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A Continuing Vitality

I never ceased to be amazed how people can look at abundance and see privation. Who Murdered Classical Music? shout the writers of doomsday screeds. Declining revenues! cry the big arts institutes. Aging audiences! wail the statisticians.

But all of those portents of doom and depressing tables of statistics are inevitably taken without proper context, and most definitely without the long view in mind. Many of us in the music profession would do well to step back, take a few deep breaths, and consider just how lucky we really are. Sure, it's a terrifyingly crowded field. Yes, for a young person making his/her way through the minefield that is the first 10 years of a career in music, the future can look dark indeed. But classical music is not in decline; quite the opposite.

In her autobiography, the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya described the life of a young instrumentalist in Soviet Russia. After years at one of the major urban conservatories—either in Moscow or Leningrad—he or she would be shuttled off to some provincial location somewhere, there to serve out an apprenticeship playing in a local orchestra that more often than not played to near-empty houses. (The government paid no matter what, so audiences were irrelevant.) Living conditions were primitive, often no more than a cot in somebody's two-room apartment. Salaries were so low that near-starvation loomed, and even if sufficient money were available, food was not. Nor were matters all that much better for a leading soprano in the Bolshoi Opera; even after she had become a star of Russian opera, Vishnevskaya and her then-husband were still living in a cubicle in a cramped apartment, sharing a bathroom with seven families, getting by with cabbage and potatoes and the occasional "Moscow chicken", as she calls it—a bird so tough and stringy that even Julia Child couldn't make it palatable.

Nor was that kind of life necessarily restricted to the dour economic privations of the Soviet Union. For much of history, average working musicians fared little better than their 20th-century Soviet counterparts. Consider that during the 19th century even middle-class homes sported a serving staff, and that during that same era composers thought nothing of writing for gargantuan forces. The reasons for both are the same—you could get servants, and musicians, cheap. One looks at the programs for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in amazement. How could he afford all of that? Tons of dancers on stage, superstar figures in the leads, magnificent scenery created by folks on the level of Matisse, Picasso, and Braque, scores by Ravel and Stravinsky, a gigantic orchestra of 100+ players. But the trick was that Diaghilev didn't have to pay his worker bees very much, nor was he required to provide for them beyond the confines of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. No unions. No health insurance. No medical insurance. No disability. No retirement. No Social Security.

Good time to be an impresario, bad time to be a working musician. Oh, there were jobs to be had. There were lots of jobs. And that was a good thing, since none of them paid doodley-squat and so you had to play your fingers to the bone just to eek out a basic living. Winthrop Sargeant described his life as an orchestral musician in his dishy Geniuses, Goddesses, and People, first in the San Francisco Symphony under Alfred Hertz, then later in the New York Symphony with Walter Damrosch. The world he describes is far removed from today's professional orchestras. Players freelanced at will, called in substitutes as necessary, cheated their way through concerts they didn't have time to practice. It's true that those orchestras sometimes managed to create performances of rare beauty, as the recent release of the complete Hertz/SFS recordings by France's Pristine Audio attest. That's a real tribute to the musicianship of conductor and players alike. Nonetheless, conditions were tough for an orchestra player in those days, much more akin to the roughhouse life of a guy in a jazz band than the relatively comfortable life of a modern-day orchestral musician.

And earlier than that, conditions were even shakier. Remember that Vienna had no permanent regular orchestra in Beethoven's day. If Beethoven wanted to put on a concert, he had to scramble around town and assemble his musicians, guys who typically spent their evenings sawing through potpourris in theater pits or slugging it out in the opera for a pittance. That infamous freezing-cold December night when Beethoven premiered the Fifth (together with the Sixth and a number of other works) was undoubtedly an evening of distinctly sub-par music-making. The best performers were all involved in a lavish concert across town celebrating Haydn's birthday with The Creation, so Beethoven was having to make do with the second-string folks.

Conditions were generally deplorable for working musicians throughout most of music history. The occasional star who lived high on the hog was the very rare exception. We look at Corelli and think just how good a musician's life could be under courtly patronage. But for every Corelli, leading light of the toniest musical cappella in Rome, there were hundreds of Roman musicians sweating it out, barely scraping by, playing endlessly and no doubt dropping dead young from any number of diseases, including malnutrition.

When I was growing up we referred to the "Big Five" orchestras, a term that delivered a slap in the face to all the fine orchestras all around the country, orchestras so good that they left the visiting Mstislav Rostropovich (long before his defection to the West) in a near state of shock over American musical quality and abundance. There were a lot more than five big orchestras in America. What gave the Five their Bigness were recording contracts. Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra: the orchestras under contract to RCA Red Seal and Columbia Masterworks. Those two record labels decided who made most of the recordings, and what they recorded. Despite the wailing and moaning one hears from certain commentarial quarters, the demise of the major labels is development to be celebrated, not mourned. It was like the forced breakup of Ma Bell—ultimately a very, very good thing.

Think about it: just about every American orchestra of any size at all is putting out recordings regularly, and that includes orchestras that you never would have dreamed would record. The Denver Symphony of my teen years, now reborn as the Colorado Philharmonic, puts out regular discs on Naxos, as do the Seattle and Nashville symphonies. Baltimore, Kansas City, Dallas, Cincinnati, Buffalo—all fine orchestras but typically left unheard by the big record labels. Both the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have long since shed any lingering vestiges of "regional" orchestras and have not only securely joined the ranks of the world's great orchestras, but they have knocked several of those old-time "big five" off their perches.

