The Classical Music Conundrum

For some reason I’ve been on a classical music binge, annoying my neighbors with all the waltzing around the apartment I’m doing, in high heels and cat suit no less, to the doom and gloom of Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Smetana. I don’t know what it is but I’m really drawn to pieces in minor keys that sound next to impossible to play—my friends say it’s because I like aggressive Russians dudes which, whatever.

The one thing about classical music that has been apparent to me for years, besides the unfortunate fact that there are absolutely zero, and I mean zero, famous black classical instrumentalists anywhere, is that this world is having a serious identity crisis. Classical music points its baton at a broader audience, the mythical younger, sexier audience by offering student tickets (wow) or showing symphonies in movie theaters where they play X–Men and Harry Potter when, despite the bait, the reality is this: go to a concert with any number of America’s Great Orchestras—the Boston and Chicago Symphonies, the New York Philharmonic, or the Philadelphia or Cleveland Orchestras—and you will see nothing but old gray hairs in tweed and vintage Chanel, fancy biscotti, and a lot of people going to sleep. At $60 a seat, that’s a very expensive nap!

The root of classical music’s identity crisis is how do you make a name for yourself with music that’s 200 years old? This is the question I wondered about the other day while at the Juilliard Bookstore browsing through their recordings (classical music albums are not called “albums,” which is reserved for lesser, more “popular” music, but the more important sounding “recordings”), and classical music’s identity crisis was laid bare to me right on the CD covers: the pianist Lang Lang in a leather jacket; the violinist Julia Fischer in a sexy low-cut top, shoulder exposed, violin way in the background; a close-up of the pianist Hélène Grimaud’s beautiful blue’s eyes; a barefoot Anne-Sophie Mutter stretched out, glamorously, on a chaise, no violin in sight. ??What does any of this have to do with the particular recording of Bach or Brahms being sold? Simply this: Classical music can’t stand popular music, but it wants to be the cool kid on the block so bad.

I’ve always thought that the most interesting thing about classical music recording was the number of times a piece has been performed or recorded throughout its lifetime. I mean really, just how many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony do we need in the world? Now imagine being a soloist in this kind of environment. At least if you’re a pop singer, you’re guaranteed a brand new set of songs with each successive album, even if you didn’t write any of them, and even if they don’t sound that different from your last hits. The fact is that they are still brand new songs, and they’re yours.

If you’re a classical soloist, on the other hand, how do you make a name for yourself when every work in your repertoire has already been recorded umpteen times? I currently have three recordings of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and I like them all for different reasons. Anne Sophie Mutter has a delectable virtuosity and stinging, passionate vibrato, while Hilary Hahn has a methodical, pitch-perfect kind of sound. I have two recordings of the Prokofiev Sonata for Two Violins—one recording is lyrical and fast where it needs to be, and the other is sheer speed, aggression and virtuosity. As far as I know, classical music is one of the only worlds where people fetishize recordings and players, which leads to owning several albums with the same piece played by different people—and feeds into the music’s current identity crisis.

One way classical musicians make a name for themselves, however, is through live performance. Some violinists, like Vanessa Mae or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, are known for bringing a pop music edge to classical music. Vanessa Mae performs on an electric violin and has recorded with Prince, and Nadja Saleron-Sonnenberg often records new music by composers nobody has even heard of. But Salerno-Sonnenberg in particular is known for her explosive, extremely emotional if not exaggerated performances. The cover of the recording I have of her with the Tchaikovsky Concerto is just a close-up of her face with a bunch of hair flying everywhere. Now there’s a smart—and accurate—brand image for NSS, and it tells me more about her as a performer than having some hot chick sprawled out on a chaise with her boobs out.

