Magazine article The American Organist

The State of Classical Music in America

Magazine article The American Organist

The State of Classical Music in America

Article excerpt

The following article is the second in a series of "white papers" that THE AMERICAN ORGANIST will publish during forthcoming months. Generated from study and deliberations of the Task Force on Long-Range Planning, these papers focus on the implications for the American Guild of Organists of current and developing socioeconomic phenomena. Having now completed its work, the Task Force on Long-Range Planning offers these papers for the ongoing consideration of all members of the American Guild of Organists.


Recent years have brought news of bankruptcy-driven reorganizations of long-established American orchestras like the Honolulu and Syracuse symphonies, as well as financial troubles for such august institutions as die Philadelphia Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, and Louisville Orchestra.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which has tracked participation of Americans in "benchmark arts activities" since 1982, reported in its latest survey (2008) that "a smaller segment of the adult population either attended arts performances or visited art museums or galleries than in any prior survey. Even among the most educated, adults are participating less than in previous years." The number of adults in the United States attending classical music performances within the previous twelve mondis dropped from 23.8 million in 2002 to 20.9 million in 2008.

A 2009 study conducted for the League of American Orchestras added that demographic trends suggest that "each subsequent generation participates less than previous generations . . . , and participation declines within generations as they age." As in the AGO, "the audience for live classical music has been aging at a faster rate than the overall United States population." Furthermore, audiences seem to be moving away from live music toward "digital platforms." "Without systemic intervention," the League believes, "the audience for live classical music is projected to decline by 14% by 2018."

Orchestras and other classical-music establishments have tried to develop marketing strategies to address these declines across multiple generations and populations. Outreach to younger audiences, as in the AGO's Pipe Organ Encounters, dates back at least as far as Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. Promotion through social media like Facebook and Twitter is practically assumed nowadays. But the most important cross-generational efforts are going on outside the traditional structure.

As long ago as the late 1960s, composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich formed their own ensembles to perform their music, partly because conventional classical-music organizations seemed to be inadequate. The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1972, states that it "strives to empower its musicians by integrating them into virtually every facet of the organization, literally changing the way the world thinks about musicians, conductors, and orchestras." The Kronos Quartet, established in 1973, made its international reputation by commissioning new music and crossing over into other genres such as rock.

In recent years, such unconventional ensembles as Chicago's Eighth Blackbird and New York's Bang on a Can AllStars and Alarm Will Sound have expanded this formula. With shifting rosters of musicians, they avoid union problems while remaining flexible for the performance of repertoire that recognizes no boundaries. Alarm Will Sound's latest album, for example, includes works by Josquin, Ligeti, Nancarrow, and Birtwistle, as well as its own roster of composers. The group recently toured the country with an intriguing program linking music of the Beatles, Bernstein, Berio, and Stockhausen. Eighth Blackbird's Web site says that the "sextet combines the finesse of a string quartet with the energy of a rock band and the riskiness of a storefront theater company."

These ensembles obviously use trendy marketing methods geared toward Gen-X or younger audiences, while traditional organizations are still trying to appeal to Baby Boomers or older. …

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