And don't forget that those recordings, taking advantages of technological advances that allow them to be produced entirely by the orchestras themselves without a mediating studio, are cheaper than at any time in history. A set of 78 RPM discs of, say, Wagner's Parsifal, was astronomically expensive in its day, unwieldy and heavy, fragile, and good for only a limited number of playings. You might take a look at the movie A Letter to Three Wives, in which Kirk Douglas has managed to score a rare pre-WWII recording that he plans to play, for the first time, for his assembled dinner guests that evening. An overbearing society matron manhandles one of the discs and breaks it. A heartbroken Douglas answers: "Don't expect me to pretend that it doesn't matter, because it does." I grew up in the LP era and didn't think of records as particularly rare or valuable, but mine was the first generation of which that can be said. And the ability to sit here at home and download high-quality audio? Or order from ArkivMusic, Amazon, etc., and have my CDs the next day? When I was a kid I was limited to what the local record stores carried, and that wasn't all that much.

And don't forget that recordings, the revenue they bring in, the chance they give people to broaden their musical horizons, have been around only for a bit over a century. Harvey Sachs points out that Beethoven's Ninth was heard by maybe 100 people or so at its premiere. But on any given day, how many people are listening to the Ninth on a recording? For that matter, how many orchestras the world over perform the Ninth every year? How many Ring Cycles are taking place over the next few years? How many Bach B Minor Masses and St. Matthew Passions, Mozart Requiems, Handel Messiahs? Recordings—CDs, downloads, vinyl, YouTube and other streaming media—and live performances all together? I don't have exact figures, but it's a cinch that nowadays any given Beethoven symphony is heard more times in one month, and by more people, than in its entire pre-20th-century history. And I may be wildly underestimating; "one day", rather than "one month", might be more accurate.

Lots of orchestras, tons of opera companies. Chamber music has become an ongoing, professional concern—who would have ever thought it? Even as recently as my teenage years chamber groups were mostly confined to colleges, since they couldn't make a living any other way. The early music revolution has brought about the proliferation of even more fine groups—just here in San Francisco alone both the American Bach Soloists and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra belong in the very topmost ranks, not to mention the burgeoning of early-music chamber groups, vocal groups, soloists and the like. It's true that public funding for music in the schools has withered, and I see little chance of that situation changing in the near future. But slum-clearance youth orchestras are growing rapidly, thanks to the spectacular success of Venezuela's El Sistema, and they're starting to take root here in the United States, a country with an aching need for them. Getting kids to play music is one of the best ways to ensure audiences in the future, after all. Programs like El Sistema are beyond promising, not just for classical music but for the future of the world in general. As far as I'm concerned they can't grow fast enough or spread far enough. Let a million youth orchestras bloom.

Even contemporary composers, those favored scapegoats of classical music's demise, have been coming around. Their retreat into academia and abandonment of public accountability appears to have been temporary. While composers still find steady employment in colleges and conservatories, increasingly they're engaging with society again, writing music that actually aims at attracting and keeping listeners. Whether they're doing that well enough, or if there is any real purpose in their continuing to do so, remains a moot point. It can be argued that most of the juice today is in rediscovering the lost music of the past, introducing audiences to the vast heritage that lies untapped. I remain skeptical that "innovative" programming necessarily implies new music. Not too long ago Vivaldi's opera Argippo was performed, heard for the first time since the 1730s. So it's for all practical intents and purposes a brand-new Vivaldi piece, at least as far as we're concerned.

Consider: A vast classical recording industry turning out new releases at an astonishing rate. Orchestras even in relatively small communities providing levels of accomplishment restricted to only the big-city bands just a short time ago. Opera companies and ambitious performances everywhere. Conservatories growing and expanding, having trouble keeping up with the demand. Sweeping programs—some of them at the national level—seeing in music a chance to break the cycle of ignorance and poverty. Chamber music as a viable career lifestyle. The early music movement and its extraordinary success, both artistic and commercial. Musicians living in middle-class comfort, enjoying levels of affluence almost unthinkable just two or three generations ago.

Downturns will occur, economies rise and fall, boom and bust. There are challenges ahead. But let's cut it out with the portents of doom. We're not on the edge of oblivion; if anything, we're living in a golden age.

When I first started writing S.F. Classical Music Examiner, I began my tenure with a series of articles called "It's Not Dead or Even Ailing". I started out with conservatories—growing by leaps and bounds, building new buildings, renovating and redesigning. Then orchestras—more today than ever, many offering full-time employment with fine salaries and excellent benefits. Then recordings—larger catalogs than at any time in history, cheaper and much easier to obtain. The conclusions were inevitable, and still are. It's a big profession and there's a lot of competition for young musicians on their way in. But there are jobs out there that provide living conditions beyond the wildest dreams of our musicianly ancestors, and I'm not talking about the big-ticket positions, either. I'm talking about everyday working-stiff musicians doing their thing. As the 21st-century equivalent of a courtly kapellmeister, I live at a level of comfort, freedom, and job security unimaginable by even by the highest-paid, most revered maestro di cappelle of the 18th century. And yet I'm one of many, not only here in San Francisco but across the world.

And at no time during my entire career, even right out of college as a hardscrabble freelance pianist, was I obliged to live under the deadening conditions described by Vishnevskaya, or in the squalor so common to my musical ancestors.

So there is a great deal to be happy about, to be thankful for, and to celebrate. Classical music—whatever the heck that really means—is not ailing, dying, or even coughing to speak of. Stop listening to the critics and the doomsayers and the writers of alarmist screeds. Just look around. Better yet, just go listen.

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Scott 9-2010
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Scott Foglesong
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