I feel Rupert Christiansen's pain. I am referring to his piece in today's London Telegraph fulminating over the decision of BBC Radio 3 to broadcast a weekly Classical Top 20. I seem to recall KDFC doing something like this in San Francisco. However, since I abandoned KDFC long ago in favor of the more substantial fare available through satellite radio, I have no idea whether or not they are still doing it. I definitely agree with Christiansen that the results of such projects turn out to be "very dull indeed;" but there is more to the issue that I would like to explore.
The bottom line is that this is yet another example of just how vulnerable "serious" music is to middle-brow thinking; and I take cold comfort in the fact that the British can be just as middle-brow as the Americans. Here is how Christiansen expresses his frustration:
What depresses me is the way that classical music is constantly chasing after techniques of the pop sector, and ending up, like a paunchy middle-aged man squeezing himself into a pair of tight blue jeans, looking a bit silly and terminally uncool. The interesting kids I know today with open musical minds aren’t the slightest bit interested in the charts: they have the confidence to listen to what they like and explore without reference to such crude and naff indicators as “the Top 20” - something they rightly think of as granddad culture.
Why can’t classical music learn something from that confidence in one’s own taste? Why must it jump up and down and dress itself up and pretend to be what is isn’t? Why can’t it stand aside from hype and ephemera and the silly business of judging success by numbers, and instead focus on its deepest strength - feeding a deep and serious appetite for art in which quality isn’t judged by its place in a weekly sales list?
For my part, however, I am less inclined to turn "classical music" into an agent and then lay the blame at that agent's feet. I figure it makes sense to go explicitly after the promoters and the audiences who let their minds be warped by the "consciousness industry" of those promoters, which is to say that audiences treat their concert hall experiences the same way they treat sitting in front of a television. Consider as what I feel is an innocuous example Igor Stravinsky's "Les Noces." Chances are that ballet lovers know more about this music that concert audiences; and some of them are fortunate enough to hear this music performed, rather than through loudspeakers hooked up to a recording. For my part I think it has been over 30 years since I have heard the work in a concert setting; and, if ballet companies can deal with the resource problem, I doubt that it is simply a matter of bringing four pianists on stage at the same time. Rather, it probably reflects the assumption made by promoters that it is harder to bring in an audience to hear "Les Noces" than it is to get them to sit through The Rite of Spring (probably because the latter now has its reputation as "dinosaur music").
Also, to be fair, the promoters are far from the only ones responsible for the mind rot. Last February Carnegie Hall had to put up with a panel discussion arranged by the World Economic Forum, which made it clear that, with the rich and mighty, having a collection of recordings is tantamount to understanding classical music. At the end of the day, however, the World Economic Forum is as committed to numbing minds as is the consciousness industry of concert promoters. There is little we can do in the face of such adversaries. My personal advice is that, if there is a Conservatory or college-level Music School nearby, support it in any way you can! That is the one venue where performers have the opportunity to break free from the shackles of middle-brow thinking; and you do not want to find yourself realizing that you did not know what you had until it was gone. Like the poor, the middle-brow will be with us always; so the best we can do is seek refuge from their influences.