Hahn-Bin, classical music’s newest enfant terrible, is really the first person in decades to throw a rejuvenating wrench into the classical music machine.Trained at Juilliard in the studio of the legendary Itzhak Perlman, the interdisciplinary Hahn-Bin is one part performance artist, one part virtuoso, one part drag queen, one part mad scientist, who is as comfortable on stage in high heels as he is in a face mask—and he does it all while laying on the floor playing Penderecki. His hair piled high atop his head like a swirl of ice cream, Hahn-Bin is the self-proclaimed “Viagra to classical music.” Work! When I saw him perform at MoMA—a rarity for any classical musician—his audience was massive and diverse, very much unlike a typical classical concert. The joint was packed with people of all ages, races, nationalities, creeds, and sexualities. The future survival of classical music isn’t going to be about student tickets or sexy album covers. It’s going to be about people like Hahn-Bin. TC mark

image – TheBleech80


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  • Lola

    Best article I’ve read here, and that’s saying something considering I’ve spent many months going through TC archives (which contained many thought provoking pieces). “Classical music can’t stand popular music, but it wants to be the cool kid on the block so bad”– excellent line. I’ve always thought classical music was underappreciated, which suited me fine because it made it all the more exclusive. Well done!

  • Je Sk


  • Sammy G

    People listen to Penderecki?

    • Sammy G

      Good article though, I enjoyed it.

    • Rebecca

      his threnody is pretty baller.

  • anon

    “Classical music can’t stand popular music, but it wants to be the cool kid on the block so bad” or perhaps it just wants to survive. Grey tweedy men, no matter how much they can spend on expensive naps, do not live forever. A great deal of the schism present in classical music and opera has less to do with seeming ‘cool’  and ‘sexy’ for its own sake, and more about trying desperately to gain enough new devotees to survive into the next half-century. One of the greatest things, in my mind, about some pieces of classical music is the range of emotion just one short piece of music can contain. It feels less like listening and more like living through intense emotions at rapid speed: delicious!

  • John

    Paragraph two: Andre Watts, and also Wynton Marsalis started off as a classical performer.
    Then: you have some answers to your own question about how one makes a name for themselves playing this old music that others have already played well and recorded well in the past, but you don’t settle on what I think is the best answer.  You have multiple recordings of the same piece, because they are played differently; each is compelling and has a legitimate interpretation.  Glenn Gould said that the only reason he thought somebody should make a new recording / performance (though he gave up performance, which is not realistic for most musicians today) is because they’ve come up a new way to interpret something, that is more than just doing something for it’s own sake, like playing something twice as fast or slow as anybody has before.  Glenn would come up with new tempos and styles of playing that nobody had recorded before, but for good reasons; I can’t listen to anybody else play most Mozart sonatas now besides him.  When I go to a classical concert, I’ve usually heard the piece being played before many times by multiple people, but the one thing I really hope for is to hear it in a memorably new way. 
    BTW do you know any women who like classical music in DC? I’m single.

    • matt good

      yes i was going to mention wynton marsalis

    • Elizandra

       also re paragraph two: Leontyne Price, Lawrence Brownlee, Ryan Speedo Green, Alyson Cambridge

  • Michael Koh


  • Gregory Costa

    I tried reading this.  I tried.  You should have seen the vapid expression on my face, a bit of drool trickling down my chin.  The last time I felt this way was when someone changed my tuning to sports radio. 

    • kaylee

      Case in point. You were a main character in this article.

  • kaylee

    Classical music is the best thing out there, as far as I’m concerned. It makes me sad to know that most of the rest of my generation doesn’t know about it because they lack the patience. It’s terrible. 

    • Jdkebd

      This is part of the problem. Drop the pretense, the unnecessary judgment and attitude. You reek of better than thou complex.

      A lost soul in the teeming Gaga-Perry sea

      • kaylee

        Pretension? Damn it, I didn’t mean it to come across that way at all. What I meant was, I physically feel sad. I feel so frustrated with myself that I can’t change it, even though I try to whenever I can. I feel so sad about it. Classical music is so important to me, and I feel so strongly about this and… I have too many feelings, about too boring things I realize, and I tried to bottle them up into a sensible comment and it came out like pretension. Damn it.


    I’m interested to hear your take on current movie soundtracks; Zimmerman has seemingly combined classical art with mainstream success.

