Critic’s Notebook: Evolution, revolution, smevolution: The future of classical music

Music Critic

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.

Music Academy of the West — the summer training program for young musicians on an elegant campus nestled among Montecito mansions and overlooking a scenic stretch of shoreline — held a two-day conference this week called “Classical Evolution/Revolution.” Eighteen movers and shakers, young and seasoned, working in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York and London, took part in six panels surveying the state of the field.

The curriculum for such symposiums is expected to ask all the pressing questions. What horrors will disruptive digital unleash next? How can we develop new audiences without teaching music in schools? Can classical music, that sliver of a sliver of the modern zeitgeist, possibly matter? Where, everyone in the business desperately wants to know, will the next dollar come from?


If anyone should be anxious, it’s Graham Parker. Last July he was appointed president of the U.S. division of Universal Music Classics, which includes such fabled classical record labels as Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. The classical market has long been expected to die on the vine. Classical buyers still want CDs but can’t readily find them. To top the charts, a new classical release once needed to sell tens of thousands. Now a few hundred units makes for a coveted bestseller.

But that doesn’t mean the classical music baby need be thrown out with the the CD bathwater. A cheerfully upbeat Parker ended the conference raising eyebrows with the claim that in any given month an extraordinary 30% of the U.S. population listens to classical music on some device. That translates to 100 million people in our country alone! Another happy number he threw out is that more than 40 million Americans sing in a chorus (an estimate that includes church choirs).

Of course, how you best reach these millions is another matter. There are also millions more who don’t know what they are missing. Classical music might just supply the spiritual nourishment they seek.

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.

Again, such dire predictions are nothing new in classical music. And yet so much classical has been around for so long that it would be hard to get rid of it all. Live performance has lasted, furthermore, because, as Los Angeles Opera head Christopher Koelsch said Tuesday, “The human creature craves the communal.”

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.”


So Bodkin founded Groupmuse, which uses social media to build audiences for intimate concerts in homes, breaking down the barrier between listener and performer. “People are looking to go places they can’t find in contemporary commercial society,” he said. Beethoven in your living room or grungy basement — as far as Bodkin is concerned, any place can provide a newbie’s aha moment.

The human creature craves the communal.

— Christopher Koelsch, Los Angeles Opera president and chief executive

What is maybe new to our time is the necessity for everyone — the creators, the practitioners, the producers and the audience — to become determinedly flexible. The ways to make and consume classical music keep expanding. The technological wonders of the modern world take, but they also give. It is not just good but essential to be adaptable and open. And wary.

The idea of putting faith in the artists was another central point. Luke Ritchie and Toby Coffey, who respectively head digital innovation and development departments for the Philharmonia Orchestra and the neighboring National Theatre at the Southbank Centre in London, are working at the cutting edge of virtual reality and did a fairly convincing job of making that seem a less scary reality. Both demonstrated concern with enhancing content and disdain for digital trickery.

Ritchie has the advantage of the orchestra’s tech-savvy principal conductor and artistic advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He takes viewers hooked up to those clumsy VR masks on an illuminating tour of the orchestra that you really could never get any other way. The National Theatre is more radical, with its immersive storytelling. An audience member can wear VR goggles that create a 360-degree spatial environment that feels completely interior and dreamlike, and at the same time interact with live actors, resulting in intense situations, where the theatrical confusion between reality and dream state weaken emotional defenses. The implication for opera is terrifying and thrilling.

However encouraging the fact that artists may have a chance to help mold VR technology, which is still in its infancy, that is a future as yet out of reach. And it is coming up against what is a much bigger trend of reviving, as Bodkin is doing, the physical connection between performer and audience.

“The value of discovery in an audience is diminishing,” lamented Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. But her solution is simply “listen to and support the artist.” She said that her guiding principle is something that the French director Ariane Mnouchkine once told her: “For somebody in the audience, this will be their first experience with theater, and for somebody it will be their last.”

One of the great contributions of Mnouchkine’s avant-garde company, Le Théâtre du Soleil, has been the understanding of the importance of space as the place. She took over former munitions factory in eastern Paris where she could create a uniquely communal environment for a revelatory new ritualistic theater. Yuval Sharon, founder of the Los Angeles opera company the Industry, described how masterminding operas in Union Station or in limousines driving through downtown L.A. offered a unique engagement between city and artists, allowing audiences to find all kinds of unexpected resonances.

Though Sharon may be a paradigm shifter, he distinguished his approach as a director from that of a disruptor. “The dictates of the work is everything,” he said, and, no, Wagner should not be done in Union Station, although his next project will be the creation of a play-opera hybrid of Brecht’s “Galileo,” with music by Andy Akiho, to be staged in September around a bonfire on the beach in San Pedro.

How to improve the world without making matters worse? Would a holograph of Yuja Wang playing at Walt Disney Concert Hall broadcast to audiences in Kansas — yes that was suggested — provide people access to something they would not otherwise have, or would it make classical music creepy?

Few students turned up for the conference. They were busy with lessons and practicing. Their duty is to become artists we can trust. Our duty is to create a world in which they can be trusted. That is not out of the question.

The news from picture-perfect Montecito is that however great the challenges may be for classical music, the possibilities are greater. And there are a lot of people who care.


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