Can classical music be ‘great’ again?

Minneapolis resident Bill Eddins, music director of the Edmonton Symphony and former associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, has shut down his excellent classical music blog, Sticks and Drones, convinced that nothing is going to change in the world of classical music.

“It’s not the business that needs changing, it’s the people,” he writes in a farewell post in which he tackles what it means to be great, and why we don’t value greatness in music.

He does so by recalling a social media post last week in which he draws a distinction between David Bowie, whom he considers “great”, and Adele, whom he views as “popular.” The two are not the same.

“Everything is ‘great’ now, which means everything is average now,” he writes.

My argument is that just because someone has made it professionally, that in itself does not make one “great.” Adele has potential, if for no other reason than she has been blessed with a great voice (which I desperately hope she learns how to use correctly), she’s actually extremely modest and down to earth, and through her popularity she might grow into an artist who has a sniffer’s chance of achieving greatness. But to call her “great” at this stage in her professional career – no. Absolutely positively 100% no.

Same in classical music. The jet-set photogenica have been portrayed as the saviors of classical music for the last 30+ years. “Hey, that kid has astounding technique on his/her/its instrument and/or can wave their arms around without falling off the podium, and is really easy on the eyes, so he/she/it should be our next Music Director/Principal Soloist! Let’s please ignore the fact that he/she/it isn’t old enough to drive in most states!” Plaster their face over your PR and make sure they have a frequent flyer number, and Lo’ and Behold, you have the next great thing! Best of all, they will save classical music! (… Again…… oh, and please ignore the fact that this kid couldn’t conduct Brahms to save his/her/its life.)

I posit that the worst thing that has happened to classical music is that it is no longer taught in the scholastic system. I’m not talking so much about people playing instruments, mind you, I’m talking about basic music appreciation. There used to be a standard, an understanding gleaned from courses like M.A., that there is a difference between “popular” and “great,” and that there is a damn good reason why some people are eventually called “great” and most are not, “popular” though they be. I mean, are you going to call ABBA great? Are you?

“Those of us who populate the arts must start another artistic revolution,” he writes. “We must dare to not apologize for true greatness, and to make damn sure that the threshold is maintained.”

Fans of greatness are going to miss his blog.

  • wjc

    I used to listen to a lot of classical music when I was younger (I’m 60 now). Then, for me, it got a little boring. Mozart and Mahler aren’t writing anything new these days. New music wasn’t too exciting. I got plugged into alt rock when my kids were growing up in order to know what they liked. Selfishly, it also helped me encourage artists I liked, so our car trips would have a sound track that we’d all like. It’s hard to imagine going back to listen to classical.

    Mr. Eddins takes a swipe at ABBA, but who is he to say what people might consider great. Maybe the problem is that the classical world could use both some great AND some popular artists.

    Time to get back to listening to the “Hamilton” sound track.

    • The day ABBA was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is the real day the music died.

      • wjc

        It’s the “Hall of Fame”, not the “Hall of Greatness”.

      • wjc

        And there is a lot of great music going on, if you are looking for it.

        • Nate Reiter

          I wish more people were looking for it. I am not a classical music aficionado, but I am an alternative music aficionado, and alternative music musician. I get depressed when I see low turn-out at local shows, and even touring shows. For bands that are doing their best to try to be “great.” Netflix streaming is kicking live music’s butt. Surely it is related to Eddins’ woes as well. The industry is following the “if it’s popular/if it makes money, it is good art” direction. That is why the charts are largely garbage. It kind of feels like what Dan Wilson is talking about in this article, is the same thing that is happening in every industry. http://thetalkhouse.com/music/talks/dan-wilson-talks-john-seabrooks-the-song-machine-inside-the-hit-factory/

          • wjc

            Interesting article, but it also comes off as “I know better than you”. The history of popular music and classical too is replete with popular material that people of culture look down their noses at. We all think that what we like is great, and what that other guy over there likes is dreck.

            I don’t like top-40 tunes, for the most part, but Arctic Monkeys, Jack White (both the White Stripes and everything after), The New Pornographers, The Shins, Gorillaz, and that last Blur album really do a lot for me. Wolf Alice is a terrific new band.

            Musicians can’t expect to get an audience because they are good, though. They have to go out and work like hell, and earn the audience.

          • Nate Reiter

            We should probably go see a show. I saw Wolf Alice twice last year and they are killing it.

          • wjc

            We should. I have taken my kids to First Ave a fair amount to see live music. It’s a little less fun as I enter my 60’s if I can’t get a stool upstairs, but it’s a fabulous place to hear bands.

