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The art of making classical music fans

by Melvyn Krauss

PALO ALTO, Calif. — 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 on 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 United States 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.

Europe’s system of direct government financial support is falling victim to Europe’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.

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 U.S. 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 orchestra’s behalf. The same thing, they fear, will happen in Europe.

Some conductors, not wanting to carry a tin cup as they wave their batons, have rejected important posts in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. orchestras.

It also should be reassuring to Europeans concerned that greater reliance on private money necessarily means conservative programming that the San Francisco Symphony has one of the most adventuresome repertoires in the U.S.

If the audience has progressive tastes, private money and innovative programming are entirely compatible.

Of course, a corollary is that public money makes it possible for adventuresome programming even if audience tastes run to the conservative side. This is one reason performing artists in Europe like public money — it liberates them from a diet of Beethoven and Mozart. Moreover, the audience may come to appreciate an adventuresome 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.

But cheap prices for the performing arts do not solve the thorny problem of access for youth. First, youth may not take advantage of cheap tickets to the extent that they are not interested in going to hear live classical music at any price. Second, even if they do want to go, they may not be able to get seats, which often are not available because subscriptions stay in the same hands year after year.

What good are cheap prices, which serve mainly to subsidize the same subscription holders, if there are no seats? If a taste for classical music is to be subsidized, some more targeted subsidies should be preferred to cheap prices.

The best way to bring youth to the performing arts is through education. Because American orchestras can’t count on schools or government to provide the basic music education necessary to ensure a continuing audience for classical music, some orchestras are doing it themselves with private money.

In San Francisco, for example, the Symphony runs a $23 million privately funded project — called Keeping Score — that includes a national public television series, radio shows, interactive music learning and school music programs.

This type of innovative program is relevant for European as well as American orchestras. If orchestras don’t look after their own futures, they may well not have one to look after.