Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major. Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7. And of course, Mozart’s “Sonata No. 13 in B-Flat Major,” or as it’s otherwise known, K. 333. If you have any idea what these actually sound like, feel free to congratulate yourself. The rest of us will be sniggering and pointing from the other end of the room. Such is the lot of classical music.

Emily Barton
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Emily Barton

Almost anyone can tell you that classical music’s popularity is declining. Classical music lovers will admit it with a tear (punk rockers with a derisive laugh), but anyone with ears or a radio knows classical’s not shattering sales records. In fact, recent years have seen a marked decline in orchestra attendance, pushing many orchestras, some of them major fixtures of the art, dangerously close to bankruptcy: The Toronto Orchestra, l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, the San Jose Symphony – the list is growing every year.

Solo artists aren’t fairing any better, either. Just 40 years ago, classical music artists were powerful figures in popular culture, with the elusive pianist, Glenn Gould, commanding America’s musical attention. The closest we come now is Josh Groban: an exceptional singer, but most famous for one song – not his best and far from classical – at a Super Bowl three years ago. Most people, especially young people, simply aren’t interested in classical music.

The thing is, it’s not our fault, at least not entirely – it’s classical music’s fault. This might sound like blaming the victim, but it’s not. The fact is, classical music is missing the boat on the what’s arguably the most important development of the last few hundred years – capitalism.

It may be a slight exaggeration. But in all seriousness, the classical music industry – and it is an industry, like it or not – is in denial of its own role as an entirely marketable commodity. There’s no advertisement for any CD outside the tiny section of your local record store. There is no name recognition beyond the tiny community of dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts. Classical music has made for itself a bubble of listeners, and no one’s coming in.

The pieces of music listed at the beginning of this article are truly beautiful, and yet ask nearly anyone to hum it based on the name alone and you’ll likely only hear crickets. By the same token, asking someone to sing the chorus of “Sexyback” is more likely to result in a painful rendition of mankind’s worst/hippest song. It’s not because JT can sing, it’s because the man is a branding miracle, and you’d have to be deaf not to have heard of him.

Classical music has no one with an image like JT. No one seems concerned with “getting their name out there” or getting any reputation outside of the narrow confines of the field. Yet branding should be even more important for classical music than it is for contemporary music. Without much disparity between instruments or easily distinguishable styles, classical composers and artists blend together too easily. While this should call for a strong movement by artists to distinguish themselves and the music they play, such ambition is rare at best. Fortunately, in what is beginning to seem like the last hope for classical concerts, venues are starting to make identities for them. The University Musical Society is one.

UMS is the group that arranges and hosts nearly every classical performer who comes to Ann Arbor. They brought the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, Mos Def this January and the San Francisco Symphony just weeks ago. Hill Auditorium, as the society’s main concert venue, has something scheduled almost every weekend and often a few times during the week. UMS also uses Rackham Auditorium in the same way.

In comparison to their contemporaries, UMS has been wildly successful with selling out their performances, and not without good reason. If the 2007-2008 season is any indication, they are focused on bringing impressive names to Ann Arbor. This has been the year of the headliners.

In November, Yo-Yo Ma was the first of several big names, giving a concert that left the audience nearly in shock. For many students drawn by the recognizable figure, it was more than they expected and exactly what was needed to rouse interest.

Then the San Francisco Symphony visited in March, easily selling out Hill and leaving many students waiting in line for the rush tickets they would never receive. The SFS in particular, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, has made an impact with their name. By building a reputation for their exciting programs, which mix modern classical with recognizable favorites, the SFS has done exactly what the rest of the classical music world needs to do.

Last night saw the performance of the last of these giants, Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist. Perhaps the most memorable character of these three performers, Lang doesn’t hesitate to distinguish himself with on-stage antics and his wildly emphatic style. While this may irritate some critics, it has done nothing but good for his reputation, as last night’s sold -The art form of classical music is in a dangerous position, but not in Ann Arbor. Student attendance is still disappointing given that some of the best artists in the world perform here, but it’s improving. UMS programs, such as Arts and Eats and half-price ticket sales, are moving seats faster than ever. Perhaps most importantly, powerful advertising and distinctive artists are making it easier for everyone, students and community alike, to identify with (and simply identify) the concerts they attend.

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