            Best show ever: White Stripes at the Orpheum. Quite incredible.

          • I think he’s also speaking to the lack of respect for artists. I wonder if anyone took him up on seeing what the story was with the cities he mentioned.

            Hartford – The American Federation of Musicians local agreed to a contract that pays $1,287 more a year than that, but is still 33 percent less than musicians were paid last year. The middle tier of musicians will earn 9 percent less than before, or about $12,500; the least-required musicians took an 18 percent reduction, to about $5,400 annually. (Hartford Courant)

            Grand Rapids – “As of November 3, the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians was still trying to come to a contract agreement with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Its four-year contract expired at the end of August. The dispute echoed events from 2011, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had a six-month strike before musicians agreed to a 23 percent pay cut.” (Inside Philanthropy)

            Fort Worth – “With the rejection, management said it plans to implement concessionary contract terms Monday that include more than 8 percent in wage cuts, accomplished primarily by reducing vacation days.

            “The two sides have been in negotiations since June and are $4 million apart on the value of a new contract. Orchestra management is projecting a $650,000 deficit for this season and says without pay cuts, the orchestra could close within two years.” (Fort Worth Star Telegram)

            What he’s talking about is the dying of an art that has survived centuries.

            Just as ISIS is wiping out the great cultural landmarks of the Middle East, a culture of classical music is fast disappearing.

          • wjc

            While I appreciate the problem as he and you have laid it out here, what is the solution?

            In centuries past, classical music survived and flourished largely because of royal patronage or support of wealthy benefactors. That might not be a viable model today, but what is? If people aren’t filling the seats of the local concert halls, who is to blame?

            Mr. Eddins points to schools and the lack of music appreciation classes in the curriculum. I never had a music appreciation class in my grade school or high school 40-50 years ago, but I listened to classical music. Radio and TV supported bringing music to the masses. I saw Leonard Bernstein and the NY Philharmonic. I saw Itzhak Perlman play with incredible passion and delight evident on his face. There is almost no classical music on TV today that I ever see.

            I don’t want classical music to die, but it’s not clear to me how to improve the chances of its survival.

          • Rob

            the top 40 charts these days are indeed mostly garbage, IMO.
            not sure how much cred Dan Wilson has, given that he’s writing tunes for top 40 artists.
            I loved Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare, and would argue that each had their moments of greatness; I’m not much of a fan of Wilson’s current pop songwriting endeavors, and would be hard-pressed to consider them great. Popular and monetarily successful, yes. Great, not so much.

      • Joe

        You realize by the time they inducted ABBA they had already inducted Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Halen, ZZ Top, The Righteous Brothers, Aerosmith, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Eagles, and Jefferson Airplane? None of those bands are great. Some are good, and all are popular, but none of them did anything great.

        • Joe

          You might quibble with one or two or three of those, but I don’t know anyone except for a baby boomer caricature who would say ALL are great.

        • Rob

          I would say that all the bands you mentioned were more significant musically/culturally in one way or another than ABBA was. Whether amy or all of these bands were great is another matter. Free Bird!!

          • frightwig

            You’ll find that ABBA has had a lot of cultural significance, if you look in the right places.

            Does a band that specialized in catchy, light (sometimes frothy) pop singles belong in a ROCK N’ ROLL Hall of Fame? Probably not, if we were strict about the definition of rock n’ roll, and if we could ever arrive at a workable definition of it, but the museum punted on that question and opened up to all sorts of pop music long ago.

      • Rob

        yes!

        • Rob

          And let’s not forget – everything that Prince has done is great!

  • jon

    Sounds like a rant about them damn kids skateboarding on his side walk more than one about what classical music needs to survive for generations to come…

    I suspect what classical music needs to survive for another generation is them damn kids to get interested in it, even while they continue skateboarding…

    Perhaps underground shows, or having people who talk about that violinist/conductor you probably have never heard of, but they are really big in the indie scene…. or perhaps they just need to get classical music in an apple commercial (If bugs bunny can introduce kids to classical why not apple commercials?)

    Personally classical music was what I grew up listening to with my father…. not sure why he listened to it given that his record collection from before he met my mom was more jefferson airplane and the who than classical…

    Any way you slice it though if you want the next generation to pick up the mantle you need pass that mantle to the next generation at some point, even if they don’t have years of experience.

    • //Sounds like a rant about them damn kids skateboarding on his side walk more than one about what classical music needs to survive for generations to come…

      Only if you don’t read it.

