What the future holds: less is more

What the future holds: less is more


norman lebrecht

December 27, 2020

From my monthly essay in The Critic, out now:

There are two ways of looking back on the Covid year. It was either an unmitigated catastrophe for music and musicians, or the greatest opportunity in history. Ever an optimist, I take the latter view….

So why am I now so upbeat about the future? Because Covid-19 offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse practices and conceits that have pushed the artform into near-irrelevance, and to revive its mass audience. If you want to know how low it has sunk in public waters, ask your next cab driver to name a classical star. Lang Lang is all you’ll get…. Rock bottom, however, is not a bad place to start rebuilding.

Read on here.



  • I could not agree with you more. All points so well taken and even more well expressed! Thanks!

  • Dani says:

    You’re an optimist!?

  • Nijinsky says:

    And it’s a miracle that there is such a resource: “public waters.”

  • William Safford says:

    I think that the sentiment of your paragraph:

    “Concert orchestras, instead of making music, are playing gesture politics with minority composers and newly installed Chief Diversity Officers..”

    is at odds with:

    “So why am I now so upbeat about the future? Because Covid-19 offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse practices and conceits that have pushed the artform into near-irrelevance, and to revive its mass audience.”

    The former can be one excellent way (of many) to address the latter.

    • Player says:

      I also took issue with NL’s gratuitous statement about “playing gesture politics” (which was his way of saying “virtue signaling”) instead of making music. This is an oversimplification to the point of being inaccurate.

      Concert orchestras were silenced because the pandemic prevents us from gathering. It seems NL doesn’t realize that the U.S. is a country with a history of racism, and some segments of society are making attempts to address that issue. The two things should not be conflated, as one has nothing to do with the other.

      Managements don’t know what to do to get players back on stage. Our country doesn’t even have a handle on the virus. (I guess herd immunity was a bad idea.) Let’s start with that. Once orchestras are back, we play the music on the stand with the same attention and respect, whether it’s Beethoven or Amy Beach.

      • Hayne says:

        Hooboy, there’s a whole lotta ignernce in this post…

        • Player says:

          You’ll have to be more specific if you want anyone to take you seriously. I happen to think you’re “ignernt” because you were one of the tinfoil hat people saying Biden hadn’t won the election. Took you awhile to realize the truth, eh? And if you believed that, who knows what else you believe.

  • sylvia hope berman says:

    We met at
    Stanford University,please
    Contact email
    A hartsiga grees

  • M McAlpine says:

    As for the disparaging comment about Lang Lang – he did for piano playing in his country what you claim the Masons are doing for ours. What’s the difference?

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    >>Audiences also like the lack of a drinks interval with £5 ice-creams

    An excellent point. Let’s have shorter, more focused concerts

  • John Borstlap says:

    This is by far the most important post of the year.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Why those idiotic thumbs-down? Are they on the hands of people who are on the wrong website? You should be ashamed of yourself and dig a big hole in the earth of the nearby park and bury your head in it.

      The art form has faced its biggest challenge since WW II, so of course it has to be re-thought, especially in terms of value: why does society needs classical music, and for whom? Accessibility, education, funding? What is its meaning and relevance in the context of modernity and of culture in general? How should we deal with great works of a past which retreats farther and farther in time? What about contemporary forms of the genre, and what is ‘contemporary’? The list of burning questions is long. That is why the post is the most important of the year.

  • Tony Britten says:

    I don’t always agree with you, Norman but you are spot on here, I think. Of course we will still want visiting soloists – instrumentalists and singers, particularly as we have a government hell bent on an isolationist attitude – whatever they may say to the contrary. And visiting orchestras – OK, up to a point. But the real point is that regional is good, as they know so well in Germany and the case needs to be made for more targeted government support predicated on a stronger regional offering. This in turn needs less tokenism and more acceptance that music and the arts has something for everyone – old, young and all minorities. Let’s shake it up, market it better and try to make the art speak, rather than indulge in art-speak.

    Its fashionable to knock Simon Rattle, but let’s not forget that he turned the CBSO into a world class orchestra, primarily for the entertainment and delight of the people of Birmingham by actually being there for the larger part of each season. And Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla seems to be doing the same. Lucky Birmingham – here in Norfolk we have the redoubtable Britten Sinfonia and not a lot else.

    When the discussions about the lockdown bailout were happening I was sent a list of the interested parties in my region – and there were scores of them, mainly very small arts companies, who of course do wonderful local work. But they were all looking out for number one – as is only to be expected. It seems to me that there needs to be a much more unbiased, focussed attitude to the whole world of arts funding, because, going back to your core point there is an opportunity to come out of this crisis with some meaningful and fundamental changes made. But it won’t happen from individual organisations, regional funders or indeed The Arts Council.

