Do the moneyed elite lack the patience for classical music?


In today’s society people can do anything in the blink of an eye with their phone.

Given the focus on immediate gratification, fewer people are likely to buy into the hours of focus and dedication required to master a musical instrument, or a complicated score, worries John Halle, Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College.

For Halle, the impatience of modern culture is increasingly at odds with the world of classical music. He points to a new generation of wealthy people who may be less likely to be as charitable with orchestras than their predecessors.

Halle writes for the magazine Jacobin that there is a connection to be found between investors seeking short-term returns and the long-standing lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra.

…what is by now an unshakeable faith in the transcendent wisdom of the marketplace not only justifies the withdrawal of elite support but demands it, based on the rationale that they should not “pick winners” or “put their thumbs on the scale” in so doing corrupting market mechanisms taken as omniscient arbiters of value. This is at least part of the logic according to which the head of the negotiating committee of the Minnesota Orchestra US Bancorp CEO Richard K. Davis  demands sharp wage and benefit reductions from the orchestra’s musicians. His own yearly compensation of $14.4 million could easily make up for the orchestra’s budget shortfall, by itself, as could a small fraction of the tax breaks, subsidies and bailouts gifted to Davis’s fellow board members over the past two decade. A philosophical commitment to austerity, albeit likely compounded by sheer avarice, dictates that any such exercises in generosity would be dismissed as counterproductive.  For Davis, fiscal sustainability is a prima facie indication of social and artistic merit.

While crude market fundamentalism continues to guide the actions of the Minnesota Orchestra’s board, its audiences appear to take a different view, understanding that an orchestra’s job is not to make money but to make music. This was implicit in a recent report of a farewell concert offered by the Orchestra under its departing conductor, Osmo Vanska.

“As a poignant encore, Mr. Vanska offered a work by the composer perhaps closest to him, his Finnish compatriot Sibelius: the ‘Valse Triste,’ which Mr. Vanska described as a dance of death. In typically self-effacing fashion, he asked the audience to withhold applause at the end, and listeners filed out quietly, many in tears.”

What Minnesota audiences were mourning went beyond the destruction of one of the world’s great orchestras engineered by a team of bean-counting plutocrats. It was connected to an awareness that the virtues of classical music are inherently hostile to neoliberal mindset now dominant in all sectors of society. For many, classical music, its refusal to engage in high-volume harangues, its reliance on aural logic rather than visual spectacle, its commitment to achieving often barely perceptible standards of formal perfection, all serves as a repudiation of late capitalism —a refuge from hideous strip malls, the 24-hour assault of advertising copy, and marketing hype. Ultimately, it is a protest against the cruder, meaner and self-destructive society we have become.

Achieving this recognition is not easy, nor are most things worth doing. That’s the underlying lesson learned by a child confronting a Mozart sonata. And it will need to be relearned by adults if we have much hope of surviving the century.

You can read Halle’s full piece here.