It Ain’t Over ‘Til The Fat Lady Sings (Or Until We’re Out of Money): The Year in Classical Music

 

Pierson.
Pierson.

This year saw transcendent performances in classical music. There was Hélène Grimaud’s early December performance of Brahms’ epic first piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall or the New York Philharmonic’s October performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, cleverly paired with the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, to name just a few. And yet it wouldn’t come as a surprise if many concertgoers ring in the New Year with at least a few symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The greatest tragedy of the year took place off-stage: the October bankruptcy filing of the New York City Opera, just a few months short of its 70th anniversary. The end came quickly, and by Dec. 19 asset valuation, advisory and disposition services firm Tiger Group was offering the “balance of NYC Opera’s inventory of gowns, prop weaponry, audio/video equipment and other mainstays of its world-famous productions” in an online auction, a humiliating end to an illustrious company. The NYCO kick-started the careers of greats like Plácido Domingo and Beverly Sills, who later became a fundraising dynamo as general director of the company.

But her boom years were during the 1980s. Financial problems among local performing arts institutions this year weren’t limited to the NYCO, even if theirs did get the most play in the press. The cash-strapped Brooklyn Philharmonic saw sold-out performances for You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance, a June 2013 set by Erykah Badu at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that tastefully blended hip-hop and orchestral fusion, and drew the coveted younger demographic. Still, that month Artistic Director Alan Pierson’s contract was allowed to expire, and the Brooklyn Phil’s website soon went down for maintenance.

Then there were the work stoppages at Carnegie Hall. In September, the venue canceled some much-anticipated performances by the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, due to an ongoing lockout of the musicians. It was great loss for our city. The orchestra seemed to receive no shortage of acclaim prior to the conflict. (And on Dec. 6, it received its second Grammy nomination in as many years, this time for a recording of Sibelius’ symphonies No. 1 and 4, last year’s nod for recordings of the composer’s 2nd and 5th symphonies.) The musicians remain locked out, and Vänskä quit, as he’d vowed to, when Carnegie Hall dropped the dates.

As if this wasn’t enough, in October Carnegie Hall’s season opener by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was canceled the day of, due to a strike by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One, which demanded control of the hall’s education wing, set to open next year. Several days later, Carnegie Hall announced that an agreement had been reached that included limited jurisdiction in the wing for the stagehands, some of whom reportedly make more than $400,000 per year.

Eric Latzky, an independent communications consultant and former head of communications at the New York Philharmonic, said that smaller groups can still expect to see the effects of these hiccups in 2014.

“I think if you take an example like the tragedy of City Opera, there is evidence to support the idea that if you are dormant for a while or if you disappear”—as did NYCO when it left the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and slashed its season—“people forget about you no matter how good you are,” he said.

All is not lost, though. Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, said that, for him, 2013 was marked by experimentation and innovation among orchestras—brought about, in part, by necessity as audience demographics shift and digital technology affects in-person attendance.

But he added that in such an experimental and competitive environment, “it’s not surprising that there are a few that really struggle and some don’t make it at all.”

According to data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, the only age demographic that saw an increase in attendance at classical music events between 2008 and 2012 was that of people 65 years old and over.

“It wasn’t a statistically significant decline between 2008 and 2012,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis at the NEA, of other demographics. “If you’re an orchestra, you would conclude that perhaps over time this is something to get a handle on.”

Back in 2002, only 11.6 percent of respondents to the NEA’s survey said they had attended at least one such event, so lower attendance figures and older audience ages aren’t helping.

Mr. Latzky also saw a lack of advocacy. The Alliance for the Arts, a research and advocacy group, disbanded several years ago—its responsibilities falling to other groups, like the Municipal Art Society and WNET.

He detailed three tiers of performing arts organizations in the city—massive and well-known ones that receive strong support (e.g. Lincoln Center), followed by a middle tier of institutions like the ones discussed here that struggle on a daily basis and are potentially lost in the mix.

Finally, there are the individual performers. This last group, Latzky said, has “been largely priced out of New York, much in the way that the general middle class has been priced out of New York.”

For now, that class might have to hang its hopes on Bill de Blasio’s pro-middle-class campaign promises, because salvation of any other kind doesn’t seem to be on the immediate horizon.