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Take listeners up, not orchestras down

THE LOS ANGELES Philharmonic's recent performance of music from the "Final Fantasy" video games brings into sharp relief one of the crucial problems confronting classical music institutions nationwide: the absence of listeners not yet enrolled in AARP.

It's not just anecdotal evidence: Statistics show that the age of classical music audiences is getting ever higher (a 2003 National Endowment for the Arts study found that classical concertgoers are, on average, the oldest of all groups attending serious cultural events), while the classical share of the record market and of shelf space at record stores keeps shrinking.

As one of today's dwindling number of 26-year-old classical fans, I have seen the problem firsthand. Not long ago, for instance, a New York Philharmonic concertgoer had to be wheeled out on a stretcher during, fittingly enough, Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius," a choral work that chronicles the journey of a dying man into the afterlife.

Los Angeles's experience with the "Final Fantasy" soundtrack demonstrates the complexities of bringing those less likely to need medical attention into the concert hall. Although the performance proved wildly popular, selling out in one day, questions were raised about the aesthetic merit of the music and the advisability of putting the orchestra to such a use. The New York Times quoted one orchestra member who compared the composition by Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu to Muzak, calling it "really, really cheesy."

Although the concert wasn't on the LA Phil's official schedule (the orchestra had been rented for the night), it still looked liked a loss leader for symphony orchestra concerts. And as "outreach," it smacked of a widespread perception that classical music is too elitist, too out of step with today's populist and informal times, to pack in young people.

Classical music has never been, nor should it be, a mass culture staple, but that doesn't mean its audience has to be doddering. High art has always been created to be enjoyed by those who are educated to -- or who educate themselves to -- appreciate it. (Beethoven may have been a well-known composer in the 19th century, but the "popular" music of the time still consisted of folk songs, military band tunes, and hymns.)

The fact is that today the young, educated, and sophisticated listeners who 40 years ago would have paid attention to classical music, have turned to fashionable genres like indie rock. They even practice the connoisseurial behavior -- seeking out obscure artists, reveling in the cachet of cult knowledge -- that "highbrow" listeners apply to classical music.

In fact, pop culture aficionados can be just as snobbish as any classical music fan ever was. Consider the band Radiohead, whose angsty and ornate music is accompanied by a solemn pretentiousness far surpassing many a classical ensemble. Radiohead is one of the most revered bands of the very hip. So, no, those in thrall to the Strokes or Interpol are not being kept away from orchestral concerts by a whiff of elitism. It is only the content of the music -- the aesthetics -- that differs.

Which brings up an inflammatory and un-PC question: Is one genre of art superior to another? I have no grudge against contemporary popular music (with the possible exception of Radiohead). It's ephemerally and ironically fun at its best. But classical music at its best offers works that are dense with meaning, hard to grasp immediately, and therefore more interesting for a longer time.

So if the classical music establishment wants to lure young listeners, the real task is to reassert the absolute value of the Western art music tradition. In other words, classical music leaders must challenge today's entrenched post-counterculture relativism that sees a Schubert symphony as the equivalent of the latest White Stripes album.

Such a crusade seems unpalatable to many in the current generation of orchestra boards, administrators, and conductors, who don't make a noisy, impassioned public case for their music against the merely popular. Meekly acquiescing to the prevailing premise that Dashboard Confessional or Sleater-Kinney are of the same caliber as Mahler or Mozart, today's classical music leadership has largely abdicated its responsibility for self-advocacy.

Maybe the classical music establishment has something to learn from a violent video game like "Final Fantasy": If orchestras want to maintain their standing in the cultural sphere, they'll have to fight for it.

John V. Bennett, who works for a consulting business in New York City, wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times. 

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