    The arts in this country have tottered along in the same way for too long – they need root and branch change. As Nick Hytner pointed out so well this morning on Andrew Marr’s show, everyone is entitled to enjoy what they enjoy – whether it be sport, dining out or dancing. But who will step up and formulate the crucial changes needed to revitalise music and the arts for the millions of people who enjoy – and indeed crave them?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Revitalizing changes will surface under the pressures of necessity.

      During WW II classical music remained popular, in fact: more popular than before, because of the times. People scrambled along ruins to attend a concert in an unwarmed hall, where players tried their frozen fingers on Mozart, Beethoven, etc. to experience that they were still human beings. Such shared and necessary experiences cannot be fully explained rationally but they do happen, it is a fact of life.

  • Amos says:

    I don’t understand why this is an either-or issue. How can the response to a public health crisis which results in hundreds of millions infected, millions dead, and massive economic and social trauma be viewed as anything other than a catastrophe?

    • Greg Bottini says:

      I’m in complete agreement with you, Amos.
      The music “industry” will never be the same as it was before The Virus, no matter how optimistic one may be.

  • Edgar Self says:

    “An optimist is someone who thinks this is the best of all possible worlds, like Dr. Pangloss. A pessimist is someone who is afraid that the optimist is right.”

  • BP says:

    One thing that seems clearly wrong to me is arguing more streaming means less demand for in-person concerts. This may be true for movies but is patently false when it comes to seeing live music, theatre or dance. Classical music needs to look elsewhere if it has an attendance problem.

  • IntBaritone says:

    It is interesting for sure. Those pointing out here that it’s inappropriate to say this year was anything but a catastrophe as likely right.


    In times of catastrophe, it is those who can look beyond the present struggles and see what’s next that profit in the coming years. This is a hard fact, but one proven throughout history.
    This is a time of opportunity for everyone and every industry – including music. That said, music has never been quick enough to change or community-motivated enough to work together, so I don’t see anything truly (long-term) positive coming out of this for the music world.

    Management agencies go out of business because they have an unsustainable business model exposed by COVID? Just open up smaller ones that function the same way. (This is not a good answer, and they will be just as frail, even if they don’t have the massive CAMI building overhead). Opera companies going dark for a year or more, so let’s just stream our operas for free (does anyone still watch them?) until we can open up in the exact same manner as before (alas). Where is the innovation? Where are the new ideas. Honestly, we don’t have any.

    Other industries? I have no doubt they will grab this catastrophe by the reins and ride to success. Sadly, until it proves me wrong, the music industry won’t be one of them.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All of this would be true if classical music would only exist in terms of its outward forms. But the art form is a psychological one, addressing the inner life of audiences. As long as people have an inner life, they will need classical music. It is the lack of understanding what it is, that leads to such negative assessments and such Schopenhauerian pessimism.

      Instead of adapting classical music to the needs of a postcorona modernity, it is postcorona modernity that needs classical music as therapy and cure, to find again the ways to the landscape of the inner life. And that would mean getting rid of everything that forms a barrier to such trajectory: the kitsch, the fake, the commerce, the superficial ego trippery of performers, the star cult, the fascistoid agencies. There will be more, but you will get the gist.

  • A.L. says:

    “Thirty years ago you could have had Pavarotti, Kiri, Kennedy, Solti, Menuhin, Jessye Norman, a dozen more. In terms of fame, we lost the game. The system failed to deliver talent that could command a Saturday-night television slot. The Three Tenors will never happen again.”

    Well stated. There used to be a perceptible sense of occasion in anticipation of and while in the presence of some of the performers listed and many others unlisted. Today? Nearly zilch, with exceptions one can count with the fingers of one hand. The drought is especially applicable to singers, for which there are no equivalents in our days, not by a mile or two; what passes for singers, that is. Now, about The 3 Ts, that was more of less the tipping point, the nadir that sparked the beginning of the end. To be sure it made lots of money for the 3 Ts and their handlers and enablers. But more crucially, it cemented the dumbing down of classical music and “opera” audiences for which there is no bottom in sight.

  • Marfisa says:

    … “ask your next cab driver to name a classical star” – the way things are going, your next cab driver may well *be* a classical star!

  • Nick says:

    Yes. Shorter concerts are in our future. Intermission is bullsh*t. A massive waste of time. In and out in 80 minutes or less, no intermission — this is where we should be headed.

    I also see the era of full-time, salaried orchestras coming to an end. Especially in the US. The Budapest Festival Orchestra model is where we are headed — and for the sake of freshness in music, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Violin Accordion says:

    If he was over 60 he might say, Richard Clayderman……

    My preference over Lang x 2

  • Sharon says:

    Oh, I don’t know.

