The Elephant in the Audience

By James Conlon

Last Friday night, May 9, I conducted a program at Carnegie Hall, the penultimate concert not only for this year’s installment of Spring for Music, but, it would seem, forever. In the audience, it seemed to me, was an enormous (they usually are) and benevolent elephant.

I appeared there with the forces of the Cincinnati May Festival (of which I am celebrating thirty-five years as Music Director this season), The Cincinnati Symphony, May Festival Chorus and an array of soloists.

The program consisted of two disparate American works from the twentieth century: John Adams’ Harmonium (1980) and R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses (1937). The latter, by a still relatively unknown and unsung African American (born in Canada, raised and educated in the U.S.), had its world premiere at the May Festival in 1937 and was reprised there in 1956 with a cast that included Leontyne Price and William Warfield.

It has been a long time since any presenting organization has not only encouraged programs featuring lesser-known works, but also virtually required them. The artistic success of Spring for Music resided in its giving artists the opportunity to perform works that others would not risk in today’s economic environment. The fact that it drew large enthusiastic crowds was only partially explained by its encouraging of hometown fans to travel to New York. The ticket prices were $25 apiece.

And there he was, the elephant in the audience. Nobody wants to say it out loud in certain circles, but many music lovers are not willing or able to pay today’s prices. Maybe that wasn’t true fifty years ago (even adjusted for inflation I suspect they were largely less expensive), and perhaps it will not be true again in fifty years. But that is irrelevant because it is true today.

We are told that the public will not come to hear—take your pick—unknown pieces, music of composers whose names are unfamiliar, contemporary (and not so contemporary) “modern music” and so forth. All true, and the Chief Financial Officer of any symphony orchestra or opera house can point to the figures.

But what that proves is only that a large number of people will not pay a large amount of money for tickets. What Spring for Music has proved is the opposite: for inexpensive tickets, people are delighted to go out and take a chance, while we, on stage, have an excellent opportunity to experiment with new, different, “out of the box” and “off the wall” (if you will) ideas.

I noted that the public did not rush out at the end of Friday’s performance as they can do. They stayed around to express their enthusiasm before I invited them to honor a sixty-four-year-old May Festival tradition. They sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” along with all the forces onstage accompanying them.

So if our classical-music-loving elephant tells us that ticket prices are too expensive, who then will pay for the performances? There is the rub.  Every orchestra, opera company, classical music festival, chamber music and recital series is fighting to keep afloat.  I do not know where the money will come from. I do know that

  1. classical music will never pay for itself (it never has);
  2. it will depend on the generosity of strangers (it has since the days of the Medicis); and
  3. it is unrealistic to expect funding to come from any source at this time in history other than from the private sector.

In Los Angeles we have just completed an extended homage to Benjamin Britten. He is another composer who is regularly cited as being one who “doesn’t sell.” But on several occasions we saw concert halls, churches and cathedrals filled to capacity, aided by modest tickets prices. Another example: in certain countries in Europe (Germany and Austria in particular), I am continually struck by the massive numbers of inexpensive tickets that are available to students on a daily basis. Here at home, I don’t see how it is possible to plan for a future without nurturing concert-going as a basic part of our educational system.

So please, let’s not continue to repeat to ourselves (until others uncomprehendingly repeat it ad nauseum) that no one is interested in classical music, or, even among those who are, that no one is interested in “off-beat” repertory. When he ran for election, candidate Bill Clinton’s advisors famously kept reminding him and his team to stay focused on the primary issue of the 1992 election, “It’s the economy, stupid.” “It’s the ticket prices…..” might serve just as well for us in our own campaign.

The popular and critical success of Spring for Music would seem to support that thesis. Music lovers will come out in large numbers when they can afford to. And the necessity to continue and to encourage similar projects (until they become normal) is clear.

As Anthony Tommasini aptly observed in his May 12 New York Times review, “That financial support could not be found to extend this invaluable project is very dispiriting. What made Spring for Music exceptional is something that should be commonplace in classical music…Shouldn’t the seasonal offerings of ensembles everywhere be a weekly succession of musical adventures?”

They can be, and we will need a lot of deeply committed and devoted patrons and sponsors with vision to help us accomplish this. We have many such people already in this country, and with more, this noisy “death of classical music” drumbeat can be muffled. Maybe our friendly, music-loving elephant will help us trample it.

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