Classical Scene 2010 Crisis deferred

Schumann, Chopin and Mahler jubilees were lavishly celebrated in 2010, but the economic crisis put a damper on all that jubilance, and some observers of the classical music scene raised concerns about the advanced age of most concertgoers.
Nonetheless, classical music is still very much alive and resounding. And the use of new media to put classical music across heralds new opportunities ahead.

It was the year of Robert Schumann (birthday bicentenary), Frédéric Chopin (bicentenary) and Gustav Mahler (150th birthday).
Subscription concerts and festivals a-plenty, new CDs and books, conventions and exhibitions, radio and television productions, even movies (Mahler on the Couch) – all joined the throng of well-wishers.
Indeed, hardly anything shapes the musical agenda as much as such anniversaries – not least because they lend themselves so well to long-term planning.

What could be gleaned from all the action around the triple jubilee came as no big surprise: that Chopin is more popular than Schumann, for instance, or that Schumann spurs contemporary composers to more productive critical analysis.
And last but not least, that Gustav Mahler's symphonies now hold a pole position in the orchestral canon rivalled only by those of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Honours, debuts and new discoveries

All the other big names in 2010 were more or less overshadowed by the triple anniversary.
Conductor/composer Michael Gielen won the Ernst von Siemens Foundation music award, one of the highest honours in the German music world. That was long overdue.

Pierre Boulez and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau both turned 85 and were duly fêted. For the occasion, Boulez treated himself – and his listeners – to two gorgeous CD releases: Mahler's Magic Horn Lieder with Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Kozena, and Karol Szymanowsky's main symphonic works, performed with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Three outstanding young conductors debuted last year with the Berlin Philharmonic: Andriss Nelsons*, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Tomás Netopil, who are bound to be back on the Berlin podium again sometime soon.

While we're at it, we might also mention two young instrumentalists whose debut CDs pricked up some ears: the Norwegian-born Munich-based violinist Vilde Frang and cellist Maximilian Hornung from Augsburg.

Standouts among last year's many fine albums included the Artemis Quartet's double-disc recording of Beethoven's complete works for string quartet, which will remain a musical benchmark for years to come.

Passing of the baton in Munich

2010 began as a year of conductorial discontent down in Munich.

Back in the summer of 2009, Christian Thielemann had already announced his transfer to Dresden, so the Munich Philharmonic and the city's cultural affairs chief Hans-Georg Küppers then pulled an old ringer out of a hat: Lorin Maazel, one-time principle conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, will be taking over in 2012 for a three-year transition period, time enough to find a younger successor for the post.

There was also some vexation over at the Bavarian State Opera, which announced in the summer that top conductor Kent Nagano's contract would not be renewed. However, the opera's general director Nikolaus Bachler was able to come up with a promising replacement, Kyrill Petrenko, who will be stepping up in 2013.

Last year's obituaries included conductor Charles Mackerras (another excellent series of whose recordings were released), long-serving festival director Wolfgang Wagner and the composer Henryk Gorecki.

Decline of classical music gets deferred

At the outset, 2010 was generally expected to be a year of crisis in the industry.
Those active in the arts were firmly convinced that the public coffers would be hard hit by the shock waves of the financial crisis over the course of the year. Another round of painful budget cuts for orchestras, concert halls and music schools looked to be inevitable – and they actually did come to pass in some Länder and municipalities.

Moreover, plans for the next orchestra mergers were (and still are) on the drawing board, especially in Eastern Germany.

In Bochum, for example, where the city was hoping to build a concert hall for its orchestra and had already raised the requisite funds, the regional government stonewalled the project - even as the Ruhr region was celebrating its big year as a European Capital of Culture.

Not far from there, down in Bonn, plans for a festival centre were likewise put on ice. And over in Berlin, Willy Steul, director of the public radio station Deutschlandfunk, aired doubts about the funding of both the German Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Symphony Orchestra – which happen to be two of the most illustrious orchestras in the country.
And in early 2010 the number of existing positions in German orchestras, which was still over 12,000 in 1992 and has been steadily dwindling ever since, dipped below the 10,000 mark for the first time.

However, contrary to all fatalistic expectations, the classical music industry was spared the across-the-board cuts that had been looming on the horizon.
Spending on the arts was actually boosted by as much as 4.1% last year as against 2009, reports the German Statistical Office. Roughly a third of the approximately €10 billion in local, regional and federal cultural spending went to subsidizing music in 2010. These abstract figures say precious little about the standing of classical music in German society, but they do inch the benchmarks up a little towards where they belong.

Ageing public, efforts to woo the youth

If you try to get a sense of the German music scene in 2010 based on the public debate, you're bound to come across apocalyptic catchwords like "drastic shortfalls", "crisis", "ageing public".