    Norman, how can you say things are getting better, in spite of the major advances in medicine fomented by Covid, when even Slipped Disc has necessarily become largely an obituary column?

    As far as your other points–
    Shorter performances? Even “local” is not a hop skip and a jump for people who do not live “downtown”, do not drive, or cannot park easily near the auditorium. I would be very hesitant to travel three hours round trip to watch a performance of 45 minutes and I would have a hard time convincing my friends to do it. Part of the draw of a performance is the excursion aspect of it.

    I do agree that earlier performances, or two performances on the same day of the same program make sense. Before Covid some off-off Broadway theater offered 6:30 pm performances on weekdays. Although they were probably doing this so as not to interfere with their staff’s day jobs it also worked better for the audience whom, after work, could have a quick dinner, enjoy a performance downtown and yet be home early enough to not interfere with their sleep for work the next day. This is especially true now that so many women, including young women with children, are working downtown.

    An earlier matinee performance also makes sense.
    This is not only true to accommodate school (when they go back in session) excursions, or elderly but also the increasing number of night shift workers not only in health care, but those who are communicating all night with businesses in Asia.
    A 10 am or 11 am performance can be enjoyed before night shift workers become too tired or have to go to bed before their next shift.

    Covid is going a long way to promote and disseminate new technologies, including in the arts. I understand that there is now at least one company that provides the technology so theaters can have full productions where the actors are performing together remotely and I have no doubt that within a short period of time this will be available for major opera, theater and full orchestra productions.

    Shorter performances will attract younger people? I fear that what will attract them is music with “a beat”. If we want to attract younger people “classical” music will probably have to become more syncretic so that young people will be able to “relate”. Remember the songs “Classical Gas” and Beethoven’s Fifth with the disco beat? Those may have been extreme examples but we may be seeing more of this.

    Perhaps you believe that shorter performance will appeal to younger people who have a shorter attention span? It seems to me that even The Economist is dumbing down a little bit with more and more shorter articles and even more paragraph sized captions with photos . We have become a Tweet culture but at the expense of improving our thought of complexity and nuance.

    However I have fears about even a more serious issue, what changes a Zoom and Facetime culture, especially an arts culure, will do to us.

    Prior to Covid I would go to a movie theater to see the MET opera in HD. I would go with my friends, throw on one of my better blouses, wear a blazer and prior to the show go to a restaurant with a tablecloth. We would pretend that we were at the opera and enjoyed our time together. Now I do not even bother to watch the free performances or download the inexpensive video streams.

    As a committed Conservative Jew I used to travel three hours round trip to my synagogue to be with my religious community, dressing in my Sabbath clothes to give the community, the religious service, and the Sabbath the respect they deserve. Now, if I do not have something else I would prefer to read, I “attend” the service on Zoom, frequently with the video off so I can listen in my bathrobe.

    Let’s look at television which has greatly changed our culture. There is now a public service ad in New York City showing a family watching TV with the message “Please make an emergency plan. Then you can go back to not talking to each other.” TV has largely destroyed clubs and cabarets, the culture of neighbors talking to each other on porches and on the street, and visiting in each others homes. It has also diminished many civic organizations including women’s groups, local charity fund raising groups, and lodges.

    How much more will these trends continue as we are isolated with Zoom? What will accommodations for Covid and diminished arts revenues do to the community and social activity that the performing arts provide? A large part of the pull of the performing arts is to give people a chance to socialize with others; a night out. Theaters and orchestras give subscribers the same seats year after year partially to help maintain the sense of community among the neighbors in the seats who have a chance to converse. Yes, Norman, during intermissions.

    My roommate does not have an essential job and is largely isolated to the home. I have seen what this has done to her mood, perspective on many things, and her outlook on life. She blows little things out of proportion and feels increasingly lonely, alienated and powerless. It’s not good.

    As Slipped Disc demonstrates again and again and again what is going on even in the rarified world of the classical arts just reflects trends that are going on in our societies.

    I greatly fear that this isolation and Zoom and Facebook culture increasingly employed by the arts and elsewhere will continue to diminish our true connections to our fellow human beings and will augment an already diminished sense of community and citizenship. It further helps sink the ship of shared culture that all performing artists and arts organizations should be fighting to keep afloat .

    It will promote further division, atomization and alienation, psychologically, economically, culturally, and politically. For me, it’s become really, really scary.

    The arts will survive but to what purpose? Optimistic? Not me

    • Alan says:

      So sad and so true.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, Sharon, for your thoughtful, thought-provoking, and well-written piece.
      “The arts will survive but to what purpose? Optimistic? Not me”.
      Just as I stated elsewhere, the music “business” will never ever be the same as it was pre-Virus.
      – best regards, Greg