2010 In Review: Amidst Economic Woes, New Trends in Classical Music Emerge

As Harry Truman used to say, it’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job, a depression when you lose yours.

For most classical music buffs in Dallas this year, it was a recession. News of strikes, bankruptcies, orchestra musicians’ paycuts (as close as just down the road in Fort Worth), and severely curtailed seasons in other places trickled into the newspapers and blogs—as such news has since summer of 2008—while things continued to roll along here.

Budgets were down, and shortfalls in local performing arts budgets were dreary, but, after two years of a slow economy, it was all old news. The biggest event of the year, the premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick at the Dallas Opera in the spring, had been in the works since before the recession hit in 2008, as had Fort Worth Opera’s first major premiere, Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls. These two relatively costly events came off as planned in spite of belt-tightening all around.

Wes Mason (center) stars in the Fort Worth Opera's production of "Before Night Falls" (Photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Opera)

Meanwhile, larger trends, influenced by economic outlook, perceptions, and even tax policy, rumble beneath the surface, and the complex algebra of box office sales, donor interest, public policy, and artistic expression has become more complicated than ever. Caution abounds. Whether they admit it or not, the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera have adopted a safer approach to programming. The all-Beethoven orchestral concert, the familiar operatic titles from the past as opposed to new or unfamiliar works, have taken over more of the programming territory. Critics do their job by complaining, organizations do their job by doing what it takes to stay in business, and the folks who put on the shows—the singers, instrumentalists, designers, directors, and, yes, even the composers—continue to strive to present an artistic product that is engaging and meaningful to the listener/viewer and that at the same time answers that silent internal call to create and interpret.

Jaap van Zweden

The results can sometimes be unexpected. An all-Rachmaninoff program by the Dallas Symphony in February looked very much like something put together to sell tickets on Valentine weekend. Thanks to the skill and insight of the soloist, conductor, and orchestra, the event became a thought-provoking view of a major composer who has often been belittled. On the other hand, when the Dallas Symphony attempted to enliven the classical subscription series by adding a visual and spoken commentary to a live performance of Holst’s The Planets, the result was disappointing and unimaginative—and, for this listener at least, actually undermined the power and effectiveness of the music.

The Juliard String Quartet

And yet another quiet trend is already having its effect on the local scene: the wealth of the nation is being concentrated in the hands of a smaller portion of the population. Dallas music lovers are beginning to experience what some observers would call the effects of an oligarchy and what others would refer to as classic trickle-down economics: big-budget events are turning up again, with results that are both baffling and exciting.

For instance, just a few weeks ago, a relatively small audience of about 200 witnessed an evening including Boston’s A Far Cry chamber orchestra, the Juilliard String Quartet, and a fully-staged contemporary chamber opera, all as part of the same program at the Nasher Sculpture Center. The cost must have been astounding. On the other hand, the same performers were available to a much larger public at a much more affordable price on the following day.

In short, as of 2010, money is once again being spent in the classical music portion of the economy, but it’s being spent in much different ways than previously. 2010 showed that the private and corporate donors who have even greater power and responsibility than before are willing to continue to finance artistic endeavor. 2011 will reveal even more of how and where their money will be spent, and who will benefit from that spending. Let’s hope that the folks with the bucks chose to direct that money in a way that will not just entertain a few and glorify even fewer, but that will enrich all of us.

Photo at top: The Dallas Opera’s production of Moby-Dick (Photo by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)