Classical Music’s New Golden Age is a very long essay but worth every minute it takes to read it. I was going to say that the commentators who are constantly moaning about the impending death of classical music and insisting that in order to “save” classical music we must make it more like pop music really need to read it but those people are so emotionally attached to their belief in “dying classical music” that they are probably incapable of seeing things any other way. But everyone else, do yourself a favor and take the time to read it. Here are a few choice excerpts.
Berlioz’s exuberant tales of musical triumph and defeat constitute the most captivating chronicle of artistic passion ever written. They also lead to the conclusion that, in many respects, we live in a golden age of classical music. Such an observation defies received wisdom, which seizes on every symphony budget deficit to herald classical music’s imminent demise. But this declinist perspective ignores the more significant reality of our time: never before has so much great music been available to so many people, performed at levels of artistry that would have astounded Berlioz and his peers. Students flock to conservatories and graduate with skills once possessed only by a few virtuosi. More people listen to classical music today, and more money gets spent on producing and disseminating it, than ever before. Respect for a composer’s intentions, for which Berlioz fought so heroically, is now an article of faith among musicians and publishers alike.
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Listeners and performers remain divided over whether the music of Bach and Mozart is best realized by a nineteenth-century-era orchestra using contemporary methods of expression … or by a small period-instrument ensemble seeking to re-create earlier performance techniques.
But regardless of such disagreements, the value of the movement to our musical life has been indisputable. It has unleashed arguably the most concentrated rediscovery of lost music in history. Composers that had lain silent for centuries—Jean-Féry Rebel, Johann Friedrich Fasch, Heinrich Ignaz Biber, to name just a handful—are heard again. Hundreds of groups of specialists are busily digging into twelfth-century plainchant and thirteenth-century troubadour traditions. Unfamiliar repertoire by overly familiar composers is also being restored. The Naïve label, in one of the greatest recording projects of the early-music movement, is releasing all of Vivaldi’s operas. …
Oh wow! Must have Vivaldi operas!
The caliber of musicianship also marks our age as a golden one for classical music. “When I was young, you knew when you heard one of the top five American orchestras,” says Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the recently disbanded Guarneri Quartet. “Now, you can’t tell. Every orchestra is filled with fantastic players.” Steinhardt is ruthless toward his students when they’re preparing for an orchestra audition. “I’ll tell them in advance: ‘You didn’t get the job. There are 250 violinists competing for that place. You have to play perfectly, and you sure didn’t play perfectly for me.’ ”
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The poise and exuberance of these budding performers can be breathtaking. At the 2007 finals for the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions, a young tenor’s eyes shone with the erotic power of commanding that massive house, a smile of mastery playing over his lips, as he flung out the high Cs of “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. (The moment was captured in the documentary The Audition.) A self-possessed black pianist from Chicago, Jeremy Jordan, coolly unfurled the feathery arpeggios and midnight harmonies of his own virtuosic transcriptions of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Saint-Saëns at a Juilliard student recital this year. Beneath Jordan’s laconic demeanor lies a deep belief in classical music. “It’s not as if kids don’t like music like this,” the lanky 20-year-old insists. “Liszt, Wagner, Chopin—it’s beautiful; it just takes one hearing.”
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The radical transformation of how people consume classical music puts the current hand-wringing over an inattentive, shrinking audience in a different perspective. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony premiered before an audience of 100 at most. These days, probably 10,000 people are listening to it during any given 24-hour period, either live or on record, estimates critic Harvey Sachs. Recordings have expanded the availability of music in astounding ways. The declinists—led by the industry’s most reliable Cassandra, the League of American Orchestras—do not account for how recordings have changed the concert culture beyond recognition.
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The much-publicized financial difficulties of many orchestras during the current recession also need to be put into historical perspective. More people are making a living playing an instrument than ever before, and doing so as respected and well-paid professionals, not lowly drones. There were no professional orchestras during Beethoven’s time; he had to cobble together an ensemble for the premiere of his Ninth Symphony.
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…professional orchestras in the U.S. today dwarf in number anything seen in the past. In 1937, there were 96 American orchestras; in 2010, there are more than 350.
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…there is ample evidence of a continuing unmet demand for classical music throughout the country—especially in places that can’t afford the salaries and long seasons that America’s unionized musicians expect. This March, the New York Times’s invaluable Daniel Wakin chronicled the travails of the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra as it slogged through a poorly paid nine-week bus tour to smaller cities and towns around America—places like Ashland, Kentucky, and Zanesville, Ohio, which are “hungry for classical music programming.”
That’s just a small sample. I hope all the music lovers out there will take the time to read it all.