A lot of Republicans are smart people with sound ideas about economics and a libertarian approach to moral issues, but you’d never know it because their core demographics include poorly educated ignorant bigots that they’re scared of upsetting.

Lots of classical musicians are interesting people, but they’re afraid to show it because at the core of the classical music audience is a bunch of snobs. These are the people that have tried to stifle every bit of innovation since the Boehm system*. It’s the fear of this crowd that keeps our performers from using any of the innovative marketing strategies (like not dressing as if it’s 1952) that have made many other genres of less-interesting music more popular.

How did our audience get to be so snobby?

Well, in part its because we decided that the snobs were going to be our core constituency. If we weren’t unafraid of upsetting them, we’d have a thriving young audience right now, but instead we pander to them and drive everybody else away.

The good news is that snobs are a loyal audience. They’re quite happy to have their precious art to themselves, in an environment where, for three hours a night, the 60s haven’t happened. For the most part, they don’t actually know anything about music, so its fairly easy to keep them on board with a minimum of actual creative endeavor, which allows the orchestras to focus on their fundraising. So long as there are pompous asses giddy at the opportunity to show how sophisticated they are, we’ll be able to half-fill our concert halls.

The bad news is that half-heartedly impersonating Karajan and the Berlin Phil (circa 1972) every night is deathly boring for everybody, including the people that have to sit through it. When people breathlessly recount the tale of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring causing a riot, what is it that surprises them? That classical audiences were once so conservative? That a major arts venue would stage a piece that they knew would piss off most of their audience? Or that anybody was young enough to throw a chair?

I have seen classical music performed in an environment apparently devoid of snobbery. Marin Alsop’s Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz is a great example. They play whole programs of contemporary music in what is basically a gymnasium, and it seems like everybody in town comes to hear it – assured that they won’t like it all but there will definitely be something interesting. If the same percentage of San Francisco’s population showed up to hear their local orchestra’s gigs, the San Francisco Symphony would have to play at the local baseball stadium. Why wouldn’t that happen?

  1. There’s more to do in San Francisco. It isn’t the Nineteenth Century in Santa Cruz, but the entertainment calendar is a little more sparse, just like it was back when a classical concert was the most interesting thing to do on a Saturday night.
  2. Any large arts organization would ruin it. They’d take one look at the program and say “it needs to be more accessible” or “this will alienate our fans” and suddenly there would be a Beethoven piano concerto in between John Adams and Morton Feldman, and the whole thing would sound ridiculous.

I’m glad this didn’t happen, but John McCain would probably be president right now if he’d not made such cowardly compromises to pander to the bottom end of his market. He came across as uncommitted and insincere, and classical performers often do the same. If we were to understand that the bottom of our market are the people that will come to our concerts anyway, and appreciate that the people who don’t are above, not beneath, our commonplace performances, we might once again have the most interesting thing to do on Saturday night.

This little rant was meant to be a review of James Rhodes’ debut album, which I love. I worry that the snobs will interpret his behavior and style as a cynical attempt at marketing and not a naive attempt to be himself, but thankfully, his playing speaks for itself. Watch this, then go buy it.

* itself still considered a heresy in Vienna, where the concert halls are paved with gold and time simply stopped in about 1840.


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