  • Sarah

    I’m curious to know if you actually play an instrument or have any experience as a classical musician. I tried to read this as an outsider and understand where you’re coming from but most of it just said to me that you’re ignorant/arrogant. You make the assertion that orchestras only play “music that’s 200 years old” which tells me that you’re not spending much time actually attending symphonic concerts. Yes, the large body of what is performed comes from the classical era and much of that has to do with the audience attending these concerts. Just glancing at the New York Phil’s calendar however, I see that their next concert will be a performance of Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass, which *gasp* was written within the last 30 years (if you are in the area I highly suggest going). I might add that the cost for performing new works is vastly more than performing Beethoven’s 5th for the 437th time. Did you know that publisher’s hold exclusive rights to pieces, and orchestras (this includes schools) must pay to rent most pieces written in the last century? The “tweedy” old men you speak of are single-handedly keeping these orchestras in business through their patronage and significant monetary donations. For that reason orchestra management chooses to pander to them and hope that in their will is a hefty endowment. So many young people claim to be classical music lovers yet they do little to nothing to support the arts. Ticket prices have practically doubled since I began studying music and it’s in large part because the amount of contributions is dwindling. Musicians all over the country are taking significant pay cuts, their seasons are being shortened, and they are limited in the number of soloists they can perform with and the number of new works they can perform because of the costs. Even if you can’t contribute monetarily at least GO to the concerts and have a presence. Orchestras all over this country are falling into bankruptcy and dissolving because their donors are dying.

    As for soloists trying to embrace ‘pop culture’ it’s exactly for the reasons I just described. They are trying in vain to bring out a younger audience, to show that this is not some exclusive elitist world, and to keep the composers and musicians that their work depends on in business. I assume that you don’t know many classical musicians, conductors or composers or else you would understand the significance and necessity for multiple recordings of the same pieces. Just like you learned from a book, this is how we learn. It is all about different interpretations, modifications and in some cases the inclusion of some newly discovered historical change that was lost for centuries. Recordings are also an invaluable source of revenue and exposure (think about that the next time you illegally download a classical recording) because so few people attend live performances. The cost of touring for an orchestra is exorbitant and only something the top tier orchestras can even think of doing so it’s unlikely that touring even brings in much profit to begin with. For soloists it is much more manageable and like any pop artist it’s how they have to make a living. Yes, I realize that in a lot of this I am coming across as a snob, but frankly so were you and my point is that if you want to encourage support for classical music and its continued presence in our world please SPEAK to a musician or someone involved in the classical world and take the time to educate yourself. We WANT to teach you, we want you to understand, we want you to know where we’re coming from, we desperately want to share our passion with you. The American approach to classical music and orchestras is SO vastly different from their treatment in Europe and I can only begin to hope that people will look into what is happening over there for guidance. Americans choose to place classical music in the ‘elitist’ category but the reality is you can buy tickets for a family of 4 to a symphonic performance for less than the cost of one ticket to an NFL game. You wouldn’t think twice about dropping $150 on a ticket to Gaga, but $15 for a student ticket to the symphony? No way. THAT is why soloists are going the route that they are, THAT is why they are trying to sell sex and entertainment over the quality of their musicality and talent. There are so many more reasons for why the classical music world is the way it is and if you want to address the lack of black solo instrumentalists, why don’t you take a head count of the number of women you see in an orchestra or better yet, conducting or composing. Some of what you had to say touches on some very relevant issues that many of us are dealing with, but there is so so SO much more to it than you see on the surface. The New York Times has some very illuminating articles on the closure of American symphonies and I urge you to read them and seek out someone currently working in the classical world. Thank you for taking the time to write about a subject that seems to be so important to so few of us, and for those of you that do care PLEASE speak out!

    • Rebecca

      Thank you for this! In total agreement. This is why I get student tickets to the symphony almost weekly, volunteer as a student ambassador for Carnegie Hall and the Met Opera, and want to work in performing arts administration someday… classical music, from J.S. Bach to Mahler to Terry Riley to Stockhausen, is tragically under-appreciated by most people under the age of 75… I think Alan Gilbert of the NY Phil and a few other conductors are doing a good job of  bringing in newer, “riskier” works as well as younger audiences. The problem is that these newer pieces alienate the older, more traditional audiences who,  as you pointed out, are the ones buying expensive seats and sending in donations. So it’s really a catch-22. But without new classical music being written, and without orchestras to perform this music, classical music will die out and ahhh, I could rant on for days about how tragic that would be.

