Does Classical Music Have a Problem with the Present? / by Chris Foley

This is 2019, and many classical music organizations (especially orchestras) still have a strong preoccupation about the European past and are highly reluctant to program new works.

Greg Sandow writes about classical music’s disconnect with the modern world:

Sometimes people say, not very pleasantly, that a classical concert can be too much like a museum. But it’s been true for quite a while that this isn’t true, because museums are far more oriented toward the current world than we are.

I don’t think this makes us look good, to the people we’d like to find for our new audience. We’ll look backward to them.

Greg makes the comparison to the contemporary art world, where contemporary art draws the largest crowds, is the largest market for buyers, and the primary area of study for graduate students in art history.

A similar situation exists in the theatre scene, where plays from the past exist alongside 20th-century repertory and new work for the stage. No one throws a fit because a new play is too reminiscent of contemporary life.

However, Greg sees the upside:

But there is some good news here. Once classical music emerges into contemporary life, our new audience will be there already, waiting for us.

One of the most penetrating things I recall anyone saying about classical music and its relationship with the past was by Peter Hinton in a rehearsal several years ago*. He said that we might think we know all there is to know about the past, but we really don’t. He went on to say that if we could ever construct an actual time machine to go back in time, we wouldn’t be able to function beyond more than about 50 years in the past, as the cultural context of even the most basic social interactions would be nearly impossible to understand. It would feel like being on an alien planet.

But perhaps classical music’s staying power might be because of its tension between past and present. Different groups of people will gravitate towards different classical styles and genres, and the interplay between the great works of the past past, those of the present, and our ever-changing tendency to see the past in terms of our present-day cultural context may well be what gives classical music its variety and vitality.

How do you feel about classical music’s reluctance to embrace the present? Feel free to leave a comment below.

(Photo courtesy of Pierre Chatel-Innocenti)

*I recall this from the rehearsal process of 120 Songs for the Marquis de Sade (libretto by Peter Hinton and music by Peter Hannan) produced in the spring of 2002 by the now-defunct Modern Baroque Opera in a co-production with Vancouver New Music. 120 Songs was an opera that utilized both both electronics and a baroque orchestra in Peter Hannan’s scoring.