      He’s basically talking about the dumbing down of artistic criteria.

      It’s worthy of note that he singles out the MN Orchestra for a roadmap of its survival.

      • wjc

        Are you (or is Bill) concerned that his push for maintaining artistic standards is likely to come off as snobbery? Reading his blog post, I don’t think he gives that a thought. I think that snobbery has been the problem for classical music. It’s fine to want to keep artistic standards high. I want that in the rock musicians I listen to. That should be inside baseball, though. You can’t tell me who I should like, and expect me to think that is a great thing.

        • Again, relating it to politics, consider the rants against “elitists” which is usually a call to the uneducated that it’s the “elitists” who are a threat to an well informed electorate.

          • wjc

            More information is good for both arts and politics, but if you just want to convince me of that “x” is great by saying that “y” stinks, I’m not interested. I need more than that.

            In fact I’m tired of the whole elitist rant. Personally, if someone has more information than me, I’m happy to hear it. If they want me to be convinced because of their stature in their field, forget about it.

            Bottom line: maybe classical music needs better marketing.

          • Nate Reiter

            Or better tunes. 🙂

          • I don’t think he’s saying that at all nor am I. quite the contrary, actually. He’s drawing a distinction with a line that has been blurred. That the popular and the truly great are not the same thing at all. He has issued a call for us to have greater expectations.

            //. If they want me to be convinced because of their stature in their field, forget about it.

            Stature or knowledge? Sounds like the climate change debate.

          • Anna

            i used to watch Justin Wilson’s cooking shows on public television and they might still be broadcast on LPB, Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

            His take on wine was this: The best wine is the kind of wine you like. It doesn’t matter if it’s white, red or neon pink ( I’m sure there are wine connoisseurs that will take umbrage with that.)

            I am a professional musician and I have performed with a wide variety of conductors and stage directors. I had one stage director in college who made you start from the top if she could not understand every word at the back of the theater!

            As a duo, my twin and I covered everything from Rogers and Hammerstein to the Hallelujah Chorus (a cappella). and we did a pretty credible job of it for 10 years at Fest-For-All in Baton Rouge.

            Caveat here—don’t pay attention to all the hype and hoopla. Just like any sports team can lose on any given day, even a professional orchestra, rock musician, indie musician, etc. can have an off performance.

            And each artistic milieu has its own professional standards that its performers recognize.

            If you like classical music, wonderful! If your tastes lean toward hip hop and rap, you betcha! Each artistic form has its supporters and detractors. I don’t care for rap but does that make me a snob? Of course not.

            Listen to what you like and don’t worry about whether the artist is “great” or “popular.”

      • jon

        perhaps you and I are reading it through a different generational lens…

        Things like “…the fact that this kid couldn’t conduct…”
        Or “…at this stage in her professional career…”
        Or “…he/she/it isn’t old enough to drive…”
        Or “…classical music is that it is no longer taught in the scholastic system….”
        OR “…the person it is meant to refer to must be over 50 years old, preferably over 60…”

        Don’t strike me very much trying to say kids today all get a trophy and we tell everyone they are great, not like back in my day when you had to be david bowie good to be considered great!

        Heck that last quote could even exclude Beethoven and Mozart from the title maestro because they weren’t old enough!

        Then again maybe I didn’t read it…

        • He’s talking about our tendency to embrace the bright shiny object. It’s really no different than the political coverage of the current presidential election. We need to be entertained and so we get this clown car obsession that the media has at the moment. The difference is, unlike Bill’s world, we don’t pretend it’s an intellectual endeavor of a great national discussion on important things.

          Read Twitter and you see thousands of tweets using the word “great” and “awesome” usually containing a link to a new story that is neither great nor awesome. It is ordinary.

          His essay is a call to not be fooled into accepting the ordinary as great or awesome.

          • ChrisF

            Is this similar to the debate about whether or not the MN Orchestra (and I’ll assume other orchestras) should be have performances like movie music, cartoons, etc simply to appeal to a wider audience vs perceived merit?

            I’m just wondering from the perseptive of a lay person like myself. To be honest I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘good’ violin solo vs a ‘great’ violin solo unless the perfomer started their bow on fire and fired into the rafters mid way through.

          • I would say it’s closer to should the MN orchestra board — at that time — have been building a palace worth millions of dollars while trying to stiff the musicians who play inside? That board and the people who ran it are mostly gone now. But the same situation is playing out all over the country. It’s that the MN Orchestra got its head screwed on right before it was too late.

