(Alex Ross’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 4/4.)
Last year, the British critic Philip Clark had a provocative response to the perennial question of how to save classical music from its so-called image problem—the perception that it is stuffy, élitist, and irrelevant. He declared, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with classical music. It cannot pretend to be anything other than it is. And perhaps it’s the wider cultural environment . . . that has a problem.”
I don’t accept Clark’s entire argument. Certain of classical music’s difficulties are self-created: ossified concert norms, brain-dead programming, a pervasive fear of the new. Yet his principal point holds. Endless chatter about the need to reinvent the art is symptomatic of a deep-seated hostility toward fundamental features of the concert experience: the extended duration of works, the complexity of their construction, the attention they demand. There is no shame in the fact that classical music has trouble adapting to a marketplace dominated by celebrity worship and by the winner-take-all economy for which celebrity serves as a seductive symbol.