This past March, a study by the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen caused quite a stir: "Germany's concert halls and opera houses are likely to undergo a drastic decline in the near future," cultural policy expert Martin Tröndle warned in the report. Concert attendance is holding up, in some places even slightly increasing, he admits, but the average age of concertgoers is between 55 and 60 years of age.
"Over the past 20 years, the average age of classical music audiences has risen three times as fast (by about 11 years) as the average age of the population (by about 3.4 years). Over the next 30 years the classical music audience will shrink by more than a third: it is simply dying out."
If the established music institutions fail to reach younger strata of the public, he concludes, then there will be no justification for what is by international standards a lavish scale of state funding in Germany.

No wonder protestations came pouring in so fast. Klaus Zehelein, in his capacity as president of the German Theatre Association, dismissed Tröndle's dismal forecasts as speculation. What's more, he pointed out, orchestras have long since acknowledged the challenge they face, and their efforts to woo younger listeners have already proven quite effective.

As a matter of fact, the 2009/2010 season saw another marked increase in the number of educational events put on by publicly-funded orchestras, a figure that has nearly doubled since the 2003/2004 season. The German Music Information Centre counted all told 5,902 symphonic concerts in the year 2010, including tours abroad, and no fewer than 4,069 music education events (workshops, concerts for children and teens).

Record industry mixes pop and highbrow

Even the piracy-plagued record industry reported encouraging figures in the autumn of 2010: consumers are apparently still into classical music. The market grew 3% last year on 2009. Moreover, classical music is increasingly seeping into modern-day popular culture. Artists like David Garrett, Lang Lang and Jonas Kaufmann represent "a new young generation of classical artists who are making the genre appealing to a younger audience, too."

But is David Garrett's album Rock Symphonies, which ruled the classical charts in September 2010, really classical music?
From the traditional highbrow perspective, the fact that such an album's success is counted in the "classical" category as a matter of course is not necessarily a sign of hope, but perhaps yet another portent of imminent decline.

There is no denying that the educated middle class's general notion of "culture" continued its downhill slide in 2010. The crisis in school music instruction, which is increasingly given (if at all) by faculty from other departments at Hauptschulen (vocational middle schools) and Realschulen (secondary modern schools), is but one contributing factor.

The erosion of traditional conceptions of classical music can also be seen in the way major music labels hype new releases. In the marketing strategies of Universal (Deutsche Grammophon) and Sony, the work and the composer, which always used to be centre-stage in the educated listener's take on classical music, have been gradually upstaged by the performing artist, who now – as in pop music – gets all the attention.
Concert tours nowadays are, as a matter of course, promotional exercises for the latest CD release.

While in the past the rendition of a given work could mature over the course of a series of concerts before recording the end result, these days the album often has to hit the shelves before the tour starts. And the programme is picked mainly according to whether the works say anything about the performing artist, whether they fit his or her image.
So no wonder on the soundtrack (which came out in December on CD) to the video game Gran Tourismo 5 (an auto racing simulator) the repertoire (Air on the G String, Minute Waltz, The Entertainer) is entirely beside the point: what's surprising is not the pieces played, but that there are any classical works at all on the soundtrack, which is performed by Lang Lang.

Culture critics may well frown on the new nexus between traditional highbrow culture and latter-day mass digital culture, but it does hold some opportunities as well. Since 2008, the WDR Radio Orchestra has been putting on a series of concerts featuring video game soundtracks scored for symphony orchestra, packing the Cologne Philharmonic Hall with enthusiastic young audiences who otherwise seldom, if ever, attend classical concerts.

Digital media and classical music

The media revolution has long since begun working a sea change in classical music and how it is brought home to the public at large.
The Berlin Philharmonic drew the logical conclusions from that trend and set up a virtual "Digital Concert Hall" back in 2009.

The main opportunity for classical music in a digitized world, however, lies not so much in such pay-to-view websites as in so-called "low-threshold" sites, which hugely augment the audience for what is deemed "difficult" music in particular.

Witness the astounding numbers of YouTube views of works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. Helicopter String Quartet: approx. 550,000 hits; Song of the Youths (Gesang der Jünglinge): approx. 250,000; Metastasis: approx. 270,000. Classical music lovers clicking through YouTube will readily see that the "well-tempered Internet" prophesied in the New Yorker by US journalist Alex Ross back in 2007 has since become a reality.

The Internet, Ross theorized optimistically, may well kill the CD, but it will help classical music. The decline of classical music was nonetheless hotly debated at the beginning of the year 2010, but then deferred till further notice.