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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Meditation: The reports of classical music's death are greatly exaggerated

By John Terauds on January 23, 2014

(Eugene Chan cartoon)
“Unresolved,” by Eugene Chan.

“Requiem. American classical music is dead” proclaims a headline on Slate.com this week. In the article, Mark Vanhoenacker has rounded up the now well-worn indices and tropes that point to the death of Franz von Schoeber’s “holy art.” It’s all nonsense.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

It may seem odd that I can announce one day that I’m closing down this blog, which is all about classical music, and turn around the next day to declare that the artform is alive and kicking. But I don’t feel as if I’m walking away from a seriously wounded beast so that someone else can pick up the shotgun to put it out of its misery.

Instead, I am taking a break from an artform in profound transition — a transition so profound that many of the people involved are no longer sure of the difference between the still-dripping baby and its bathwater.

I’ve written this before, and I feel a need to repeat it: Classical music is alive and will remain alive for as long as the nuclear missiles stay in their silos and Mother Nature stays her desire to swallow us up in a planet-cleansing tsunami.

There are currently 70 young people studying to be composers — that most unstable and unpredictable of professions — at both undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Toronto.

That’s 70 at one institution among how many hundreds across this continent?

Opera programmes are bursting at the seams. There are hundreds of amazing young pianists, violinists, cellists, flautists and percussionists bursting out of our conservatories — more than at any other time in recorded history.

If classical music and opera were dying, this is where we would first see the signs: When young people would no longer be sufficiently moved by the awesome power of art music to sacrifice any promise of financial security or geographic stability in order to pursue it.

So, until we hear crickets instead of scales in the halls of the Royal Conservatory of Music, we should all sleep soundly in the knowledge that posterity still has a place for art music, its proponents and interpreters.

But that doesn’t address the structural issues that are causing people all the angst these days.

The problem, in my view, is that commentators are confusing a seismic shift in the institutions that sustain classical music with the artform itself. In religious terms, it amounts to declaring the death of God when in reality it is the Church that is the problem.

Classical Music’s church is the clanking, whirring, cast-iron Victorian machinery that is the symphony orchestra and opera company and chamber music society, all based on ever-growing series to sustain an ever-growing subscriber base: Predictable music for predictable subscription renewals.

Everything about the shift in our behaviours as consumers — of Converse sneakers, Hollywood movies and Beethoven violin concertos — is about on-demand availability.

We watch Downton Abbey when it suits us, not when PBS decides to air it. We order books and download albums online. We make our dinner plans with friends via text messaging an hour ahead instead of making phone appointments several days before.

So where does next year’s 6-Wednesday-concert-plus-2-Masterwoks-bonus-on-Saturdays fit into this ethos? Well, it doesn’t.

But just because anyone under age 45 can’t conceive of figuring out Wednesday-night plans 15 months from now doesn’t mean that they won’t go to the concert. It’s just that they’re going to buy their ticket online a few hours beforehand.

And they need a compelling reason to go.

Would I go hear my 47th live performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 if I weren’t reviewing it? Probably not. Would I pop the 5th cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas in five years into my player if I didn’t need to as a critic? It’s debatable.

It’s not the music that’s at the core of this problem, it’s our behaviour. Those music presenters who learn how to get people excited about what’s coming up tonight or next month will reap. Those who don’t will expire. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account all the new concert ideas and presenters who are still only twinkles in their parents’ eyes.

No one can successfully predict human behaviour. Just think of the hopeless records of the world’s finest economists. Even the highly sophisticated algorithms that allow Amazon to suggest what our next favourite book might be are based on the present and the past: this is how I’m behaving now, and how I behaved last Friday.

So is this how I’ll behave tomorrow?

Probably? Yes. Absolutely? Not on your life.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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