Not the classics, not pop – just music

With youth leading the way, our sense of genre in the music world is breaking down.

Alexander Mickelthwate Random Notes
Alexander Mickelthwate
Random Notes

Dear Reader,

Whither classical music? This is a question I’m often asked. Is classical music on life support? Are symphonies doomed to shrivel and die in the coming decade? Are the classical performing arts simply a vestige of a simpler, pre-Internet time? Is there any hope?

In 1890, Toscanini complained about the death of classical music as he saw orchestras going bankrupt. In the 1950s, many of today’s leading orchestras didn’t even have full-year seasons. In Beethoven’s time there were no concert series. Private concerts were presented irregularly, and they were benefit concerts that only the wealthy and noble could attend!

Simply put, this question has always been asked. But why?

Funding has always been tight for the performing arts. It used to be because the arts depended primarily on the patronage of philanthropists, a model that still exists in the United States. After the Second World War, many European countries shifted support from the private to public realm, creating arts councils designed to make culture a public good. In Canada we have a mix of these two models. We have public funding for the arts (though at a fraction of what many European countries invest) and a growing pool of arts supporters.

Available to everyone
In fact, today we live in an altogether different classical music environment from even a few decades ago. The Winnipeg Symphony performs for 38 weeks of the year to thousands of audience members. You no longer need to be a wealthy arts patron to afford tickets – you can get a season pass for less than $30 a concert. Compare that to an MTS stadium show or an NHL game. I believe that is pretty affordable!

At the same time, the way we take in classical music is changing rapidly. We now have access to nearly any recording ever produced by simply going online. The Naxos catalogue – which acts as a kind of encyclopedia of classical music – contains over 10,000 titles! And classical music accounts for 12 per cent of sales on Apple’s iTunes platform.

Younger artists like 2Cello have embraced the freedom of the Internet to explore and reinvent classical music. Photo by Stephan Lupino.
Younger artists like 2Cello have embraced the freedom of the Internet to explore and reinvent classical music. Photo by Stephan Lupino.

A major revolution that the Internet has brought on is the way youth today view their relationship with music. In this YouTube generation, everyone can become an artist, and many do, creating videos of their performances and sharing them online. This creates an equalization between consumer and producer. It also means they come to the concert hall in a different way. Kids who are listening to classical music are also listening to pop, R&B and rap music. In fact, their sense of these genres is breaking down as musicians trained in one tradition take on the music of another. Think of those cello guys. Google it if you haven’t heard of them!

Music’s power lives on
So what does this mean? What we will go toward in the near future is that it’s just music, not classical or pop. What I’ve personally learned from some of the composers we’ve worked with from Iceland, where there is less of a tradition of different genres, is that they just compose. But the music, its power, its impact always survives. And the place, I believe, where you have the most intense and visceral experience of that power is in a live concert performance.


Alexander Mickelthwate is music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

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