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Seen and Heard Editorial


EDITORIAL: A death foretold? Marc Bridle looks back on the changes in classical music over the past five years.

As I look back on over 5 years of editing Seen and Heard I may, with reason, perhaps have expected to be writing about the death of classical music in both the concert hall and on record. Norman Lebrecht’s prognostic skills have proved fallible – the much-publicized death in the musical family hasn’t happened. Instead, the musical coffin is very much above ground, but the gravediggers are still standing beside it with spades in hand.

And well they might. For while some parts of the music world have firmly grasped the notion that survival equates with building a new relationship with a high, technically defined musical century where nothing is what it seems, others have remained locked in a jewel box where the past is somehow a legitimate reason for defining the future. Nothing is ever certain in the world of the arts, but you might think it is given that orchestras are still bedevilled by concert programmes that might not have looked out of place fifty years ago.

It is ironic that the closure of the Royal Festival Hall has in some ways forced orchestras to redefine their concerts. Gone are the days of programming large Bruckner or Mahler symphonies in a new, albeit temporary, acoustic at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that swallows the music and then throws it out in a kind of asthmatic wheeze. Not that such a symptom of a smaller crawlspace necessarily means orchestras don’t dice with fate: the Philharmonia’s attempt to play Mahler’s Seventh in such a small hall rebounded, and it has been noted that some soloists used to filling the all-together bigger space of the Royal Festival Hall seem unable to allow for the change in dynamic range. But if there is a small mercy in the rediscovery of ‘new’ concert repertoire during the refurbishment of its bigger brother, orchestras will surely revert to the big works to fill seats when the hall reopens next year. What looked like a cloud with silver lining now seems to be a cloud with a heavy darkness beneath it and a thunderstorm in the making.

When I started editing Seen and Heard the iPod was still a figment of the imagination. But just as the iPod has revolutionized the way we listen to and play music, so some corporate bodies have grasped its wider implications for music beyond the mp3 generation of listeners to re-evaluate their own futures. It is almost unthinkable not to correlate the growth in Apple’s dominance of the portable music industry with some forward-thinking music or orchestra managers rethinking their own sectors and how consumers relate to them. Linking the iPod to iTunes, Apple Computer’s music software that incorporates an extensive virtual store of classical music, offered unrivalled opportunities for orchestras. And the impact of embracing new technology brings both musical and financial rewards. LSO Live sell their CDs recorded at concerts through the store at a higher price than they sell them for in the shops and people are prepared to pay the price. The Royal Concertgebouw’s own label also sells through the iTunes store and their prices are strikingly similar to what you would pay on the High Street. If there seems little financial incentive to purchase medium priced or budget priced music through iTunes, then that is compensated for by the purchase of full priced discs which are generously discounted. The Hagen Quartet’s new disc of Shostakovich String Quartets, for example, costs almost half the price as it would in one of the larger record retailers. Taken in that context, the economics of buying through downloads becomes self-recommending. And more strikingly, the once distinctive branding of some recordings as more or less expensive than others becomes irrelevant with a single pricing policy.

Even Apple itself has acknowledged that the iPod has a much wider audience than the one that they assumed would adopt its cutting-edge mp3 player when it was first released. The first iPods were not equipped to play the long tracks of symphonies; frequently they broke up when played. The current, Fifth Generation iPod plays long tracks seamlessly. Although the function has always existed in iTunes to join tracks to prevent secondary lapses in replay, it is surprisingly little used. But how else would one be able to listen to an opera, for example, without the ability to join the tracks into a seamless whole, much as one would in the opera house?

Without the revolution of the iPod and iTunes, DG’s new project to record concerts live and put them on the web for download would be inconceivable. And, these concerts are exclusive to the web; they cannot be bought in shops. To date, DG have issued two concerts featuring the New York Philharmonic and four featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic in repertoire as wide ranging as Mozart and Beethoven to Lutoslawski and Reich. Moreover, in many cases these concerts extend well beyond the time parameters set down for an 80-minute compact disc. Put on the web as near to two weeks after the concerts were given, they offer a glimpse into the future of classical music downloads and the link to live music-making. A new agenda is being set.

But new agendas don’t persuade everyone. Some will take the risk to embrace the new century, others will remain entrenched in the former one. Orchestras and the concert-going experience will survive or die because of the choices made. Lebrecht may have been wrong to predict the death of music with such imminence, but if its death isn’t the inevitable result of not embracing the future the one certainty is that the future will lead to a two tier music world: one for those who are inventing new opportunities, and a second for those who are closing the lid of the jewel box to remain in the comfort of the past. Death is never universal; there are always survivors, but to survive a risk for the unknown needs to be a compelling driving force.

As I leave the United Kingdom to become North American editor for Seen and Heard, I am perhaps going to a continent where the conservatism of classical music is more pronounced than it has ever been in Europe. But a flight to Philadelphia to hear the innovatively creative music agenda set by Christoph Eschenbach, or to Boston to hear that set by James Levine, offers incentives on their own that I can no longer hear in London. Perhaps when I return to London the gravediggers will finally have left the side of the coffin – but whether that is because they have buried it or because death is a long way off to keep them waiting around remains an unanswered question.

Marc Bridle




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