Dallas Morning News classical critic Scott Cantrell gets mooney about the past when… Once upon a time, high art ruled. He hearkens back to a time when a mass audience embraced the likes of Copeland, Britten, and Shostakovich. Sad to say, Bernstein and Stokowski don’t make the cut ‘cause they’re just conductors (poor devils though Lennie was known to pen a tune or two). As interesting as Cantrell’s article is, he somehow forgets about the Three Tenors or Il Divo (which is fortunate in the later case). Even then, what he yearns for is a time when the general public could take classical figures seriously and embrace them. Of course, it’s easy to blame the public for turning their backs on high culture but surely the ivory tower is a bit daunting to many of the great unwashed out there.
Maybe the real problem is that none of the great composers out there now (say Adams or Reich) write populist material and even more importantly, they’re not great commuicators outside of their own works. Both propositions might seem beneath such artists but it also keeps the classical world walled off from the rest of culture. Much as he’s loathed for spitting on anything post-bop, Wynton Marsalis has carried out this mission for jazz, keeping it in profile outside its usual realm but not selling out its past (though certainly overselling it).
Until you have larger-than-life characters who break out of the usual “dignified” mode and make an attempt to reach out to the larger culture, this is going to be an ongoing problem, not just for the artists themselves but also for the classical world. One indication of this is a seeming distaste by conductors to do fundraising, which in these troubling times for orchestras should be vital and second-nature. But it isn’t as witnessed in this New York Sun article: The Conductor Crisis. If overpaid maestros can’t bother to raise money to support their own paycheck, not to mention their orchestra, is it any wonder that many of them are feeling the financial crunch nowadays? And if it’s beneath them to ask for donor money, surely they’re not compelled to ask the greater public to meet them half-way. That’s a shame because there’s plenty of middle ground to be exploited as Lincoln Center and other institutions are finding ways to bridge the gap with rock and electronica audiences. Now they just need a great spokesman or spokeswoman to take up the mantle and become a public figure who makes the classical world look less daunting.