      • Shosh

        Under 75? I’d definitely say the mean age at Disney Hall is more around 40… (and Gustavo Dudamel himself is barely 30)

    • Max

      Great, intelligent reply. From a fellow composer, musician, and former CArnegie Hall employee – this was definitely the needed reply.

    • Madison Moore

      Thanks for this insightful reply. I actually didn’t know much about the business end of orchestras—that orchestras pay “rent” to music publishers. That’s really fascinating stuff. And this whole thing about new music, that’s a good point, too. But as you also point out, blue hairs aren’t paying to see “new” music. And finally, where you’re dreadfully wrong is that not only am I a classically trained violinist, but I also studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the studio of a famous violin teacher. So while I don’t know a lot, I know some. 

    • Irakli


    • Sarah N. Knutson

      As someone who played for years and has a deep love of classical, I thoroughly appreciated your response to this article, especially about how Americans view patronizing symphonies vs. Lady Gaga. SO TRUE.

      However, I struggled with your first couple lines. Even if Madison hadn’t clarified about being a classically-trained violinist, the concept would still remain. The article gives the perspective of someone who is learning-not someone who already knows. To immediately claim that Madison sounded ignorant/arrogant is to miss the point. And it makes you sound like a hipster (“Yeah, I know about X and Y. You’ve probably never heard if them.”).

      If we used an informative approach for things/opinions like this rather than a judgmental one, world peace really could be achieved. And one of the bases of your argument wouldn’t’ve been removed when Madison clarified having a musical background because you assumed there wasn’t one.

  • NoSexCity

    This piece is great for a lot of reasons. I learned things, I Googled things, and now I want you to write a primer on classical music for kids so long out of school band they can barely spell Tchaik…. mhm. Yep.

  • peet

    my only critique of the article’s already been noted – a broader scope to encompass contributions by the more prominent american minimalist composers (i.e. philip glass, steve reich) and maybe some glenn branca to boot would show that modern “classical” isn’t so much stodgy as it is really experimental/outsider in some incarnations of it.

  • TuraLura

    If you’re bothered by the lack of black classical music performers (and you should be), you may be delighted to discover Joseph de Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was an Afro-French violin virtuoso and composer who was also a noted athlete and fencer- kind of an 18th century cross between Jimi Hendrix and Muhammad Ali. He was also extremely handsome, and was known in the French court as “the American” because he grew up in the Americas (specifically the West Indies).

    I studied and performed classical music seriously from the age of 6 until I graduated high school. I was a student at the High School of Performing Arts here in NYC, and concertmaster of the All-City High School Orchestra for 2 seasons. I worked with dozens of talented black musicians throughout those years, and no one ever clued them in that they weren’t a modern day anomaly. It pisses me off to think of it to this day; it would have been tremendously inspiring for all of us to have studied this remarkable and brilliant artist.

    • Madison Moore

      Hey, thanks for this reply. I know allllllllll about the Chevalier de St George, and in my research I have found tons of other afro-carribean/latin virtuosi. it’s actually something i’m particularly interested in. most people don’t know that beethoven’s 9th sonata, the kreutzer, was originally dedicated to this black violin virtuoso named george bridgetower, who was celebrated in all the press of the day as a peculiar, magical virtuoso. beethoven was so taken by bridgetower that he invited him to perform his then untitled 9th sonata, and dude sight read that shit live, on the spot, right at the concert. beethoven was so excited that he dedicated the piece to bridgetower, a “wild” “mullato” composer.  but then, bridgetower went after some chick that beethoven was interested in and shit got fucked up—beethoven trashed the dedication, and named the piece instead for adolphe kreutzer, a famous french virtuoso of the day. the peculiar thing is that kreutzer never performed the sonata, saying it was completely unplayable—despite the fact that bridgetower already site read it on the spot. 

      then there is a famous competition—the sphinx competition—for black and latino string players that occurs every year. winner gets a huge prize, an instrument, and a sea of bookings with leading orchestras. but tell me the day when a black/latin violinist places high in the queen elizabeth violin competition, or say the international indianapolis competition and i will be SHOCKED. 

