One of the longest running debates in classical music might turn out to be a fallacy.
One of the longest running debates in classical music might turn out to be a fallacy. For years now, industry voices have been saying audiences are dwindling, young people just aren’t interested in it, and the artform itself is growing moribund. We’ve probably all heard the arguments before, but is classical music really in its death throes?Or is it all a tired beat up over nothing? Alex Ross, for one, rightly points out that this is an evergreen debating point that goes back generations, to perhaps as far as the 14th century, “when the sensuous melodies of ars nova were thought to signal the end of civilization”. Another whose views should count, especially in this country, is Mary Jo Capps. As CEO of Musica Viva, she steers an organisation that has been in the business of presenting chamber music concerts around Australia for 70 years – quite an achievement for a supposedly dying artform. Capps’s position on the future of classical music is philosophically upbeat. “One hears almost daily about declining classical audiences, but I think it is as much to do with our fear of aging and the way are we afraid to look our age,” she suggests. “No one’s going to wake up at age 40 and say, ‘I can’t wait to hear a Beethoven string quartet’. Possibly chamber music has always attracted the more introspective, reflective kind of listener rather than those who like noise. So I tend to think it is an internal trait that makes a person contemplative and reflective. And this can be just as equally for a person in their 20s.” There can be no denying that orchestras and opera companies everywhere have been struggling to maintain audiences, but Capps says Musica Viva audiences “have grown in the last five years. No one, however, has an ordained right to exist forever. For us it means we should keep experimenting, but it’s also about having meaning and standards, about not wavering on excellence. I think it would be very easy to stray from that”. Orchestras might be bowing to populism these days, but Musica Viva has stuck essentially to its same script since it first gave concerts in Sydney in 1945. Organised by the Romanian- Austrian violist, Richard Goldner, they came to Adelaide just two years later, thanks to determined efforts by a local visionary, Edith Dubsky, owner of the local knitwear shop, Mitzi’s of Vienna. Explains Capps: “These individuals were recreating downtown Vienna and Budapest in their adopted country. There were no government edicts to set something up like this. It happened at the grassroots, by people who came out from war-torn Europe to establish new lives here and who wanted to inject the finer things into life.” Capps describes Dubsky as “emblematic of what Musica Viva was about, a force of nature who did all the ticketing on the kitchen table and hosted the artists in her North Adelaide home”. That same grassroots passion continues to drive the organisation today, points out Emily Kelly, Musica Viva’s SA manager. She says Adelaide has been outstandingly successful at connecting artists with the local community through suppers, home concerts and the like. “It’s something we do very well here, and more frequently than other states.” So while there “certainly remains a concern about aging audiences”, she says “Adelaide attendance fi gures are very good”. So arguments about classical music’s imminent demise seem premature at best. Carl Vine, Musica Viva’s Artistic Director, thinks they are a myth anyway. “I don’t buy it – it’s just the death of record sales,” he says. “Judging by the ticket sales of Musica Viva and other concert presenters producing music of excellence, we are heading towards a boom in live music audiences.” Vine believes the record industry’s failure to adapt to new consumer patterns has created unnecessary fear. “With the rapid growth of internet and streaming music delivery, record companies are losing their impact on classical music performance, and audiences are becoming more discerning as record shops continue to close and they must fi nd new ways to satisfy their hunger for good music.” Live classical concerts are the clear winner, Vine suggests. “No technology in the world can replace the thrill and immediacy of being near a live performer. Musica Viva will keep presenting the best music performed live by the world’s greatest musicians. I’ll worry about the future of classical chamber music when Shakespeare has lost his social relevance.” What no recording can hope to duplicate, of course, is that special twoway engagement that exists between artist and audience. To illustrate this, Capps mentions the Eggner Trio’s last tour here in 2011. “They started on the second Shostakovich Trio, and all was good but their playing kept getting better. In the last movement they set off on a tempo that even terrifi ed the players. It was not just speed but risk-taking in every way. Afterwards they said ‘We’ve never been to that level before, and it was the audience who took us there’. “Listening to music live takes it one more step. There is something absolutely transformative to hearing music live and being a participant in it. Our artists all say we have better chamber music audiences here than in Europe or North America, and that they’re really part of the performance.” A highlight this year will be Goldner String Quartet in April. Named after Musica Viva’s founding father and themselves celebrating an 20th anniversary, the Goldners play Paul Stanhope’s newly commissioned String Quartet No 3, which second violinist Dimity Hall says is “inspired by fi gures and landscapes of Aboriginal Australia”, and “effectively combines dramatic interplay and lyrical lament”. Goldner String Quartet Thursday, April 23 Adelaide Town Hall