Will the classical music produced today still be played tomorrow?

Artistic promoters and conducters warn of a black hole in the future

A scene from the opera Written on Skin by British composer and conductor George Benjamin.
A scene from the opera Written on Skin by British composer and conductor George Benjamin.

When Igor Stravinsky premiered The Rite of Spring in 1913 at the Theater of the Champs Élysées in Paris, he came close to getting lynched during the second act. Something similar had happened to Arnold Schönberg nine months earlier in Vienna, during the famous “Skandalconcert.”

Beyond representing a break with the musical past, both events are remarkable for the attention that a young composer’s work attracted in musical and social circles of the time (Stravinsky was then 30 years old). A century later, it is hard to imagine the kind of impassioned rioting that erupted in Paris and Vienna over new musical creations. Some throat clearing, if not complete indifference, is a more likely scenario at a time when contemporary music - as well as many 20th-century compositions - is being relegated to the bottom of the program at theaters and auditoriums.

This is particularly true in countries such as Spain, where the economic crisis and decline in ticket sales has undermined the confidence of theater programmers.

The new cultural and intellectual elites have progressively abandoned music as an element of distinction. Contemporary literature and fine art, instead, have become the modern fascinations.

Seasoned music promoters such as Alfonso Aijón, head of Ibermúsica, admit that it is increasingly difficult to find a spot on the program for recent works.

"There is no budget, especially for those of us who are taking big chances. That's the way it is all over Europe. But in some places there are more subsidies, and you can risk more," he explains.

This kind of sponsorship, which was undertaken by different institutions at different periods in history (the Church, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie), is vital if new compositions are to prosper. The support can be public, as with the National Center for Musical Dissemination (CNDM), or it can be privately sourced.

The BBVA Foundation, for instance, awards prizes to new composers and programs three cycles of contemporary music a year. Guided by its music-loving director Rafael Pardo, the foundation invests around one million euros annually on contemporary music, and the concerts it organizes achieve average occupancy rates of 80 percent. Of course, if they didn't happen to be free of charge, those figures would plummet, Pardo admits.

Alberto Posadas, one of Spain's most widely acclaimed composers - more so abroad than domestically - sees a complicated scenario at home.

"Before the crisis there was institutional support for new creation, and there were evident results," he explains. "There was a proliferation of ensembles, and programming at the same level as you might find at festivals across Europe. When the means are there, cultural creation just blooms."

That is what the sector needs in order to connect with a new audience. "If you look at the average age of subscribers to season passes for classical music concerts, it is very high," adds Posadas. "I wonder what's going to happen in 20 years if we don't generate a new audience. We need to get young people familiarized with this world and have access to it at affordable prices."

Music in the present day is more obsessed than ever with its own posterity. This is partly due to the extreme fragmentation of the market, and mostly because pop is the reigning universal language for youths who carry their tastes over into maturity.

Never before had there been so much musical creation, or of such high quality, say composers such as Mauricio Sotelo or Elena Mendoza. But at the same time, never before had there been so few outlets for it - which prompts the inevitable question as to whether there is a future for a type of music that rarely gets programmed, is hard to find on the shelves of any remaining record stores, and lacks coverage in the mainstream media.

There is no doubt about it in the mind of Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker and author of two key essays on the subject: The Rest is Noise and Listen to This . To him, a thousand-year musical tradition will decay if new works are not performed regularly. If institutions had had the same attitude two- or three-hundred years ago, today we would not have the repertoire that we consider mainstream, he notes.

Festivals such as the Huddersfield Contemporary Music in Britain, Ultraschall in Berlin and Donaueschingen in the Black Forest, are in stark contrast with the Spanish scene. Foreigners observe Spain with admiration for the creative effervescence of its composers - even if the latter invariably end up premiering their works abroad.

There is some room for self-criticism. A few composers believe that some types of music may have strayed too far from the public's tastes, although composers such as Pierre Boulez disagree. Meanwhile, record labels have focused on the sexy side of classical music in order to sell. This created a star system of performers in detriment of the composers.

It is hard to strike a balance between business and commitment to music education, notes Maider Múgica of Deutsche Grammophon, which just launched an ambitious collection of work by the main composers of the 20th century.

The good news is that digital formats, which carry no production or distribution costs, have allowed contemporary music to put a foot in the door and prevent it from slamming shut for good.

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