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Norman Lebrecht: State of Classical Music


Bio: Norman Lebrecht is one of the most widely-read commentators on music, culture and politics. He is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. His many books - which include The Maestro Myth, When the Music Stops, Mahler Remembered and The Life and Death of Classical Music, have been translated into 17 languages.

Norman, could you describe what elements in the past supported the growth of classical music?

In places and periods where there was dialogue between performers and audiences such as Vienna 1900, Berlin 1920s, London 1950s, New York 1960s- the art flourished. Where and when that dialogue became moderated by middlemen, it stultified.

How did the community of this art-form begin to experience the challenges of today?

Let's separate music community from music business. Like Mrs Thatcher, I'm not sure there is such a thing as community, at least in an art where there is a supply side and a demand side. This is a supply side problem. The problem is twofold: The business of music encourages musicians to live in the past and to supply the public what is has already shown it wants; that absence of taste leadership has resulted in a failure of audience rejuvenation over the past 40 years. Where music has a captive audience, the supply side distorted the economy with inflated fees and bizarre protectionism. I have laid out materials for these arguments in three books: The Maestro Myth (1991) Who Killed Classical Music (1997) and The Life and Death of Classical Music (2007).

To that point, what factors have done the most damage to the state of the art?

The myopia, retro-vision, and cupidity of the music business. Arts flourish where there is invention, die where there is none.

You painted a picture of excess, corporate mergers, and excessive artist fees in your book, 'Who Killed Classical Music'. What has changed since it’s 1997’ publication?

Very little has changed in attitudes. The dominant CAMI has seen challenges from ICM and IMG wither away. Both businesses were sold at loss, ICM to its own staff and IMG Artists to a double-bankrupt and confessed fraudster. That just about summarizes the state of the classical music business. Additionally, the classical record industry, whose death I foretold, has duly expired - at least to the extent that the major labels are no longer relevant to artists and their careers.

Would you say there is a state of denial about the picture you write about?

I don't think a lot of people in the business are in denial. They just play make-believe towards the media. Musicians, on the whole, have a pretty good idea what's what - and carry on playing so long as there's someone paying them.

What can those who love classical music do to support a healthy future of the music?

Innovate, innovate, innovate. Look for young artists who do things differently. We have the most extravagantly gifted generation of young conductors since the Second World War. All but one has avoided working with US orchestras, which they regard as dinosaurs. We have brilliant young pianists and violinists who struggle to get known because the ossified structure of the music business militates against their advancement. Radical change is needed if the art is to survive.

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