American classical music has disappointed expectations

American classical music has disappointed expectations


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2018

From a new essay by our collabo Joseph Horowitz:

… According to stereotype, the orchestra is an elitist institution. But look at its early history in the United States. Henry Higginson, who created the Boston Symphony in 1881, insisted on reserving blocks of 25-cent tickets for nonsubscribers. Leopold Stokowski, who made the Philadelphia Orchestra matter, produced the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in 1916 partly because he knew it would require many hundreds of amateur singers. The performance was an epochal community event. Remember that symphonic conductors once stayed put—there were no airplanes to fly them from one musical capital to another. In Chicago, Frederick Stock was not an international celebrity. He was, instead, something of greater civic consequence: a localcelebrity, a popular favorite who in summertime led his orchestra in outdoor concerts at which multitudes sang along.

But over the course of the 20th century, American classical music disappointed expectations and remained a Eurocentric import. Orchestras succumbed to formula. They sacrificed local identity based in community for itinerant star power. They squandered their potential to instill a sense of place.

Today, the marginalization of the orchestra in American culture is a pressing cause for concern within the shrinking classical-music milieu. Emergency measures are afoot. The latest remedies of choice are “inclusion” and “diversity.” Women composers are belatedly being programmed and celebrated. Both the League of American Orchestras and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (the lone survivor of a national philanthropic community once dedicated to sustaining orchestral performance) are funding a “pipeline” to propel young musicians of color into the ranks of major orchestras. These are important initiatives. But they attack symptoms, not causes. And they risk exciting the same divisive energies that afflict identity politics more generally….

So what’s to be done? Read on here.


  • Cubs Fan says:

    Orchestras in the US by and large no longer are seen as valuable community assets. If you can’t throw it or kick it, there’s little value to most people. The media – left and right – give no attention to serious music, unless there’s some salacious story to be told. Our mis-education system no longer teaches classics: in literature, art, or music. That’s too western-white-male and is to be shunned. Orchestras and especially conductors must take a lot of the blame. They keep playing the same tired, worn out, western canon and have largely excluded new, fresh music. And admittedly most modern music is distinctly inferior to the great works of the past. Add to that the often ridiculously high price of tickets – thanks to the grossly overpaid conductors, managers, and players – and a wealth of other, often cheaper, entertainment options and orchestras don’t stand a chance. And let’s not forget that musicians themselves don’t support their colleagues or competitors. It’s easier to stay home and watch the football game on TV than to get dressed, drive into town to hear some orchestra give yet another desultory reading of a Brahms symphony. And frankly, I don’t see any leaders of any country being cheerleaders for orchestras. Very depressing situation. Now, back to my Glenlivet.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      “They keep playing the same tired, worn out, western canon…” and still there are not so many kids who can recognize Beethoven’s 5 more than a few seconds after the famous ra-ta-ta-taaa!

    • Allen says:

      You’re not going to successfully promote classical music by making derogatory remarks about the “western canon”.

      I don’t see how music can become tired and worn out when most people have no experience of it. Music is fresh when it is not over-familiar, it doesn’t matter when it was written. The problem is that few people want to sit still and concentrate on anything for more than five minutes unless it involves a gun fight or a car chase.

      Several months ago I was listening to Beethoven’s Eroica at home. I think it was Roger Norrington (I have a few). My teenage niece overheard it by accident and was sufficiently curious to ask what it was. Unfortunately, her exact words were “what was that song?”

      • John Borstlap says:

        There has been a reason why there exists something like a ‘Western classical music canon’. This heavy instrument changes all the time though, while leaving a small number of works intact. Indeed, there are new generations again and again who don’t know the genre, so descriptions of ‘worn-out’ are nonsensical. But some more initiative and flexibility and courage on the part of orchestral programmers and conductors would contribute to the art form and its stature. The worst and most nonsensical critique of classical music, that it would be ‘incompatible with modernity’, is a remnant – and a dangerous one – of postwar modernist progressive thinking, which results from the misundertanding that something being new automatically means it is an improvement. The only type of progress is something that is improving, and in the arts that is not the same as in science.

