Thu, Sep 21, 2006 - Page 9 News List

State of the art or art of the state for classical music?

Innovative programs, not state funding, is what is needed to ensure diversity and renew youth interest in classical music

By Melvyn Krauss

September is traditionally the time when opera companies and orchestras return to their home cities from Aix, Salzburg, Tanglewood and countless other summer festivals. This is also marked (on both sides of the Atlantic) by the return of worries about how classical music is financed.

American symphonic life is Euro-centric in almost every respect except for its funding. Whereas Americans depend upon tax-deductible private donations and box office receipts to finance live classical music, Europeans prefer direct government support for the arts.

Ironically, while arts advocates in the US have long argued for adoption of the "European model" -- which has produced a rich and varied artistic life for Europeans -- Europe is being forced to change its system of support to one that depends more on private money and the box office.

Unfortunately, Europe's system of direct government financial support is falling victim to the continent's slow economic growth and budget deficits. Particularly for those countries that have adopted the euro, government spending on the arts will be constrained for some time by the requirement that fiscal deficits be kept to 3 percent of GDP.

The resulting pressure on Europe's performing arts institutions is causing concern at various different levels. Traditionally, Europe's social democracies have preferred allocating scarce goods and services like concerts and operas by queues (financed by huge subsidies to keep prices low) rather than by willingness to pay. Now, this will change.

Performing arts advocates in Europe point to the US, where among other things music directors of even major orchestras are now expected to fully participate in fundraising activities and be active in the local community on the orchestras' behalf. The same thing, they fear, will happen in Europe.

Some conductors have rejected important posts in the US for this reason, feeling that it would interfere with their art. Daniel Barenboim is rumored to have left the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in part because he objected to the fundraising demands that were being made of him.

But US experience shows that getting artistic leaders like orchestra music directors to participate in fundraising need not be bad for the artistic side of the job.

Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, for example, has combined effective fundraising and artistic leadership to propel the San Francisco Symphony to the top rank of US orchestras.

It also should be reassuring to Europeans who fear that greater reliance on private money necessarily means conservative programming that the San Francisco Symphony has one of the most adventurous repertoires in the US.

If the audience has progressive tastes, private money and innovative programming are entirely compatible. A corollary is that public money makes it possible for adventurous programming even if audience tastes run on the conservative side.

This is one reason why performing artists in Europe like public money -- it liberates them from a diet of only Beethoven and Mozart. The audience may come to appreciate an adventurous repertoire the more it becomes exposed to it.

Of course, with reduced public spending on the performing arts, not only will there be greater reliance on private money, but ticket prices will have to rise as well. Some argue that this is a bad thing, because they prefer queuing to the price system and fear that higher prices will compromise future audiences by excluding young people.

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