Who Killed Classical Music?

Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers and CorporatePolitics, by Norman Lebrecht, Birch Lane Press, $24.95, 455 pp.It's no secret that classical music is in trouble. After a healthy turn in the '80s, sales of classical CDs have plummeted. Some orchestras are in deep financial sludge. The classical audience is getting increasingly grayer and younger people appear uninterested. And where, oh, where is the star power? The next Horowitz is nowhere in sight. And modern composers might as well throw in the towel because no one can possibly be listening to their music. To hear Norman Lebrecht tell it, classical music is finished. He blames greedy managers who jack up their clients' fees through the roof. Record company execs who have no musical background and see music purely as a business. Power-hungry orchestra managers. Globe-trotting music directors who accept so many gigs that they shirk their duties to their own orchestras. Then there are the artists themselves, who throw fits, give uninspired performances and cancel appearances on a whim. Chuck Berry was right: "Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news."Not so fast. Lebrecht, music columnist for London's Daily Telegraph, conveniently ignores some encouraging facts. A few months ago Time magazine reported that attendance among young people at the opera actually has increased by nearly 20 percent. Several orchestras have reported an increase in attendance in the last few years. The Chicago Lyric Opera regularly sells out its season. Contemporary music is being programmed more than ever.Yes, CD sales are down, but people are still listening, mostly to repertoire that is off the beaten track. Witness the phenomenal sales of contemporary Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony, or the avalanche of medieval recordings. The contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Part is another big favorite. But the gloomy Lebrecht sees these successes as aberrations or short-lived trends. Lebrecht's blistering tirade exploded last year in England and was published on these shores this summer. He does make some valid points, however, and they warrant mentioning. The author is to be commended for his scathing attack on the pervasive avarice infecting the industry. Lebrecht roasts the greedy Three Tenors, who outgross anyone in the classical world. He zings Placido Domingo for canceling his operatic dates at Covent Garden so he can croon at those awful Three Tenors stadium concerts. Domingo kvetches that "you can't make money in opera," although a big-name singer can pick up $20,000 for a night's work. But that's peanuts compared with the stadium orgies. Jose Carerras, whose voice is in shreds, cancels opera-house appearances so he can pick up more lucre at bigger venues. Lebrecht also questions violinist Isaac Stern's flat $45,000 appearance fee. Admittedly, Stern is past his prime and doesn't deserve those big bucks.At the end of the book, in a chapter snarkily called "Coroner's Report," Lebrecht lists the earnings of several classical performers. For instance, violinist Itzhak Perlman made $5.5 million for the 1995-96 season, and that doesn't include his earnings from recordings. That's a lot of dough, granted. Still, it's a little hard getting worked up over Perlman's haul when Jerry Seinfeld makes $1 million an episode for "Seinfeld," when Stallone and Schwarzenegger nab an absurd $20 million per picture, and when Mike Tyson, after biting Evander Holyfield, takes home $27 million.But Lebrecht doesn't mention any of this. He doesn't place things in the larger entertainment picture. Perhaps the author should have called his book Who Is Killing Classical Music? rather than Who Killed Classical Music?


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