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The Chronicling of Concert Music

Have you noticed," a particularly perspicacious friend remarked the other day, "that The New York Times is devoting less and less space to music these days?" By "music" she meant concert music, and the space she had in mind was coverage and commentary about the music and musicians of our time.

Judging by some of the signs and signals that have come across our desk in the recent past, our friend's observation may be sad but true. In any case, it seems to be borne out by a disquieting volume of evidence.

Attrition [Webster: any gradual wearing or weakening; the state or process of being gradually worn down] is the word that comes to mind. Without wishing to appear demographically biased, how can one fail to note the average age of audiences at concert music events? Where are the young folks, from the teens to the thirty-somethings? Where is the Nachwuchs, the coming generation?

Consider the following items, all garnered from the self-same Times which, although held to be sui generis, is nevertheless a newspaper and therefore first and foremost a chronicle of events.

"The contentious world of general-interest classical-music publications is in turmoil. As they change ownership and cope with financial troubles, these magazines are facing up to irrevocable shifts in the audience for classical music itself." Thus begins a 1987 article describing the actual or imminent demise of three respected periodicals aimed at a general (as distinct from parochial) public of music enthusiasts, Opus, Keynote, and Ovation. The article quotes comments from the former editor of Opus, James R. Oestreich — now a music critic for The New York Times — and its erstwhile publisher, Warren Syer. Oestreich: "We are providing things for people who want to read. But I'm not sure we're moving toward a word-oriented musical society." Syer: "There isn't a big audience in this country for class."

Oestreich's predecessor on the Times music staff was Will Crutchfield, critic, vocal authority, and sometime conductor. In a highly illuminating 1986 article, he muses on music in society, recalling John Philip Sousa's fears about the looming threat to leisure time, the phonograph. "Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant. Singing will no longer be a fine accomplishment; vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat?"

Crutchfield segues from the 1906 of Sousa's day to a description of our own time. "Piano lessons as an unquestioned part of a good middle-class upbringing; chamber music in the home; profitable publication and wide dissemination of sheet music — all of those are things of the past. It's a rule of thumb (with New York a sad example) that the arts are cut first when school budgets must be trimmed. As that past recedes farther, there is a real danger that the truest form of music appreciation — participation — may slip through our untrained fingers. There is a difference between a professional executant whose early musical experiences are preponderantly institutional (and graded), and one who from childhood has played or sung for the fun of it among friends. And there is a difference between an audience member who is moved by superb accomplishment in an art whose rudiments he knows, and one for whom professional accomplishment, passively experienced, is the totality of music." The remainder of Crutchfield's article constitutes an impassioned and persuasive plea for music-making.

When The New York Times announced this year's Grammy nominees, it listed 24 of the 77 Grammy categories. They ranged from "Album of the year" to best pop, rock, R&B, metal, hard rock, rap, jazz, and country performance. Conspicuous — at least to this department — by its absence was the citation of the best nominees in the concert music category. In other words, critic Jon Pareles and the editors thought the entire dimension so remote from the public consciousness or interest that it did not warrant mention.

A 1991 article by Allan Kozinn surveys the plight of contemporary music ensembles in New York, describing the 1990s as "a bleak time." It speaks of cuts in budgets and grants and diminishing audiences. The editor of the Calendar for New Music claims that his publication's concert listings were down by 20 percent from last year. The snowball effect gathers speed when one hears that funding sources are paying increasing attention to audience size. Mary Hays, the executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts, claims that attendance figures had always been among the Council's funding criteria. "But," she adds, "we have been paying more attention to it as times have gotten hard."

It may be a far cry from the contemporary music event to the 200-year-old art form known as Beijing opera, but an essay in a November 1990 issue of The Times raised the possibility of parallel crises. The journalist suggests that few people in China choose to attend, not because it is expensive, but because people, especially young people, find it "terribly boring." The director of the Academy of Beijing Opera is quoted as saying: "My own children don't like Beijing opera. When there's a Beijing opera on the television, they turn the channel." (Spectres of Sol Hurok's immortal malapropism that "if they don't want to come, nothing will stop `em.")

At issue, it seems to us, is what we perceive as beauty. And here we recall the words of Beverly Sills, addressing the 1987 conference of the Central Opera Service: "A community is only as beautiful as the people living in it want it to be."

(Sadly enough, Central Opera Service has closed its doors, falling victim to economic pressures. The aptly named group had been central to the very being of opera in America, keeper of the operatic keys, and truly a service organization. And another name in the institutional obituary that should be remembered is the Foundation for the Advancement of Education in Music, often referred to in these pages.)

We are, none of us, born with a sense of beauty. It is developed as we grow, as we see the world around us, as we learn. If enough of us learn to share a common sense of beauty, then we will seek it and learn to find it, and make it, and insist on using it, and we will love it. And newspapers will chronicle not only the objects of the beauty but also the myriad ways in which it is sought.

"I have a profound longing," wrote the late Paul Fromm, a patron of the arts and seeker of beauty, "to live in a community where the significance of music is recognized as an integral part of cultural and intellectual life, where the sustenance and development of the music of our own time is a deeply-felt responsibility."

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