Time to settle the score

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In America, leading orchestras are in meltdown.

Welcome to the death of music, or that genre of it we define as classical. For more than a century it has captured the hearts and minds of millions, inspired the building of great concert halls in hundreds of cities, sustained thousands of musicians and created a discography that seemed timeless and enduring in its appeal. Well, timeless and enduring until now. For, despite private patronage and lashings of public funds, concert performance and ticket sales are in free fall.

Little wonder the latest attempts by Sir Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival, to halt and reverse the decline in concert going are being anxiously watched round the world. For there is a growing fear that the decline in classical concert attendance now looks unstoppable.

The thesis of the death of music is scarcely new, but seldom has the speed and scale of the decline been more evident than now. And this time it is being felt across every major orchestra right to the top. Indeed, it is not at all lurid or fanciful to suggest that the conventional classical music concert will die out within the next decade, unable to outlive the ageing demography of today’s concert-goers.

Take the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Daniel Barenboim is music director. It is rated one of the top four ensembles in the world. It is now facing the most serious crisis in its 112-year history. Ticket sales are flat. Subscriptions are falling. New corporate and individual sponsorships have all but dried up. Nor is this a special or isolated case. No fewer than 19 of the full-time orchestras in the US are facing serious financial problems. But the Chicago Symphony’s biggest problem - amplified by the stock market slide on Wall Street that has sharply reduced sponsorship income - is to halt the shrinkage of audience. And live audience is crucial, accounting for most of the company’s earned income. Similar pressures are evident in the UK, deepening the challenge posed for the Edinburgh Festival to break out of the ageing demography in which classical music is entrapped.

But can it break out? There are two views, neither of them comfortable for classical music lovers. The first at least offers some hope and is the one now embraced by concert meisters such as McMaster. This is that for classical music to survive, either it has to be offered at a discount to its real cost, with specific incentives targeted at younger people, or its presentation and performance will have to be refurbished - possibly a combination of both. It is not just how we buy tickets, but how we listen to the music, where and in what ambience and configuration, that has to be re-thought.

This school, though sharply divided between the discounters and the reformers, is slowly gaining the ascendant in an arts establishment long reluctant to admit the scale and the depth of the problem. Economist Professor Sir Alan Peacock, former chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, has long predicted the demise of the big behemoth philharmonic orchestras and the rise of the more flexible, fresher sounding - and cost effective - chamber orchestras. "We may be seeing," he says, "the end of large-scale, blockbuster classical performances. I still think there is a market for tuneful 19th-century music. But we will see more groupings and arrangements of international music events and programmes at special festivals such as Verona and Edinburgh."

What’s clear is that classical music is not going to go down without a fight. McMaster vigorously resists any notion of irreversible decline - as befits a festival director who has deployed a range of devices to sustain concert attendance levels that are attracting envious study round the world. McMaster is determined. Last year saw the popular introduction of low-price, late-night concerts. And this year will see free tickets for those aged 26 or under. But in his view it is the quality of the music offer that matters most.

"Nothing has changed since day one in music," he argues. "If you put on something good, people will flock to it. If you put on shit, people will stay away."

Even four months from the start of the festival, he proudly rattles off statistics to confound the proponents of "the death of music": 64 per cent of tickets are already sold for 20 Queen’s Hall concerts starting at 11am, and the Usher Hall concerts are already 41 per cent sold.

Sceptics would argue that this is to be expected of an international festival that draws tens of thousands of people from round the world by virtue of an intense three weeks of concert and opera performance. But the figures do provide some hope, and cannot be explained away as a consequence of resort to popular, "easy listening" classics. "People will respond to great music", says McMaster. "And that is what the Festival provides. You don’t get them hooked by second-rate string quartets wearing leather with their tits hanging out. It is everything to do with what is musically lively and exciting."

The second view brings no comfort at all. It is that the classical concert is over - with no encore. It is so antipathetic to the culture we are now in that it is destined to terminal decline. According to this view, it is not the way classical music is sold or presented that is the problem, rather what the music represents, and the demands it makes on its audience. Within this school, there is no agreement on precisely why the decline has become terminal. Certainly education - or the paucity of it - is blamed by many.

According to a recent UK survey of six to 14 year olds, 65 per cent were unable to name a single classical composer. Most people leave school without having had any introduction to classical music. But then, outside of music specialists, few teachers today have any familiarity with the classics. Even the guitar-strumming Prime Minister has got to the age of 50 before expressing a resolve to try some classical music. Colin MacLean, one of Scotland’s most experienced writers on music and author of a recently published history of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS), points out how very difficult it is for even the most committed teachers to convey their passion and enthusiasm for music without adequate back-up and support.

