Coolness might rest in the eye of the beholder, but an undeniable consensus coalesces around certain classic notions of what is cool and what is not.
James Dean and George Clooney? A 1955 Thunderbird coupe and James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5? Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z and certain parts of Brooklyn? All totally cool.
But classical music? Not so much.
Somehow, the world of opera, symphony orchestras and chamber music has come to be seen by much of the general public as staid, stodgy and just plain passe.
While paparazzi stake out the openings of celebrity visual artists such as Damien Hirst or the premiere of an Angelina Jolie film, and publications of every kind fall over themselves to land an interview with Lady Gaga, most general media all but ignore classical music.
In some ways, its reputation as demode is deserved. Parts of the field have fallen into a rut, unenthusiastically repeating the same well-worn favorites by Mozart and Brahms in the same two-hour formats they have employed for decades.
But on the other hand, classical music, a centuries-old form that can soaringly celebrate the human spirit and piercingly evoke life’s ugliness, does not always get a fighting chance.
A culture that thrives on three-minute pop songs and instant downloads doesn’t have much time for a 20-minute Beethoven string quartet that needs contemplation and several hearings to be fully appreciated
What is clear is that if classical music is to be anything other than a cultural relic at the fringes of public consciousness, it is going to have to up its coolness quotient. Let’s face it, in today’s image-obsessed culture, perceptions matter more than ever. The field needs its Miles Davis. Or at least another Leonard Bernstein.
“How people perceive the music before they get into the room has a huge impact on whether or not they will go to the concert,” said Gabriel Kahane, a boundary-blurring New York composer and singer who gives Schumann art songs a piano-man flair. “Then once they’re in there, it’s just a question of quality and not really a question of genre.”
But the stakes go beyond just ticket sales. How the field is viewed also has a big impact on its ability to attract talent and keep singers and musicians from defecting to other potentially more alluring genres. It needs a judicious dose of glamour and celebrity appeal.
“Why would anyone want to become an opera singer if they thought it was a dead end as an art form?” said Peter Gelb, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “We need to demonstrate not only to a new public that the arts are something that they would want to come and participate in, we need to demonstrate it to a future talent pool.”
To use today’s marketing parlance, classical music needs to rebrand itself. The moniker, “classical music,” simply does not have the snap and pop of active, evocative terms like “jazz,” “rap” or “rock.”
So what to call it? A few names have been floated, and all of them have obvious flaws. They include “serious music” (All the other genres are frivolous?), “art music” (Could that be any more pedantic?) or “concert music” (Isn’t most music performed in concerts?).
But any revamped name needs the revitalized product to back it up. Classical music has to be entrepreneurial and take more risks. That means everything from offering new, genre-bending music to artists and ensembles stepping outside traditional concert halls and playing in rock clubs and coffee shops.