Kent Nagano: ‘Classical music could be gone in a generation’

Kent Nagano: ‘Classical music could be gone in a generation’


norman lebrecht

April 06, 2015

He tells Vienna’s Kurier that the art form is losing social relevance. Most young people consider it elitist and ‘belonging to the past’.

He has a book to plug, but no solutions to offer.

nagano book



  • Robin D Bermanseder says:

    The main points in the linked abstract are (via Google translate):

    The decline in Classical music is the result of/ evidenced by:
    -Declining or stagnating budgets
    -In the US, many orchestra have been disbanded or merged
    -Public subsidies and private sponsorship are falling
    -Recorded music sales are in crisis
    -New technologies allow ‘anyone’ to create music
    -Young singers have to go through a lot of ‘rasa tere’ (Translation fail?)
    -In Europe, the industry is changing rapidly
    -Classical music is considered to be elitist

    which is a shame because:
    – Classical music can help one to dream, to think, and to find identity
    ——–end of translation——

    The causality is not made clear in the list of points.
    Which are causes, and which are symptoms?
    I wonder if the book provides any new analysis or ideas ..
    Haven’t most of these challenges appeared before (and been overcome) in the long history of Classical music?

    • Eli says:

      I have been going to classical music concerts since 1947, not a typo,with over 1500 CDs and I, a classical music junkie, now find them boring.

      When some major orchestra decides to hire someone with a background in contemporary (not classical) music there may be some hope. The would get the orchestra out of Haydn’s clothes and a conductor without a God complex there may be some hope. And one doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water; some of the “sea of gray” still can’t cope with change

      • William Safford says:

        Pierre Boulez and the NY Philharmonic?

        David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony?

        Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic?

  • Mikey says:

    People would go to Montreal Symphony concerts, if they stopped programming all the most boring “standards” peppered with a “new” work by one of a tiny handful of “avant-garde” composers who have a death-grip on all performances of new music.

    And if the concerts didn’t cost an arm and a leg.

    People object to being told what’s good and what’s bad, instead of being shown quality work and letting audiences learn and develop.

    Nagano wants to do a Messiaen intégrale, but he refuses to perform any decent new Canadian music. The MSO feels like a touring orchestra that doesn’t give a hoot about the city that pays for its every burp and tweet: “we play, you shut up and listen.”

    There is so much incredibly beautiful new music being composed here, by young and less-young composers, and monsieur Kent Nagano hates all of it.

    • Eli says:

      “Decent new Canadian music” is a self-contradictory statement like “Giant shrimp”

      Music should earn its keep and not be a nationalistic requisite

      Who else but Canadian orchestras perform Canadian classical music?

    • MacroV says:

      Actually, Nagano has consistently sold out virtually every OSM concert he has conducted since he took over in 2006. Montreal is probably the only city in the world where he’s a bigger star than Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

      The OSM is actually one of the more interesting North American orchestras in terms of programming, and novel concert formats. Though more can surely be done.

    • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

      The interesting thing is that in Cleveland, for example, when the Cleveland Orchestra starting programming more “avant-garde” music, it saw its audience numbers drop quite drastically…….

      • John Borstlap says:

        Programming new music which has no roots in the orchestral performance culture damages it. When programmers / conductors think they have to ‘do something contemporary’ often they think it’s ‘progressive music’ that should be played, and then they end up with what was ‘new’ in the sixties instead of David Matthews or Nicolas Bacri.

    • music montreal says:

      new – and not so new – canadian music performed by the OSM this year: works by john estacio, clermont pépin, jacques hétu, sammy moussa, kiya tabassian, malcolm forsyth, and zosha di castri.

      with many sold out performances and an average of 90% attendance at the maison symphonique, i think it’s safe to say people go to OSM concerts. it’s also safe to say that everybody’s a critic.

  • T-arafanboy says:

    True maybe, in our declining culture, but not in China,Taiwan, Japan, Korea and possibly Russia. One way or another, something so great will survive.

  • milka says:

    Musicians like Nagano are the perfect example why the art is” losing social relevance “.

  • Matt Denerov says:

    Classical music IS elitist. In the sense that every classical musician is elite. In the sense that many classical musicians are intellectually and physically gifted to an astonishing degree, and have spent decades studying and practicing. Elite in that every performance is a miracle, with numerous highly skilled, highly trained artists working together to give rebirth to works of genius often hundreds of years old. Yes, it is elitist! In the end the problem with classical music is that it requires an open mind, an attention span, and some commitment. All are in short supply these days.

  • JJC says:

    Always unaddressed in these discussions about the difficulties of the orchestras (at least in the US) is the massive bloating on the management side. Several orchestras have more people in the office than on stage and many others come close to that. It wasn’t always this way. The players have ceded control of their orchestras to folks who often have very curious ideas of what symphony orchestras should be about. I don’t recognize the business anymore. The more we ‘change’, the more we fail and then comes the clamor for even more ‘change’. I have no confidence whatever in those who are leading us, their agenda seems more political than musical.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s the marketing, promotion and fundraising parts of the business which have boomed and ‘profesisonalized’, to compete with a ‘product’ in a ‘market’. This has pumped-up the bureaucratization of running an orchestra, alas.