        The way the 20th century has been thinking about the arts is based upon serious misunderstandings, and the results we see all around us.

        It seems to me that the problem with orchestras is, that staff is so much burdened with practical problems which have to be solved on short notice, and financial complications, that the content of their job: music, has withdrawn into the background. There are even orchestras who have as many or more staff than musicians, and that is because running the organisation has become much more complex than ever before.

      • David Rohde says:

        Allen, I think it’s great that your niece asked you what that song was. See my longer comment further down for why. Thanks.

  • aj says:

    What utter nonsense from both writers.Don’t they pause
    to think what is being written .

  • Caravaggio says:

    It seems like a perfect confluence of lack of education, lack of culture, lack of interest, lack of new musical compositions that can be considered great and of lasting value, lack of long attention spans, lack of patience, lack of time, lack of disposable income. And so on.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Sums it up very neatly! Probably not quite as bad in Europe and certainly not in East Asia.

    • buxtehude says:

      Nice wide-angle view.

      I’d add “lack of prestige.” This is what drew many socially aspirational people to the concert hall in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, helping pay the freight for music lovers, the church invisible. Joseph Horowitz calls attention to this early on in his book on Toscanini.

      The Beatles more than anything put an end to this IMO, for the arriving generation. Suddenly here was irresistible transformitive music, at home and on the radio. Music of our time.

      Nor did the injection of “contemporary music” help the concert hall!

    • Jaime Herrera says:

      Yes, absolutely – nicely put in a nutshell, especially the part about new musical compositions…..

  • Bill says:

    It’s not only the large institutions that suffer from a disconnect from the communities.

    Even the small regional orchestras feel they are “elite” and do not welcome local participation.

    I live in a relatively small city located in between two much larger cities, both of which have world class orchestras and music schools. The orchestra’s personnel is mostly made up of students and players from these cities. There are virtually no local players in this orchestra.
    I am the teacher of my particular instrument at the local university. I have had a fair amount of orchestral experience, graduated from a major conservatory in New York, considered by myself and by others, including players that regularly play in said ensemble, to be a top rate player. On the occasions that I have played with them, I have received high praise from both the players and music director.

    But yet I rarely play with this local ensemble; instead, players from the two large markets, certainly as able as myself, are brought in to play. These are not contracted players, the positions have been “open” for a number of years now. I could just as easily be hired, but being a local, I’m apparently not worthy of this ensemble. They promptly leave my city the minute the last note is sounded.

    There are other excellent musicians on the faculty of the school I work at. None have ever been asked to perform or participate with this orchestra in any capacity.

    This orchestra markets itself as being part of the community, but yet they make no effort whatsoever to involve qualified community members in their organization.

    And then they wonder why their audience is dwindling and their endowment is shrinking.

    I would gladly offer my services and time outside of playing to connect with the community on behalf of this orchestra at no extra pay. Back during the short period of time when I was working for them on a more regular basis, I did some outreach performances at some local schools and it was well received by the audiences.
    But if they aren’t going to hire me to play and treat me as a second rate citizen, I have no motivation or desire whatsoever to help them. And I’m not the only local, qualified musician who feels this way.

    Which is too bad for them. It’s their loss.

    • SVM says:

      Re “I would gladly offer my services and time outside of playing to connect with the community on behalf of this orchestra at no extra pay.”

      And if you did so, you would be undermining your colleagues (especially those who are hired to play in outreach events but are not permanent members of the orchestra — many musicians make their living as extras/deputies, and *enjoy* such work, since it may enable them to play for an ensemble at a level where they might never win an audition), and inviting the “community” to take you for granted.

      Besides, orchestral pay is, almost invariably, incommensurate with the immense skill and commitment required to be a successful orchestral musician (especially when making comparisons to other professions). Instead, they are predicated on the fact that the musician can utilise the prestige of his/her orchestral appointment to obtain other, more lucrative (on a per-hour basis) work on the side.

      In that context, it is abusive to expect musicians to do outreach work for nothing, and uncollegial for a musician to fulfil such an expectation. The overwhelming majority of musicians are not gentlemen (nor gentlewomen) with so much landed wealth as to be able to behave with the largesse of amateurs.