      • TuraLura

        You are so right about the “Kreutzer”, and again, no one in any music history class ever pointed these things out to students who would have been so happy to have known about these amazing composers and players!

        And you are also so very right about competitions. Despite the fact that I met dozens of highly talented “minority” players during my classical career, I found that world to be one of the least inclusive, to its own detriment. Obviously things haven’t improved much since the 80s. 

  • Anonymous
  • N.

    Over the course of my twenties, I slowly discovered classical music, whether Baroque era composers such as Bach, or 19th and 0th Century composers such as Eller, Mahler and Prokofiev, to be every bit as much an antidote to the dreck of mainstream contemporary music as the independent folk music at sites such as and infinitely more brave and exciting than any of it. I think the key for people of any age to truly connect with this music is to be aware that it is there and to be given the opportunity to connect with it on their own terms. The classical world, as much as it does seem that it wants to be ‘cool’, has an ages old reputation for close-mindedness and a strict code of conduct. To use some recent examples, the notion that the Apollon Musagete quartet should be the subject of controversy for performing their own original compositions and that Deutsche Grammaphon should be chided for inviting a pop artist such as Tori Amos (who barely qualifies as a pop artist to begin with) to compose a song cycle for their label (if we’re talking bad artwork, Night of Hunters is a stunning example) says a great deal about how open the doors are to the ‘Regular Joes’ of the world. The fact that Amos’ song cycle broke records on the Billboard charts and garnered the best reviews of anything she’s done in years says that much more. I firmly believe the interest is there, it’s just a matter of openness and exposure.

  • Literatureclass1

    Don’t care for classical music, but Wynton Marsalis comes to mind as a famous African American who plays a lot of classical music, including a lot of very famous performances and you-tubable ones.

  • viola6

    I’m a student at one of the world’s top conservatories, and I have two main points to make in response to this post:

    1.)  As someone who will readily admit to enjoying a variety of “popular” music, I listen to this sort of music because I appreciate the lyrics as poetry or because I want to aurally consume “ear candy.”  I have an aunt who is probably one of the most brilliant businesswomen in America, but she reads celebrity tabloids when she’s tired and doesn’t want to tax her mind any further.  This is what listening to pop music feels like for me: it may be pleasant and entertaining, but I rarely find it to be intellectually or personally enriching.  
    This can be explained by the blatantly repetitive nature of popular music.  If you analyze popular music from the 1920s to the present, you will find that an overwhelming majority of these songs are constructed all from the same few simplistic chord progressions.  While there are certainly parallel patterns in classical music, the music is so inherently complex due to the greater variety of harmonic language, as well as longer, more well-developed melodic and thematic material.

    I do not deny the repetition of repertoire that classical performers choose.  But think about it this way: it is our goal as performers to create something new and special every time we play a piece, regardless of how old it is or how many times it’s been recorded.2.)  Classical musicians of my generation are forced to fight the uphill battle of trying to make “old” music fresh and accessible to a “new” audience.   Objectively speaking, I and many of my peers are young, attractive, talented, and intelligent.  We love this “old” music so ardently that some of us are willing to do just about anything to keep it on the public’s radar.  So yes, some performs resort to promoting their sexuality over their musicianship.  Although this is obviously a debatable technique, it’s impossible to deny  its efficacy.  The sensual covers of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Julia Fischer have got you talking, haven’t they?  They’ve got people thinking about and discussing classical music.  This thought and discussion is inarguably helping to keep classical music alive.

  • Daren Sirbough

    Wow great video

  • Shosh

    People still compose classical music. There’s still new stuff. Sure, a lot of it’s crap because Schöenberg ruined everything, but there is definitely new stuff out there. Composers exist. Film scores are technically in the same genre. It’s not really everyone’s thing. And honestly, I’d say there are so many white people in orchestras because there are more uptight white parents forcing their kids to start playing some kind of viol at age 4, which isn’t a good thing. Those kids end up rarely smiling.

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