A classical Apocalypse? No. A change in how culture works? Yes.


Not a single day has gone by since the start of southern Ontario’s summer music festival season that I haven’t heard someone lament the near total absence of news or reviews in Toronto’s newspapers.

To people who still consider ink on paper as the imprimatur of the public record, this state of affairs is like a third horseman of the classical Apocalypse.

The first two horsemen rode by years ago, when classical music disappeared from television and, later, when serious classical programming began disappearing from the CBC Radio’s weekly schedule.

The fourth horseman, already kicking up dust on the horizon, represents the sea of Beethoven-loving seniors tottering uncertainly towards the way of all flesh.

“Have you seen how old the audience is?” a devoted supporter of Toronto chamber music whispered to me at Koerner Hall last night.

I can feel the anxiety and sadness from many older fans for the music that we hold as one of the signs that humankind really can raise itself above the sum of its sins.

But I’m convinced that what we’re seeing is not a decadent world losing sight of what’s valuable and what isn’t. Instead, I think we’ re seeing a rejection of a world led by what some call elites (let’s call them experts) who perennially disappoint us with unfulfilled expectations.

Social media, in its uncircumscribable messiness, is a facilitator.

I’ll draw an analogy from late Toronto icon Jane Jacobs (with apologies for oversimplifying), who saw the city as a web of relationships, an organic organism that, through the daily, street-level interaction of neighbours and workers and exchanges of wages for food, produces a sort of balance between personal wants and the common good.

Contrast this with the experts, the urban planners of 1940 who decided that the insalubrious slums of Regent Park could be replaced with neat rows of modern housing surrounded by lovely green spaces unbroken by side streets.

By the end of the century, the planners’ sons and daughters decided that concentrating low-income people into one neighbourhood was a bad idea; that the mysterious city-owned tenements of Regent Park should be replaced with neat rows of modern housing encompassing well-salaried working people as well as those on social assistance, surrounded by a network of convenient — and bustling — side streets.

With 10 years left to go before the 1940s get replaced by the 2010s, the old residents of the area are discovering that their new neighbours disappear into the city every morning, not returning until they are sated and entertained late at night.

One solitude is in the process of becoming two, thanks to more experts.

And Jane Jacobs must be spinning in her grave.

Kids today don’t watch network television. They don’t listen to radio. They don’t read newspapers. They pay no heed to experts. It’s not because of a lack of concern; it’s because of a lack of trust.

If you can’t understand why, try your own reality check.

Do you trust an economist to be able to tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow?

Has your financial advisor been the source of sound advice?

Are our politicians engaging in discourses that reflect their constituents as well as the common good?

Have historians been accurate about recording a balanced chronicle of human affairs?

Given this state of affairs, is it not natural that a younger generation is dabbling in a new culture where each individual has a greater hand in disseminating, digesting and sharing information and entertainment and opinion on the fly? Can the crowd really be more stupid than our experts?

So topics trend on Twitter, videos go viral on YouTube and, somewhere in this daily dust cloud, what we call high culture has and will continue to have a place, as long as those people who are passionate about visual art, literature, theatre and music remain actively engaged.

How can classical music not survive?

No one needs to be told that a Mozart opera is beautiful, because it simply is, just like Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets are, and like a Chopin Nocturne always will be.

Our problem is that adapting to change is so difficult. It’s messy, and we can’t predict the outcome.

John Terauds

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5 thoughts on “A classical Apocalypse? No. A change in how culture works? Yes.

  1. In principle, I agree. But, as is so often the case, our society seems to be throwing the [experts-often-actually-DO-know-best] baby out with the bathwater. Our noble-minded efforts to eliminate discrimination are — sadly, and to our detriment — diminishing our ability to discriminate.

    In answer your question, “Can the crowd really be more stupid than our experts?”, I confidently answer, “Absolutely.”

  2. I appreciate your insight John and certainly agree regarding the relevance of traditional mediae to recent generations. I do question anyone’s subjective observation that our audience is dying off. Hasn’t that been happening for a very long time? How old can these people get? Might it not be more that there is a particular age bracket who find meaning in classical music? Especially with the degradation of arts education in schools one would imagine that it would take longer for those predisposed towards that meaning to find it. With the erosion of arts subsidies concert tickets are expensive. It is the older generation that has the resources to attend.
    Can we speed up the process of finding meaning? We can if we communicate that meaning through our performances. Classical music has to some extent been its own worst enemy, presenting sizzle as steak for generations. The upside of the current mistrust of experts (rampant democracy makes my ignorance equal to your knowledge…) is that musicians must reach their audience directly and immediately through the communicative power of the performance.Music is sound with intent – not just the noise of playing. It is the intent behind our playing that captures our audience.This is how we demonstrate our knowledge and understanding of the music and disseminate our love for it into the wider community.

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