      • Bill says:

        You can’t undermine a colleague that doesn’t have a job anymore because the orchestra went under due to lack of interest and the correct perception that it’s nothing more than a mercenary excerise for those involved.

        I’m not talking about the official outreach programs that my colleagues do get paid for, and they apparently think I’m not worthy of same pay.

        Just a couple of appearances to put in the good word.
        It’s this mercinary thinking and attitude that is killing ensembles like this. But fine, there’s plenty of work at Starbucks.

  • Doug says:

    And to think that my comment on a previous thread about how tired and stale the American scene has become was downvoted. Change your tiny little mind yet?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting initiative and no doubt, this project is, in whatever way, effective. Music can be transformative, but in what way? Is the relevance of classical music defined by its appropriation for non-musical ends, like community healing? Does music need a subject in a social or cultural context to justify its existence?

    • Robert Groen says:

      Sorry John, this reads like something Woody Allen might have written after waking up with a bad hangover. What the dickens are you trying to say? I’m afraid to open your link. I feel a bit fragile myself. Yours ever.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, it’s all very difficult isn’t it? ‘Everything that is true is inappropriate’ (Oscar Wilde) but if we keep trying, we may get something out of our efforts.

  • steven holloway says:


  • Brent says:

    Great article.

    I agree with it in that the “financial problem” of classical music is really a crisis of spirit in society. For one socio-psychological-spiritual reason or another, most people are simply unable to feel, find meaning and joy from classical music.

  • Serenity says:

    Holy smokes this is boring stuff. And emphatically uninteresting. Really and truly very few are battling down the doors of any of these topics demanding revolution (or renaissance). Simply put the problem lies in uninteresting performances given by overpaid (and often elderly) American musicians in the orchestral medium. The enfeeblement of the the important musical tradition in question isn’t entirely unrelated to Mssr. Horowitz and/or his ramblings. Though, certainly, The Borstlap and the Future Symphony minions aren’t any better nor preferred corrective measure.

    • Bill says:

      So you advocate forcing “elderly” musicians to retire at which age?

      What does the age of a musician have to do with it?

      I remember a few years back there was an orchestra called the Knights. They probably still exist. Their big marketing ploy was that they were “young” and “working outside of the mainstream” which seemed to translate as low pay without benefits. They were the darlings of the NPR set for a hot minute or so.

      So where are they now? Do they force the musicians out of the group at a certain age? Are they now the old and broke ensemble?

      As for their performances, their renditions of the war horses were really nothing special. About average for a freelance orchestra of its type. It would appear their youth really had nothing more to offer than the willingness to look attractive and work for slave wages.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are always people preferring to share their own black hole instead of opening some untried doors. Fortunately, the hole consumes them in the end.

    • Anon says:

      OK, so if elderly musicians are the problem, let’s work to make orchestral playing a profession where people can retire earlier and with dignity. I don’t think you’d get much opposition from the players on that. Many public service sectors, including areas of the military, have much younger retirement ages than the 65 or 67 which I think is now the US standard. In France everyone retires at 62. For orch. players to retire, it has to be financially feasible. It’s the orch’s administration’s job to make that happen, if indeed “elderly” players are a problem.

      You can’t just fire someone because they’re old. Yes, orch. playing can be difficult as you age. Yes, it’s possible “elderly” players can lower the level. But what would you propose doing with these “elderly” players? Throw them out? Make them find a new job? That totally undermines the concept of making orchestral playing a secure, viable profession.

      If social security requires players to play until 67 and the orch. administration isn’t going to anything to help that, then yes, you are going to get a lot of 67 year old musicians in the orchestra. Not always because they want to be there but because they have to be. It’s a job, a profession. You can’t just quit and walk away from your retirement pension because someone thinks you’re elderly. If it’s a problem for orchestras, it’s up to the administrations to remedy.

      • Bill says:

        I’ve heard plenty of 67+ year old musicians sound good if not better than younger ones.

        Jay Friedman, principal Trombonist of the Chicago symphony, is 79 years old, has played with the orchestra for 56 years, and he sounds as good as he ever has.