      • JJC says:

        And, of course, necessitating an increasing percentage of the beleaguered budget. The size of our management today is about 5 times larger than it was when I joined 35 years ago. But the orchestra has many fewer players on roster and many fewer weeks in the season. I just can’t help noticing that and thinking that it may not be such a good thing.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The Vienna Phil is run by the players and they have minimum staff, so it is possible to run an orchestra without a blown-up office. But the pressures are high.

          Also, bureaucratic systems will seldom simplify, and are inclined to diversify and refine, which means greater complexity and the need of more staff, with the result of creating more complexity, ec. etc. and all these people have to be paid. And when supply overreaches demand, competition takes centre stage and then, marketing, promotion etc. gets more important on the expense of the content: the music and the players (which is taken for granted). In the end, things get out of proportion and when a financial crisis strikes, many bubbles burst. Add to this a general alienation in the wider culture concerning classical music and an education system failing to introduce classical music, many orchestras fold. But maybe the silver lining is the current pressure to find solutions to the way orchestras are run, and reducing staff and finding different ways of drawing audiences may help.

          It seems that the way of thinking about what classical music actually is, needs reformulation, and following from this: correct information in education.

  • Christy says:

    The older generation has been saying classical music will be gone by the next generation for about 10 generations.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    To say that Nagano “has no solutions to offer” is possible only if one refuses to even look at what he’s doing in Montreal. Let me summarize for you:
    – Increased the quality of the orchestra, which retained its excellence in French repertoire while adding affinities to the German symphonic tradition
    – Broadened the said repertoire; the OSM now plays Bach (which had been omitted for a while), as well as Messiaen, Bartok, etc.
    – Commissioning quantity of new music, from Canada and abroad
    – Diversifying the recordings of the orchestra. After a Beethoven cycle, the orchestra is recording French trumpet concertos with Paul Merkelo (principal – the recording was crowd-funded, but Nagano waived his fee), Saint-Saëns violin concertos with Andrew Wan (concertmaster), L’Aiglon by Honegger/Ibert, etc.
    – Increased attendance; nearly all Nagano concerts are sold out well in advance (and not for cheap), and guest conducted concerts sell very well
    – Introduced broader-appeal concerts which remain serious. The OSM played Gershwin at the Montreal Jazz Festival. For several years now, The OSM has collaborated with Fred Pellerin (Hugely popular storyteller in Quebec) to create Christmas concerts which sell out many times over; they collaborated with Radio-Canada to create a concert inspired by a popular morning radio show, again very popular (and without compromising on quality). The OSM Pop concerts have been praised for not reducing the orchestra to a mere synthesiser, but rather reworking the artist’s material to adapt to the symphony orchestra; for instance, look up the reviews of Mika’s concert earlier this year, which was hugely praised by Christophe Huss, Montreal’s most serious CLASSICAL music critic. The OSM has been using its new organ (The Pierre-Béique organ) to accompany old movies, including a Phantom of the Opera accompanied by organ improvisation.
    – Created the Cool Classical Journey, which attracts several thousands of people for a day of concerts and activities in the summer.
    – I could go on: youth discounts, Young professional’s scheme, etc.

    In Montreal, at the OSM and Orchestre Métropolitain (Nézet-Séguin’s orchestra), I often see 300-400 young people under 25, if not more. If that is what ‘no solutions’ look like, I wonder who you would consider a visionnaire. Oh, and did I mention that the OSM’s Assistant Conductor is a woman (Dina Gilbert)?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very impressive: this looks as the way forward for classical music. So, why is Nagano complaining, then?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Classical music has boomed since WW II, partly due to new media, partly to democratization of culture, partly to leftwing thinking that classical music were for everybody and especially for the proletariat. New concert halls were built, and mostly very big ones, expecting the masses to pour in, and the record industry was quite new with new technology, which made it also attractive for reasons other than musical. So, it is quite possible that the art form will shrink to its more normal size, as it was around 1900.

    And then, social relevance is something different from meaning. An art form can have important meaning – i.e. for its consumers – and yet not much relevance within the wider context of society, and there is not much wrong with this.

    How much social relevance does cosmology have? And how big is its audience? And what is its meaning?

    Both Debussy and Schoenberg wished classical music to be a more elitist art form because of its appalling popularity with audiences that understood it merely as superficial entertainment. And now we look back to the beginning of the last century with nostalgia, a period when classical music was at the core of cultural identity of societies.

  • Georg Leyrer says:

    Sorry guys, there is a translation error floating around. I did said interview with Mr. Nagano, he said that so much has changed “in one generation”, meaning the LAST 20 years, not the next. He didn’t say “gone”, either.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Since when does ‘gegangen’ not mean ‘gone’?

      • Eli says:

        Since when does it not?

        Bist du gegangen zu shul?

      • Georg Leyrer says:

        in this context, it means “happened”, as in “it has happened so fast”. not “it’s gone”, that would be “verschwunden”.

      • Inge Kloepfer says:

        Dear Norman Lebrecht,
        Thank you for this short comment. Read the book properly and you would probably think differently about it. There is no master plan to raise the relevance of this great art form in postmodern societies, although I can understand your longing for solutions after all these years you have been watching the business. Things are not that easy. Hopes for a masterplan are illusionary and hackneyed.
        Access via education is the key, joint forces are needed. It is and always will be hard work on different fields. The book, as a part of this work, is a very personal and biographically based plea of Kent Nagano to give this development more attention in the public and to provide arguments why we must not let classical music slip further into irrelevance for more than nine tenth of the society.

        Inge Kloepfer