Once the writer leaves historical reference and
is commenting on the contemporary scene her
lack of insight ( on the likes of the Dudamel and
Lang Lang to name just two , of how they got to
where they are) is abysmal .It is clever writing
seemingly thought out ,but carries little in depth
thought.And to quote a comment by folk such as
Sirota bears this out .What is he really saying ? It
is a type of feel good article which some clever
writers pass off as an in depth observation .
Excellent article on the whole, but it unfortunately gives short shrift to the contemporary music scene, which though not without difficulties, is hardly moribund.
Despite the lasting popularity of music from the past,there is absolutely no lack of new mmusic being heard today. Composers such as John Adams,Thomas Ades,Kaaia Saariaho,Hans Werner Henze,William Bolcom,Elliott Carter,Arvo Part, Tan Dun,and many others can't complain that their music is being neglected, and orchestras do play more new or recent music than many realize.
Old and new music co-exist,as they should. We need them both,and cannot do without either.It's time that we got rid of the false dichotomy between old and new music.
Those who lament that in the past"all or most music was new" fail to realize that there is simply greater diversity
of repertoire in classical music than every before. How can this be a bad thing?
Wonderful article, Heather. Indeed, it is a Golden Age of sorts--and our job as musicians is to attract more of society to the music to assure it has success further into the 21st century.
Question for Louis Torres: define "avant-garde" when it comes to music? Every new idea in its time is experimental, and the vast majority of them are rejected, either by performers and/or audiences--which of course is why we have so many neglected works to dredge up from every era!

As for audiences finding "culturally relevant new music," even Mr. Kosman would agree that Cabrillo would be a good place to start. In any case, we should be careful to attach labels ("avant-garde" is used too often to scare folks), or to paint with too broad a brush what audiences think of the contemporary music of their time. Nor should we underestimate the lasting influence of performers determining what music lives on or dies from any era. Had Mendelssohn not wanted to revive the long lost works of Bach (or Bernstein the symphonies of Mahler), these works would have only survived in musicology textbooks instead of taking their rightful places in concert halls. I'm certain that in the next half-century performers will be deciding with their programming whether the music of John Adams, Chris Rouse or Mr. Rautavaara will take places in the standard repertoire. I look forward to this playing itself out.
Thank you for providing this much-needed perspective. We live in exciting times for music.

"The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks."
- Randall Jerrell
Barry from Victoria July 20, 2010 at 5:53 PM
There's a lot to agree or disagree with in this very good article, but I would like to take the opportunity to mention that we have at least one great composer in our generation: Einojuhani Rautavaara of Finland. Many of his works are available on the iTunes store. Music lovers,give yourself a treat and check it out.
Heather Mac Donald’s bio on the Manhattan Institute’s website notes that her articles in City Journal span a wide range of topics, among them “homeland security, immigration, policing and 'racial' profiling, homelessness and homeless advocacy, educational policy, the New York courts, and business improvement districts.” She also happens to be one of our culture’s most astute writers on the arts. Recipient of Aristos Awards for her critiques of avant-garde trends in opera and the elevation of graffiti vandalism as a “vital art form” by the New York Times, Mac Donald is an eloquent advocate of the view that the great traditions in the arts are still relevant today.

In the present article Mac Donald observes that “at a time when much of the academy has lost interest in history, contemporary classical-music culture is one of the last redoubts of the humanist impulse.” How sadly true. Her suggestion that contemporary audiences would eagerly embrace the performance of “unknown old music” is disputed by David Vickerman (see below), who suggests instead that music lovers might be drawn to what he himself prefers--“culturally relevant . . . new music.” What he means, I suspect, is “avant-garde” music. But as Mac Donald correctly points out, “the public could not be more unequivocal: it finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves.” A few intrepid music critics, ranging from Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle to Bernard Holland of New York Times have in recent years made similar observations (see our listing of award winners and links to their remarks).

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) --
A couple of things here. One, "elitism" is a very dirty word in the U.S. today (although that brings its own elitism of not letting people like what they like). Two, technical proficiency is one thing, but expression another. What is being taught to these thousands of Asian students? It's not the same as executing a quadruple jump or breaking a time record. And as far as "school bureaucrats" embracing programs, they're having trouble enough keeping the doors open.
Real nice piece by one of the best journalists around.
Prospects for classical music across the globe are built now on the foundations of encouraged performance of the sort Dudamel represents. Whether publicly or privately funded, its results in his case at least are properly celebrated. Isn't it sad Bill Gates doesn't doesn't open his own hands to clap.
A well written article. The author neglects comment on another sadly diminished feature in the life/propagation of classical music: the decline of its broadcast. How many radio stations have changed format from classical, to classic rock? How many, such as the San Francisco Bay Area's KDFC, equate "classical music" with easy listening? This, just as much as the decline of music in the schools, has led to the shrinkage of audience -if these easily available outlets no longer exist to acclimatize a listener, how are we going to get them into concert halls?
Thank you for a beautifully written and most instructive article. Lovers of high culture cannot coast indefinitely on the social prestige of the arts. They have to show by their own actions and economic choices what is really valuable to them. So, walk the walk and support your local musicians.
David Vickerman July 20, 2010 at 1:02 PM
The major flaw I find in this article stems from the fact that the author states that since there are more performers, audience members and ensembles today than ever before, that classical music is in another golden age. This fact does not take into account that the population of the planet has also increased! Has the percentage of "classical" music performers, audience members and ensembles in relation to the rest of music performing/listening world also increased? Somehow I doubt it. (Would love to see data on this if anyone has it...)

