Cleveland: Industry CPR Continues at “Future of Classical Music” Panel

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Zachary M. Lewis
Photo by Nowell York

Silent-audience syndrome definitely was not a problem during a boisterous mid-April panel discussion at Cleveland State University focused on “The Future of Classical Music.” Little if any of what was said would have struck critics or music professionals as new, but a group of committed listeners unwilling either to accept the status quo or to paint classical music as a sinking ship were in attendance and more than usually vocal. Provocative, reasoned questions abounded in a show of surprisingly strong interest in the issue. It was clear many had been waiting for an opportunity to get their questions answered and air pent-up concerns.

In fact, the audience seemed determined to get as much as possible out of the four panelists: Gary Hanson, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra; Lynne Hoffman-Engel, vice president of sales at the Cleveland-based Telarc Records; Jeffrey Siegel, the concert pianist widely known in Cleveland and elsewhere for his “Keyboard Conversations”; and Greg Sandow, the teacher, composer, critic, blogger, and orchestra consultant.

Eric Ziolek, a local composer and the chair of CSU’s music department, moderated the discussion, intervening occasionally and remarking that “this is the first generation to whom classical music means nothing” and “we have to find a way to sell this music to them and make it engaging.”

Many in attendance said that they observe classical music growing ever quieter in a commercial world bombarded by sounds and images. Siegel apparently hit a nerve with the crowd and evoked a round of applause by noting:

The overall quantity of music we consume is greater now than ever. The problem is we’re not listening to what we hear. It’s no longer a privilege to listen to the Eroica. We’ve been conditioned to tune out in order to retain our sanity. It’s actually difficult to go somewhere and tune in, but we have to look to the music to make people want to do that.

Sandow, meanwhile, urged performers and presenters to get louder and more intense if they want to reach the artistic but “ironic” and “pessimistic” smart set who view classical music as irrelevant. “Until we in the classical world reflect more of the contemporary world, we’re in danger of losing our audience,” he said.

The one truly urgent alarm sounded was in response to the state of music education in public schools today. Everyone agreed: it’s deplorable. Generally speaking, though, the tone was anti-alarmist.

“I think the ‘graying audience’ concept is a red herring to some degree,” Hanson said, debunking the notion of the “good old days” when orchestra halls were packed with young people. “Classical music has always been something that, once you come to it, you stay with it the rest of your life.

“There’s no problem with the music,” he said later. “The masterpieces will always remain masterpieces. At issue is whether they’ll remain so in the lives of as many people.”

And there are encouraging signs, the panel agreed. Sandow, for instance, happily pronounced contemporary music as a whole to be in “fabulous shape.”

Telarc’s classical sales are slipping in Europe but increasing chain-wide at Border’s Books & Music in America, Hoffman-Engel said. “Believe it or not, I actually feel that baby-boomers are ready to hear classical music. Now it’s just a matter of us finding ways to help them listen.”

Hoffman-Engel also praised Cleveland’s Contemporary Youth Orchestra and Jonathan Sheffer’s Red {an orchestra} for “at least trying to be adventurous” by presenting world premieres by Phil Kline, John King, and others, and for partnering with Ethel, the amplified string quartet.

For his part, Hanson claimed the Cleveland Orchestra’s reputation is taking a firmer hold in new markets like Asia while ticket sales at home are decreasing.

One attendee asked the panelists what they would do, were money not an obstacle. New answers to the question surfaced throughout the two-hour evening. Hanson said the Cleveland Orchestra would perform more contemporary music, produce more recordings, market more aggressively outside its core audience, and consider employing tasteful visual elements such as video screens or hand-held computers for program notes.

Siegel held on confidently to a purist viewpoint. Not only should classical musicians not be expected to talk to audiences, he said in response to an audience member’s question, they shouldn’t have to operate video equipment or learn to play hip-hop, either. “I don’t know if we need visual gimmicks or non-classical things. The repertoire speaks very well for itself, particularly if it’s presented in such a way that it brings people into the listening experience.”

Sandow called for action in the evening’s strongest terms. It was he, though, who sent the audience home smiling by congratulating them for asking the best questions he’d ever heard during a panel on this topic.

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Zachary Lewis is a freelance arts journalist in Cleveland, Ohio. He covers music primarily but also dance, art, and theater. He writes regularly for the Plain Dealer, Cleveland Scene, Angle, Dance Magazine, and Time Out Chicago. Lewis studied piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music and holds degrees in English and Journalism from Ohio University and Case Western Reserve University, where he will conduct a Presidential Fellowship in arts criticism in the fall of 2006.