        Older musicians can bring a wealth of life experience into their playing that younger ones can’t possibly bring. If they are still able to do the job, then what’s the problem, aside from the fact they don’t look like they should be on the cover of GQ?

        • John Borstlap says:

          Indeed. Older players are generally better, simply because of their experience. And since you can sit during rehearsels and concerts, physical mobility and strength is much less important than, say, at a tiler’s or road mender’s job. Even the trombone player does not have to blow his/her instrument all the time, and the horns (who have most of the brass work) can fall back upon a ‘bumper’ – i.e. a ‘reserve’ horn player relieving over-pressure.

        • Anon says:

          We’re both preaching to the choir, here, Bill! Except I challenge you about GQ. It implies that 67 year olds who can still bring it are male.

          Just to open your mind, here’s Bolshoi Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta Maya Plisetskaya at age 67, performing “The Dying Swan”. Vogue, perhaps?

  • anon says:

    The author’s solution: universities!


    Economics 101: American universities are filthy rich, they have multi-billion dollar endowments, Harvard has more wealth than many countries (combined) in the world.

    With that much resources, a university can just about make ANY idea work, not just reviving orchestras.

    Indeed, American universities provide many social services to local communities that normally governments would or should provide: hospitals, legal aid, housing, supermarkets, campus police that doubles as local police, above all, jobs as the biggest employer in town, etc, etc.

    So of course, within that context, orchestras also work. But university orchestras work only because universities can afford to do it at a loss, not because it could work on the open market.

    • anon says:

      Compare the two labor forces:

      In the open market, the SF symphony has to pay starting salary at $180,000.

      The market is the exact opposite at Stanford: not only is the labor force (students) free, but students actually pay the university $50,000 in tuition just to have the privilege to play in the university orchestra.

  • Una says:

    Fantastic American music last night from Minnesota at Leeds Town Hall and with Opera North. Silent Night by Kevin Puts – just brilliant and done within their budget and not in your face. Well done the composer for producing a great score and for Opera North – always so enterprising and way out of London – plus the Royal Northern College of Music students and a community choir as tge Soldiees’ Chorus for a classy performance to commemorate WW1. The Met can keep their Puccini and Verdi!

  • Franz Welser-Möst says:

    Please have a look at The Cleveland Orchestra: we have the youngest audience in the US- 20% is under the age of 25.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The Cleveland has already demonstrated for many years what the best way is to build audiences….. I think they even did not need universities.

    • Gaffney Feskoe says:

      Maestro, to what do you attribute this evident success?

    • David Rohde says:

      I think it’s great that the Cleveland Orchestra has implemented successful initiatives, and I say the following with the greatest respect for Maestro Welser-Most. I simply want to observe that the tendency to cite statistics in this way tends to obscure the most serious manifestation of the demographic issue in the US, which is the almost complete disappearance of people in their 30s and 40s from many communities’ classical music audiences. It’s a generalization but still an unmistakable phenomenon that especially in symphonic and chamber music programs, you can often enter a hall and find it impossible to pick out any audience members who you can picture having rushed off from their offices or hired a babysitter or commuted in from a business appointment or organized their day in a similar fashion so as to be in their concert hall seats in the evening. Over time I think this must be the measure of success which I think that superficial “outreach” programs can tend to miss. Even though it describes programs aimed at university students, the linked article does deal with more immersive experiences and reasons for a more long-lasting and permanent engagement with forms of classical or serious art music, as I discuss in my fuller comment below.

  • Anon says:


    Orchestras have never paid better, have never been as well funded, and have never had as busy seasons as they do today.
    It’s always been an art that attracts a small sliver of well educated society.
    Regional orchestras without a big city population have always faced challenges.

    During the “golden age” orchestra’s didn’t even have 52 week contracts, did not pay remotely close to today’s salaries, and did not attract the large audiences of today.

    The idea that orchestras are dying and that they need to produce a new 21st century model is a woefully misguided myth.

  • Classical music was artificially boosted for many years on the presumption that it had powers to civilize and “uplift” the people.