The Scottish Arts Council is giving 7.5 million towards music tuition in primary schools. It sounds a lot. "But," says MacLean, "this is spread over three years, leaving just 1 million to be divided between 2,000 primary schools. It’s barely enough to afford instruments, still less a qualified tutor."

MacLean’s book tribute to the work of Sir Alexander Gibson and those who have made the National Youth Orchestra possible is a spirited antidote to those who claim that the death of music is already upon us. But one can’t help but get the sense that his inspirational story is the account of an uphill struggle - and that it is not getting any easier.

Nor does he have any easy solutions. He talks of the "accident" of good teachers who can encourage an ear for classical music. "It is how to encourage ‘the accident’ that is the issue. You need to encourage good quality teachers who are backed up and supported with good instruments and good tutors. It needs teachers who can tackle the impossible."

Changing social and cultural values have also played a large part in the decline of concert-going. In a world that has become markedly more informal and easygoing, many find the idea of going to a concert intimidating. They fear the demands that classical music makes: the need to take the act of listening seriously; to follow the lines of musical thought and development through a 40-minute symphony; even to sit still for any length of time - these are activities that contemporary culture has marginalised.

According to Andrew Clark, music critic of the Financial Times, classical music is "ill-equipped to survive in a microwave culture. Its values are those of discipline, concentration, self-improvement, individualism, and spiritual/philosophical contemplation - the values of an educated minority.

"Delving into it requires the development of sensitivity, implying conflict with the value of today’s majority - the easily communicated, easily understood values of pop culture."

Those who believed that classical music should never be the preserve of a socially exclusive few and that it should be given every encouragement to acquire a mass audience have had their comeuppance at the hands of the demos they championed. The technology they hoped would create a mass following - affordable high-quality sound reproduction and the mass dissemination of classical works in ever-newer formats - has failed to lift classical music out of its niche. Nor have the millions of pounds of public funds poured into orchestras led to any uplift in ticket sales.

Recent figures show classical music sales slumped to little more than 60 million last year, a total that includes sales of easy-listening items such as Classical Chillout Gold, Classical Graffiti and Harry Potter. Simon Rattle’s new recording of Mahler’s Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic only briefly topped those pop classic combinations sold as relaxation aids, with music interspersed with the sounds of twittering birds and crashing ocean waves. Not a single classical item made the top 50 best-sellers list last year.

Perhaps the more searching question to ask is not why classical music is in such decline but why it has survived for so long. Indeed, in Clark’s definition, it could never be a mass-market, high-volume business. It has thus done extraordinarily well to achieve the penetration that it has.

One of the key developments in recent decades has been the emergence of the cult of performer - the turning of virtuosos into popular celebrities so that ticket and album sales are boosted to pop idol status. An inevitable result is that such sales have become a function of the performers, not what was being performed. And it raises doubts as to whether it leads, as enthusiasts claim, to a wider experience with classical music.

Meanwhile, the renewing spring of the classical genre - composition - has withered. It has seen itself shuttled off to esoteric dead ends of contemporary music that seem to have more to do with acoustics than music. Certainly avant-garde music attracts an intense, if cultish, following. But Alan Peacock is waspishly sceptical as to whether contemporary music is even about listening or assimilation at all. "It’s the Schnberg syndrome," he reflects, "where the main reason for having the audience is to improve the acoustics."

For the present, all now rests with the optimists in halting the spiral of decline. But this is a divided camp. The recent move by the Royal Opera House to pep up ticket sales by aping the marketing gimmicks of the Ministry of Sound have brought a resounding cry of "grotesque" from Sir Jonathan Miller, flanker marker for the arts lobby. "One has to have confidence in the art being what it is," he rails. "You can’t lure people into going to see it by dropping scratch-and-sniff cards into night-clubs and bars." Not a fan, then.

Thanks to the commitment and the imagination of McMaster, the Festival should stave off the death for music for now. But outside of it, the signs are not good. Last month one of Edinburgh’s biggest classical music retailers, Bauermeisters on George IV Bridge, launched a closing-down sale of its entire music department with an offer of 20 per cent off already discounted discs to clear the shelves.

Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler or Wagner: it makes no difference in a clear-out sale. Scherzo or largo, you’re priced to go. If it’s not yet the death of music, it feels palpably, depressingly close.