I also have a problem with accepting that if we dredge up all the lost music of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that it would automatically resonate with audiences. I think the most vibrant and culturally relevant music experiences, at least in the "classical" world, that I have personally experienced have included and promoted new music. In fact the author even admits that music that older music was rarely performed during the earlier centuries because it was not en vogue to do so. Nowadays we have a canon and guaranteed you can hear the same pieces show up year after year in major orchestras and opera houses. If we were to truly go back to the way things were done in Mozart's and Beethoven's time, we would be premiering new works constantly!
This is a serious article full of useful and interesting stuff, but contains, for me at least, a wonderful cognitively dissonant kicker. The singlemindedly conservative (politically and musically) MacDonald concludes with a paean to “two of the best hopes” for the future of classical music, and hopes they can both counter Silicon Valley “elitism” and “persuade even the LIBERAL Ford Foundation to return to its roots in classical arts funding.” (Emphasis mine.) No mention, however, of the political contexts in which these two phenomena have arisen. They are, of course, the nominally Communist China, and the Venezuela of the arch-fiend Hugo Chavez.
A couple of observations:

Why do works of art music fall into neglect? Not just because audiences do not demand their performance, but becuase performing artists themselves no longer wish to perform them. While the recreative movement has reexamined chestnuts of the 18th and 19th centurys and their performance techniques, and brought back to life music from the 15th-17th centuries, most of the neglected baroque works return to their neglected status soon thereafter, for the same reasons they initially fell out of favor--better works outlasted them. Sadly, Ms. MacDonald does not comment on the current, living process of contemporary composers and performers making the art of today. She should visit the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz sometime, or go see "Bang on a Can."

Second observation: it is unfortunate that the author has a strong bias against unionism in art music. While Ms. MacDonald is glad to quote Berlioz' frustrations with amateurs destroying the music of his time, she seems supportive of unwinding the professionalization of music in America (due in large part to collective union action) as a means of improving the art form. This can only lead to having no professional outlet whatsoever for our outstanding conservatory graduates, and a return to the musical anarchy of bygone centuries. It is unfortunate that Ms. MacDonald resents regional and metropolitan orchestra musicians earning a living wage under productive and safe conditions, and the well-earned compensation of our major orchestra musicians--the best ever at their craft--whose compensations still pales to that of other professionals of equal education and training. Artists have always lived for art--never more so than today--but the rent must be paid.
Henry Peyrebrune July 20, 2010 at 11:25 AM
Great article! However, I do think that the "orchestra growth-is-a-function-of-militant-unionism-enabled-by-profligate-Ford-Foundation-money" meme is dead wrong. It's a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. During the same time period, we saw among the political, academic and business elites in the US, a widespread commitment to the supporting excellence in all the arts and making it accessible throughout the country as proof that America was a great civilization that could rival the great civilizations of history and especially the Soviet Union. The result was an explosion of growth in all the arts, the establishment of the NEA and all 50 state arts councils, the building of performing arts centers across the country and the establishment of performing arts programs at many state universities. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations set as a goal the establishment of 50 full-time US symphony orchestras - a goal that has now been achieved and one which allows musicians to dedicate themselves to their art rather than having to work side jobs outside of music. Musicians benefited greatly from this leadership and commitment to the arts from the political, academic and philanthropic elite, but the growth was certainly not caused by the musicians' union.

The current "unmet demand" for classical music in small cities was intended to be filled by the establishment of orchestras throughout the country, but those are the orchestras that are struggling the most and the salaries there are meager and stagnant- a few thousand dollars per year for most of them. The economic difficulties of today's orchestras are in large part the result of loss of status and the changing values of our cultural, educational and philanthropic elite.

Henry Peyrebrune
The Cleveland Orchestra
My first serious introduction to classical music was via Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concert series which were shown in black and white on Malaysian TV during the late sixties. Such was the impact of the series that it opened up to me a new world and experience of listening to music that I never even knew existed before, at least on a level beyond that of mere accompaniment to a movie. Whatever knowledge I had then of, say, Beethoven's music was the introductory bars of his Eroica symphony that formed the prelude to a TV program on WW2. But Lenny changed all this and added a new dimension in my life, indeed, enriched it beyond description.(For this I am forever indebted to maestro Bernstein and needless to say, there is always his peerless recording of the Eroica with the Vienna Phil. that I would listen to every now and again just for the inspiration, enthusiasm and understanding that this late great maestro was capable of generating.) Bringing back this TV program, perhaps, seems to be the only answer to address the problem of dwindling audiences.
A fine read, comprehensive and positive. As a classical music instrumental teacher, I can certify at the incredible interest and demand for instruction. I have many children who want to play Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi - the tradition is alive and well, because it bind us together in its deeper, common humanity.

Thanks for the article!
An interesting & encouraging article. But it cannot take away the serious problem that all this activity is nothing more than a museum culture; a brilliant museum culture but a closed, self-referential culture nonetheless and disconnected from contemporary life in the most important aspect: contemporary composition. Also, this museum culture is European through and through; its popularity in China proves its universalism. It is astonishing that contemporary European composers utterly fail to pick-up this tradition and develop it according to their own taste, as happened in the past. Yet, some composers are currently emerging who have the talent to do exactly this: Nicolas Bacri and Richard Dubugnon in France, David Matthews in England, Alexander Smelkov in Russia, the American Jeff Hamburg in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the 'new music establishment' which is hugely impopular and disrespected by classical music audiences, and hence heavily state-funded, is a serious hindrance to a revival of the European classical tradition (of which Britten and Shostakovich were the last masters), because of vested financial interests. It is to be hoped that record companies and programmers will discover the enormous potential of new music like the mentioned composers.... It could create a momentum which would serve also the old repertoire well: showing that its values are indeed timeless and universal, and can be revived: thus splintering the glass show-cases surrounding the 'old' works and show how they are connected with our own times, and not a museum culture.
A fine article.