    Now that we know that doesn’t work it is harder for social engineers to keep reserving space for it and it is left to the same market forces as any other music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is a clever way of describing some of the problems. It has become more difficult in times of superficial extroversion to understand the meaning and value of interiority, which is the place where classical music happens. But given human nature, it is not entirely useless to speculate that at some stage, a hunger for the opposite of the noise of the modern world will emerge.

  • Just my .02 worth says:

    It seems to me that in America these days for an art form to be accepted it has to be hip, trendy, and politically correct. It has to be “woke.” It has to eschew (if not outwardly attack) long held social mores and marginalize tradition. Anything that remotely smacks of being old, white, heterosexual, Christian, or predominantly male is going to be attacked and drowned out by the fervent outrage of the far more evolved and enlightened professional societal “victims” while they simultaneously espouse inclusion and acceptance.

    The market will support what it will. The fact that we still have music of the masters being performed (even if to smaller audiences) says something about both the quality of the music and the transitory audience trends. I wonder how the music of today’s composers will be viewed. I wonder how it will hold up in the concert hall. Will it still be popular when it is not hip or when it’s messages are passé? Somehow I doubt it. I just don’t think America has the collective attention span to value greatness any more. Everything is disposable and gratification must be instant. We must worship the latest and greatest of everything and then cast it aside when something newer and better comes along.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    I venture to theorize that these problems began with the development of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and the resulting collusion of orchestra managements.

    • The View from America says:

      At least they got rid of their ASOL acronym by changing their name to the League of American Orchestras.

  • Manifest Yam says:

    You can include and diversify all you like, but classical performance in the US is dying, anyway.

    The main failure is education. Not teaching serious music leads to a not very mysterious outcome: young people don’t care about it.

    It’s a cultural transmission choice. Schools now cultivate other aesthetic values–mainly in hock to identity politics. Many are the schools where hip hop is in the curriculum, or even forms the very heart of the musical canon. Queerly enough, this is taken for progress.

    Enjoy your orchestra while it lasts. They’ll disappear rapidly as soon as the tipping point in Boomer mortality is reached.

  • David Rohde says:

    I’d love for comment threads like these to deal more directly with the subject matter at hand, in this case Joe Horowitz’s very informative essay. Instead we get a litany of individuals’ own personal hobbyhorses about today’s classical music scene. Few if any of these complaints solve anything, and some of them are stated in the most schoolmarm-ish way possible, which of course just makes things worse. People’s own professional problems are beside the point, and the usual offense-taking about even talking about demographics is self-defeating. Every American institution that is affected by an aging core followership, including fraternal clubs and lodges, many denominations of churches and synagogues, AND classical music, must deal with this matter openly and honestly. We even have that cliche of YouTube comment threads – the smackdown of anyone who refers to a unit of instrumental music as a “song.” On today’s digital music platforms, “song” is the generic term to refer to any individual track of music, whether it’s one of Taylor Swift’s latest or the scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth. My feeling is that whenever someone says or writes that they like a “song” of classical music, it’s actually a tremendous opportunity!

    I think it’s great that Norman Lebrecht brought this article to our attention, because what Joe Horowitz has done here is to connect up two important concepts. It’s absolutely the case that a hundred years ago it was assumed that by now, “classical” or serious art music performance in the United States would be primarily a new American canon. While that hasn’t happened, the impetus is still latent and the projects that Joe described demonstrate to a now largely Latino segment of our American population why Dvorak (yes, Dvorak) and Copland are core “American” composers in ways that are bound to stick with them. Kurt Weill also crossed boundaries over to America, both geographical and in terms of genre, and as Joe demonstrated in his report, maybe Weill should get every bit the attention as the surfeit of Bernstein initiatives over the past year and a half. Let’s see what else this project can achieve.

  • John Porter says:

    There just aren’t that many people interested. It’s a niche market that is girded by the very rich. If the super wealthy weren’t donating, every single orchestra and opera company in American would close. In any city, for other forms of music, you can see the opposite: large halls filled by people paying lots of money to hear rap, hip-hop, rock, pop, musical theater. When Nine Inch Nails goes on tour, people wait on line. I dunno, perhaps the American orchestras play too many concerts. All I know is that I have very few friends who have any interest in orchestras, in particular.