Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mac Donald vs. Sandow

There seems to be an awful lot at stake in the ongoing battle of words between Heather Mac Donald, who argues that we are in the golden age of classical music, and Greg Sandow, who claims that classical music is in a dangerous period of decline and redundancy. Here's a rundown of the articles from each writer:
Other well-known classical music bloggers have also weighed in on the debate:
My opinion on the matter?

I'm of two minds. On the one hand, this is a tremendously exciting time of renewal for not only classical music but for the arts in general, with all sorts of new growth brought on by multiculturalism, technology, and the sizable entry of a new crop of brilliant emerging professionals each year. The standard of playing is getting higher and higher, and not at the expense of artistry.

But at the same time, there are serious flaws in many institutions, which need to be addressed. Rare indeed is the classical music organization that has arrived at the winning combination of artistic agenda, audience engagement, and business plan without jeopardizing one for the other. There are plenty of people in positions of power who just don't get it.

But who the hell are we to predict a future that will eventually be determined by those who come after us? As arts professionals, all we can do is work to the best of our abilities to figure out which processes new and old are the ones that have the greatest impact, do our best to make them work, educate those that come after us, and then pass the baton to the next generation.

The ultimate destination of the ecosystem known as classical music simply hasn't been discovered yet.


  1. History repeats itself, and if we have learned anything from the history of the arts, it's that critics like to write and disagree with each other.

    And remember, all healthy ecosystems are based on balance. That Mac Donald and Sandow both exist is proof that the classical music ecosystem is balancing itself as it always has. I don't see a Mac Donaldian Golden Age, nor do I detect a Sandowian crisis begging for reinvention.

    There will always be critics inhabiting the various fringes.

    And meanwhile, there will be those of us playing and teaching Brahms, or JacobTV, or both; having a good time and wondering what all the fuss is about.

  2. Unfortunately, as interesting as their exchange is, it seems to miss the main point. Ms MacDonald says it best when she points out that “Music records the evolution of the human soul”. Notably, she then goes on to [almost explicitly] say — both she and Sandow certainly imply in the rest of their articles — that the evolution, for all intents and purposes, stops with Romanticism.

    Only once in her entire first article does Ms MacDonald even glancingly refer to what is, in my opinion, the main problem: “[The public] finds little emotional significance in most contemporary classical music, especially that produced in academic enclaves.”

    Whether “classical music” — as the term is implicitly defined in this thread — is in a “Golden Age” or a “great decline”, I don't know; and neither MacDonald nor Sandow knock it out of the park for me. However, it is crystal clear to me that serious music as an art form will always be in decline when the public cannot connect to its own composers as profoundly as those of other cultures far away and long dead.

  3. Anonymous7:33 PM

    does anyone feel like classical musicians are somewhat to blame for a public disinterest in classical music? i do.

    i had two friends who went to an art song recital to hear a duo of mutual friends in concert. these friends are low on the socio-economic ladder. of course, they loved the concert, but they went on and on about the pomp and circumstance of other people their showing off their new furs, the attire of the audience, the cost of a soda, the cost of the seats, etc. isn't seat pricing ridiculous? martin katz once said to me: the true music lovers are always crammed in the back of the hall where the seats are affordable.

    with that in mind, how many of the "codes and conducts" of a classical concert setting are friendly to first time concert goers? glaring when people shift in their seat or turn the pages of the program at the wrong time... heaven forbid people clap at the wrong moment. every time i see that behavior, i feel as if we "snobs" are saying: get out of here, you don't belong!

    don't we all know a musicologist or two who think that the performance of a piece doesn't matter at all? it's just about hearing the music. well, they've won us over. when i look at many of my colleagues, i see classical musicians with advanced performance training who walk on stage with little motivation or acknowledgment of the audience, look terribly awkward, play wonderfully, get up and reverse an awkward walk off stage. no wonder no one wants to see you perform! when did we decide that the experience of hearing the music was EVERYTHING without considering the visual aspects, flow, and setting of the concert? no one minds those cramped, uncomfortable seats, always setting the hall up in exactly the same direction, bland lighting, right?

    and look at the music we perform! those debussy tois ballade are pretty tame aurally, not george crumb or anything. that's good... but wait! let's perform them in ANCIENT FRENCH, so that those folks in the audience who took french in high school were excited to follow along with the set cannot do so at all.

    and with regard to teaching: how many times do students approach us, wanting to delve into one area of music study and we push them in another? i always require my students to work on reading conventional notation, but i am also happy to spend time with them realizing chord charts and experimenting with various styles of piano playing. sadly, i don't find many of my colleagues at this same place, or else they give lip service to its importance and leave things there.

    is it any wonder, then that many in the general public are distanced from classical music? we demand high fees for performance because we have studied and know how to well perform this music and the average amateur musician would not be able to come close to doing what we do. our composer friends write music that is difficult to appreciate, requiring multiple hearings, serious thought and attention in order to appreciate. nothing wrong with that... but the fact is, there is some easily engaging popular music that many of OUR minds/ears are closed to.

    if there is a problem with classical music, then WE GOT OURSELVES INTO IT. seriously, who else could be to blame? we MUST make classical music accessible. if we want people to open up to "our" music, we need to appreciate where they are coming from in order to reach them.

  4. Every time a classical musician complains about attendance at their concerts, I simply ask them:

    "When's the last time you attended the theater or a dance recital?"

    How can we expect people to support us when we don't even support fellow artists in other genres?

  5. I haven't actually said much yet about the dispute, just linked to it. In truth, I disagree with much of what Mac Donald says, starting with her claim/belief that there's no audience for modern and contemporary music and extending through her claim that labor costs are too high. I also disagree with many of Greg Sandow's claims about what's wrong with classical music, since he seems to want it to take on the trappings of pop music and because many of his proposed "solutions" aren't "solutions." Tweeting during concerts? Please. What problem is that solving? I note that he has backed off his claim from a few years back that classical music will die (which was never defensible) into something else.

    I do think classical music institutions could do a much better job of finding and grabbing audiences. Still - classical music isn't a whole, it's a series of niches that don't necessarily connect with the same people. Opera, symphonic music, choral music, early music, new music, and chamber music have different constituencies. I love it all and so do some of my friends, but I suspect we are in the minority.

    Lastly, I confess that I haven't read all five parts of Sandow's response nor have I read Mac Donald's rebuttal yet.