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Question: What is the future of classical music? 

Leon Botstein: The audience is not dying out. I think the audience is very hard to replace because it’s always been older. This has always been an older person’s entertainment, as far as concert-going is concerned. And so what we need to do is find a way to capture the interest of people in their late 20s and their 30s, early 40s, who’ve never been at a classical music concert—or once when they were children. So you have to re-introduce them. It’s similar to re-introducing a child to vegetables they hated when they were children. So we’re not dealing with a group of people who learned to play an instrument all through childhood the way I did or my grandparents and parents’ generation. And then decide to become professionals.

So take baseball, all right? People who do a lot of amateur baseball playing love the professional game. People who ski love to watch skiing. People who golf are worried about Tiger Woods. No sane person would watch a televised golf game. Would you? No, I wouldn’t watch a golf game, unless I played. Because when I play golf, which I don’t, I would probably understand why Tiger Woods is good. For me Tiger Woods is some kind of conspiracy. Famous guy hitting small ball long distances.  I don’t understand it, it makes no sense to me. It has no particular value. So I’ll never watch golf, I’ll turn the channel away from the golf game.

So the audience has always traditionally been built on amateurs who are fascinated. Tennis is the best example. There are a lot of tennis clubs out there. People hitting the ball, and they, when they see a real good tennis player, they know what that person does. Now we don’t have that audience anymore in classical music, by and large. So we have to find a way to connect music to their lives, the way museums have done with painting. The people who watch art shows, or go to museums, aren’t amateur painters. They have never tried to paint, but they understand it. 

The people who read books and literature haven’t tried their hands writing novels or poetry, but they love to read. How do we do that with music to a population where it’s new to their adulthood? That’s task number one. And I think we can do that. It has to do with changing the concert format, changing what we play and how we play it. In terms of the context of performance. The other odd thing about classical music, which is a great thing, is that it is an international rage. There are more young people out there learning to play instruments than ever before and they play better than ever before. 

The level of play is much higher than it ever was, and the number of people studying violin and piano and western classical music in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, Venezuela, all over the world, is fantastic. It’s a growing business in terms of the people learning to play it. Young people, as children and as adolescents and young adults, learning to play the instruments very well. So we have a very vital growing group of instrumentalists. We have a lot of people writing music for the concert stage. The trouble is actually convincing the audience. Now there are not enough young players who are not going to become musicians to make up the audience. Because they are studying the instrument at too high a level. 

In other words, there are too many people in the minor leagues, so to speak. Or going through the college pipeline, and there are not enough slots in the NFL. That’s more or less the idea. So the question is: "Can you get a lot of people who have never played football to watch the game?" People who think it’s an enjoyable time to sit and listen to a concert? And that’s our task, which is capture the interest of the adult, young adult, and one of the places to start actually is in college. One of the real failures, in my view, is the failure of music departments in universities to make music appreciation really enjoyable to college students. And they’ve gone into the very arcane fields of musicology and they’ve made a profession out of their expertise, so we need to rescue classical music from its own defenders. 

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, September 01 2011


The Future of Classical Music

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