Not dead yet

planet-ending-1427851-mSlate, as it often does, started a small firestorm in the online world, with Tuesday’s headline:

Classical music in America is dead.”

The author, Mark Vanhoenacker, makes his rambling argument with a pile of statistics, unsupported generalizations about orchestra health, his own riffs on the observations of one respected classical blogger, plus a bizarre array of bonus examples including his own attendance at a couple of concerts, lack of “carding” at Tanglewood, and an episode of Modern Family.   But however flawed his approach and broad the bear-poking hyperbole (“circling the drain for years” is a bit much), the post has certainly provoked a few thoughts.

We’re all aware that the classical world is going through tremendous changes, with all the challenges that accompany such an evolution.  This is no new prognostication, either — it seems there’s a new declaration of CMID* every few months, and the debate goes back nearly a century.  But the tunnel vision that drives Vanhoenacker’s post has caused consternation and fierce response, mostly in defense of the art, and the article has proven an example of Slate’s reach, powered by the magazine’s feisty following overlapping many lines of interest.  As of this writing, the post appears to have been reprinted or featured solo by at least a dozen other news outlets (including the Los Angeles Daily News — thanks, guys) and rediscovered heavy controversy across the country.  Here are just a few of the juicier responses:

  • NewMusicBox, 1/24/14 — “Finding the Right Balance” by Frank J. Oteri  [My award nominee for Best Counterargument:]

    …“new (classical?) music” (why do we even have to label it?) is very much alive….The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. (Pick your prejudice and throw it away.) It cannot be contained geographically or be hermetically sealed up in impenetrable genre boxes.

  • New York Observer, 1/22/14 — “Classical Music Is Not Dead” by Matthew Kassel
  •, 1/24/14 — “Classical Music’s Demise?  Slate Column Stirs Up Anger on Internet” by Brian Wise  [This one includes an oddly mystified response to the backlash by Vanhoenacker himself.]
  • Proper Discord, 1/23/14 — “Mark Vanhoenacker, I have a bone to pick with you
  • MPR Newscut, 1/22/14 — “Is classical music dead?” by Bob Collins [Basically a partial reprint, but the comments are lively.]

It may be interesting to note that Norman Lebrecht, the erudite bard behind ArtsJournal’s Slipped Disc blog and author of Who Killed Classical Music? and eleven other books, hasn’t responded yet, either the blog or his Twitter feed.  But he did post “Nobel Winner says, ‘In the US, classical music is fundamentally a dying art’” on 1/23 without any reference to the Slate article.  It is a partial reprint of someone else’s interview with German scientist and erstwhile bassoon player Thomas Südhof, who now lives in the U.S..  Lebrecht may be lying low, or the timing may simply be unfortunate — it’s difficult to tell.  Perhaps he’ll do a real weigh-in later?

Vanhoenacker’s post is fairly clearly designed for shock and awe, maybe even entertainment, certainly not information or real consideration.  It comes off about as journalistic as a tabloid story on a young Canadian pop star.  (At least we haven’t had his week.) But couched in terms of concern, it’s hard to take.  Even the rather wry, seemingly hopeful ending seems disingenuous, as a tacked-on moment of remorse:

Myself, I cling to the forlorn hope that classical music has been down for so long, it must somehow be due for a comeback. More realistically, though, I’m hoping for Jeff Bezos to step in. He recently described Amazon as a symphony of people, software, and robots. Maybe he’d like a struggling orchestra to go with his newspaper.

Sure, we could ignore traffic-mongering posts like Slate’s, but here’s why this one seems to matter:  in an era when art music is trying to find itself a new role in society, this sort of trite grandstanding is just irresponsible, as too many less educated readers will take it seriously.  However, if nothing else, random diatribes do light a fire under the champions and creators of classical music, often sparking serious thought (thank you, Mr. Oteri) as well as indignation.  We can use these moments to further the discussion and again pose the question, “What next?”.  We must pose that question as many times as it takes, for the answers that result are well worth the effort.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Vanhoenacker does enjoy classical music, as he states in his rebuttal to WQXR (see above).  And yes, the title was undoubtedly his editors’ — let’s offer a completely separate shame on them.  Let’s also offer a little hope that journalists and editors, online and off, can put more effort into driving influence rather than website hits, facts and understanding rather than hysteria driven by Facebook stats.  I’d like to believe this was a anomaly in an otherwise respectable career.  Whatever your true aim, Mark, the classical world will certainly be keeping an eye on you.

Side note, just in case:  Mr. Bezos, if you truly would like to support a worthy arts org or twenty, we’d be happy to point you to a few local favorites. Ping me.

*Be sure to catch the magnificent retort from Matt Beckmann, who (as far as we know) gets credit for giving this meme its own acronym.

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