During the past decade or so, one has read often of attempts made by various classical (or "serious", or "art") music entities symphony orchestras, chamber groups, recital organizers, even opera companies to gain a larger audience for their "product", and it's nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, they've all, to greater or lesser degree, pursued a model that's not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People; or using less euphemistic and less generous terminology, prole pandering. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on in the world of mass entertainment, it's an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn't) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elite enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.
One of the pernicious aims of the current leveling Zeitgeist is the dissolution of all hierarchies, both natural and culturally determined without distinction. While that aim is doomed ultimately to failure, the casualties it will produce has already produced along its doomed way will take whole generations to restore to good health, provided, that is, the casualties have not been utterly destroyed by the murderous onslaught.
And why is the aim of the current leveling Zeitgeist doomed ultimately to failure? Because hierarchies are essential to the well-being of Homo sapiens. There's just no getting around it. It's in our DNA as it's in the DNA of all living things. And in the hierarchy of music, classical music, by every meaningful musical measure, occupies the very highest level; one distinct from all other levels, platitudinous and pernicious equalitarian pap such as the following from a professional classical music critic who more than most ought to know better notwithstanding. Wrote this classical music critic (who, as an act of charity, I leave nameless):
Music is a very broad river, into which many streams flow. Classical is only one of those streams. It has particular virtues other kinds of music don't have, but then they have virtues of their own.
Bypassing the lame imagery of the metaphor that has music as a river rather than the vast, life-nourishing sea it is, classical music is not merely "one of [music's] streams," but music's very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music's other instantiations. Given that inarguable truth, classical music promoted as just another "stream" flowing into the "river" of music will ultimately be met by those at which the promotion is aimed with the same sort of disbelief and contempt afforded the person who attempts to present himself as what he manifestly is not, and by that attempt renders himself thoroughly ridiculous as he cannot help but do. Think of a redneck attempting to pass himself off as a genuine aristocrat, or, much worse, and much more to the point, vice versa.
So, if pandering to proles is not the answer, what, then, is? I'll risk a tentative answer, but in fundamental principle only as I've neither the foggiest notion how, nor the professional expertise necessary, to put the thing into actual practice.
The alpha and omega of it is that a hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young. If you fail to get 'em very young, you mostly don't get 'em at all.
And that targeting must begin with the pre-kindergarten young, and continue at least through early adolescence. Schools, both public and private, cannot do the job by themselves although they have their place in the campaign. Neither, strange to tell, can parents although they, too, have their place. In today's world, the single most important overwhelmingly important entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially, via its content, not via commercials, public service or paid-for. If classical music is not sold there, it will remain largely unsold no matter what else is done. Classical music must be made a part of the very air children breathe, and only the commercial media can accomplish that.
And it's important how it's sold, too. If it's sold as merely another "stream" flowing into the "river" of music the campaign will fail abjectly. It must be sold as the elite enterprise it in truth and in fact is; something the appreciation and understanding of which is something to which one ought to aspire. And that means the purveyors and performers of classical music must never succumb to the temptation to ape the techniques or the outward trappings of the world of mass entertainment, or dumb down classical music's content or presentation in the false and doomed hope of thereby attracting a greater following. There must never be permitted a disconnect between projected image and the true reality of the thing itself (i.e., classical music's fundamentally elite nature). In marketing terms, classical music must be sold honestly as a vintage Château Latour, not a sexily packaged, reasonably priced Napa Valley Merlot or, worse, some concocted hybrid as is today attempted in classical music presentations featuring so-called "crossover" music.
As I said, a tentative answer in fundamental principle only, and a long, hard road to travel, but an on-the-right-track the only right track beginning. Without a long-term commitment to the education of the very young, the classical music concert as we know it today (that is, neither adjusted, watered- nor dumbed-down either in content or presentation to accommodate the ignorant) will be doomed to the trash bin of history.
I should here note that one of our very best, and best informed, music critics, Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker (who most decidedly is not the music critic above quoted), took huge exception to my views above expressed, which views were read by Mr. Ross previously on another venue of mine, and in a first-rate piece written for the New Yorker addressing the problem here discussed he actually took aim at those views in rather strong terms. Wrote Mr. Ross,
Yet some discerning souls believe that the music [i.e., classical music] should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, "The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music." They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define [classical music] as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.
With all due respect to Mr. Ross, whom I indeed do respect, one cannot define anything as "worth loving." One can but introduce a thing to those unfamiliar with it for what it is in the most honest, appropriate, and engaging way one can devise, and then let nature (Nature) take its course, so to speak. Sad to tell, nature's (Nature's) course in this particular business virtually guarantees that no matter how engaging the introduction, the overwhelming majority of those to whom classical music is introduced will fail to see (hear) that it's "something worth loving."
Bet on it giving odds.
UPDATE: Alex Ross responds.
UPDATE 3: Jessica Duchen (whose weblog was previously unknown to me, but which I now see belongs on this weblog's, um, elite weblog list) joins the conversation with some interesting and thoughtful commentary.
UPDATE 4: Helen Radice adds her voice to the conversation by raking my "elitist position" over the coals.