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Lionel Basney

Who Killed Classical Music?

And can marketing magic bring it back to life?

Who Killed Classical Music?
Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics

by Norman Lebrecht
Birch Lane Press, 1997
448 pp.; $24.95

The orchestra's work week begins with an educational concert in a suburban elementary school. The 27 players of the orchestra "core"—full-time, contracted musicians—wait at their stands for the children to arrive. Violins chitter at scales; horns peck at their adenoidal high notes. At the other end of the long multipurpose room, behind a folding partition, early lunch is beginning; there is an indistinct hubbub of talk and the odor of gravy.

The children file in, whispering, curious, well-behaved. The "concert" is really a lecture-demonstration, with the orchestra's young, female associate conductor giving the lecture. She has the children identify a viola and an oboe. She leads them in clapping exercises. "What does this kind of music remind you of?" she asks, wheeling toward the players.

At Mozart's Figarooverture, that shameless invitation to monkey business, the children grin at each other, bounce, crane in their seats, as if the music had switched them on. At the theme from Beverly Hills 90210 the applause begins before the music ends. At "On the Beautiful Blue Danube," written by Johann Strauss the Younger for the Vienna dancehall in 1867, the air is suddenly full of half-suppressed giggles. The children know this music, probably from Cartoon Express.

Some players grin back at the excitement, but for most of the period they seem detached and a little restless, leaving the occasion to the conductor. Such concerts are not what their conservatory educations prepared them for. They may or may not have anticipated that they would have to find and colonize a space in American culture as the condition of professional survival.

The American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) estimates that there are 1,600 orchestras in the United States, and yet for many of them—the ones between college ensembles and the Gibraltars of New York and ...

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