      • Khatti

        Yes..well, while I SHOULD HAVE come to orchestral music through the works of Schoenberg, I DID come to orchestral music through the Star Wars soundtrack.

  • KTN

    It’s good Eddins knows best for Adele’s voice, I mean, she certainly can’t know. Is she great – yes, she has a great voice, and knows how weave a song, so great it is.
    We have series tickets for the CHamber Music Society this year, and the first two concerts were in fact – great. Led by a young women violinist/conductor, who is a professor at Cornell (she’s from the Twin Cities however), she played one full concert dedicated to new music – challenging and beautiful, but not Mozart. Her prowess is undeniable, but the enthusiasm she brought to the music, coupled with her deep understanding of what she was playing made it a great performance. Is this what the good director is looking for in classical music, or is it something different.

    • X.A. Smith

      Re: Adele’s voice– Adele has recently had problems with her voice because of the “improper” way she had been singing. It is somewhat common among pop singers, including Phil Collins and Joanna Newsom, off the top of my head, to sing in a way that strains, and ultimately injures, the vocal cords. Phil Collins had to have surgery on his larynx in the early 90s. It may sound good, but it isn’t the right way to sing, if you want to keep doing it.

    • frightwig

      IMO, Adele has a big voice, an impressive voice, but she tends to confuse volume and power for feeling and drama. She’s not much for nuance. She sings everything like she wants to blow you away. And apart from “Hello,” I found the rest of her new album to be bland and unmemorable. But she sells millions in the age of freely available downloads, so she’s the Queen, right?

  • Khatti

    At the risk of stating the obvious, “Great” is in the eye of the beholder. I can’t understand the world’s fascination with Mozart.

  • Dick Ewe

    Frankly, and thankfully, the discussion of “greatness” is not for you to decide. I can play the violin like Jascha Heifetz but in my own style, so I know what I am talking about here. Not everybody gets the career they deserve, either. The music world, as a profession, sucks due to people like yourself making decisions about who and what is great.
    You cannot bring up Adele and call her “popular” but not “great”. Bowie himself would have called her “great” and he certainly recognized that his own vocal skills and instrument were lacking: but they both have depth, and that is the single thing needed to create “greatness”
    When I heard Lady Gaga with Tony Bennett, I was amazed at the scope of her talent and depth of her art. Likewise, I didn’t ever listen to Amy Winehouse due to her off-putting antics. Three weeks before she died, she was misbehaving again and I decided to hear what she was about and why this young woman was so ridiculously throwing everything away. When I heard her, I was floored and I knew she had unbelievable greatness….she was a very tortured soul. I thought that her style of music was so long gone that it had died. YOU do not get to judge greatness with the public. YOUR duty is to create it in yourself and then give it to others. THAT is all: if you see a lack of greatness, then your duty is to fill the gap.
    It is the musical community itself which has pushed youth and virtuosity in favor of depth in performing. Depth makes for greatness, and nothing else….speaking from a place inside which is one’s own personal journey and being able to share it with others. Kids haven’t lived very much, but the fact that Milstein and Heifetz both had tortured childhoods with revolutions in their own countries and the need to escape with their lives……you can PUT that into your playing and move people. That can only come from living life.

    Meanwhile, taking music instruction, chorus classes, and musical instruments (in band and orchestra) out of the school systems was done by administrators who don’t have such “greatness” or “intelligence” to know that in playing an instrument, coordinating skills are developed which help the brain communicate between the two lobes, thus increasing IQ and intelligence. Within 6 months of beginning the violin, my brain “turned-on” and I went from being a disinterested A, B, and C student to exclusively an A student. Things fell into place.

    If you want a more balanced, intelligent society, we have to make certain to vet our educational administrators better. Idiots such as Barbara Byrd-Bennett are hired all the time. Later we have to endure their idiotic actions and decisions. The woman spoke of going to the “casino”. Only idiots engage in such stupidity. She should have been vetted further and never hired. This is why we’re losing greatness. The kids have no means of expressing themselves in ways which don’t involve verbal language; yet that very skill of performing also increases the ability to write, in the end. It’s the creative process, and that’s the wellspring of greatness.

    You want a better society ? You have to get it out there that the education needs music as it creates that greatness by allowing the wellsprings to not be blocked or dammed up by stupid people in control….and you’re clearly a control freak.
    YOU don’t know greatness when you see it.

  • IvanKaramasov

    I’d rather listen to ABBA than 99% of all other pop music. But I’d agree they are not great. I’d also agree that David Bowie was great. For me the only true genius to ever work in pop music.