Can crossover save classical?

Jill Scott performs with Robert Glasper on piano and the orchestra at the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert last Sunday. The concert was great; attendance, not so much.
Jill Scott performs with Robert Glasper on piano and the orchestra at the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert last Sunday. The concert was great; attendance, not so much. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 03, 2014

This evening about 6:30 in East Rutherford, N.J., a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera will join the NFL. Televised to more than 100 million listeners, she will sail "The Star-Spangled Banner" aloft with operatic vibrato, and by Monday morning all of America will be so stirred by her voice that apps will collapse under the strain of the sudden demand for Verdi and Wagner.

Scratch that. Authorities have charged a pair of New Jersey Metallica fans with organizing a massive classical-music ticket-scalping scheme after hearing pianist Lang Lang rocking out with the heavy metal band on last Sunday's Grammy broadcast.

Some aspects of these two fantasies are actually true. Renée Fleming has been signed to sing at the 2014 Super Bowl - an operatic first, according to the NFL. And Lang Lang did play an extensive, and not completely uninteresting, solo with Metallica at this year's Grammy Awards. But don't hold your breath for the rest. While crossover may be an easy sell for some artists, audiences are proving more recalcitrant.

What's in it for all these strange bedfellows?

Fleming's presence may soften the image of the NFL, badly bruised by an emerging consensus that the sport's violence has long-term neurological consequences for those who play it.

What Fleming hopes for is hard to say; her handlers said she was unavailable to comment. The rapper French Montana probably was not speaking for the entire genre when, asked about the choice of Fleming, he responded with three words, two of them profane. Metallica perhaps hopes to mark its passage into classic status by aligning itself with an enduring artform.

What classical music aims for, however, with such pop entanglements is a more slippery proposition. Borrowing cool and going young, it hopes to entice new listeners. Yet there is little to no evidence that that has ever happened, and, given a cultural marketplace that encourages customers to exist in silos, the odds of this strategy succeeding would seem to have further dwindled. U.S. cultural interests are less homogenous and more stratified than ever. Why can't classical simply accept its small market share and continue to do what it does best?

Because it can't go on as it has. Orchestras and opera companies are labor-intensive and expensive. As a business model, the system works only if large blocks of supporters from a similar cultural-identity pool assemble resources as donors and ticket buyers. It's clear that this long-extant generation - the Great American Culture Consumer - got that way from two factors: As children and grandchildren of European immigrants, they heard European music at home, and the primacy of this culture was reinforced by a highly developed system of arts education in schools that made it impossible to grow up without having had the chance to play an instrument or join a choir. This is no longer the case.

So the institutions created by these generations find themselves playing in a different system - the Great American Entertainment Industry - in an effort to recapture market share. But cultural nonprofit groups don't have Disney marketing budgets, and the chances that crossover will win classical converts from pop culture seem extremely slim.

Actually, getting young people and new listeners to buy their first ticket isn't a problem. Getting them to come again is the hurdle, suggesting that it's not really a marketing problem. This brings classical to the uncomfortable conclusion that the problem is content, the thing onstage. So the question is to what extent can artists and repertoire change what they do while remaining who they are. Does classical need to destroy itself to survive?

All these questions were rattling around amid the hundreds of empty seats at the Jan. 25 Academy of Music 157th Anniversary Concert as the audience waited for Jill Scott to appear. This was the first Academy Anniversary concert I could think of in my two decades of attending whose program contained not a single straight classical piece. Surprisingly few of the white-tie-and-gown attendees I spoke to had a clear idea of who Scott is - she is much younger than the James Taylors and Stings of previous anniversary concerts - and in the family circle where I sat, the scarcity of casual dress revealed just how few had come just for the music, rather than the costlier concert (plus ball).

After Scott started her first tune, "Summertime," those empty seats seemed more and more like a crime. Priced at $200 or $250, concert-only tickets were either out of reach for her younger fan base or not marketed in a focused way. Attendance was 1,261 in a hall that seats 2,900.

Lang Lang with Metallica may have made for a debatable artistic pairing, but there was absolutely nothing dubious about Jill Scott with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In songs that utilized the orchestra and her voice as equals, this was a blend made in lush heaven. Her timbre - flexible, lithe - embraced those of the ensemble. She has in her instrument muted trumpet, rich cello, a bright clarinet. Her ability to spontaneously tap any sound to turn a corner in a phrase or put light behind a lyric communicated on a level every bit as sophisticated as Schubert. It was a great artistic moment for the orchestra. And Scott packed a quiet charisma both seductive and self-effacing.

"That's the orchestra behind me," she stage-whispered to her audience.

Does it also point a way forward for classical? I don't believe anyone who loved Scott as much as I did left the Academy burning with curiosity about the rest of the orchestra's season. It just doesn't work that way. Audiences now expect micro-catering to their interests, and the world is filled with entertainment happy to oblige.

And since it seems extremely unlikely that we'll be returning to an era in which four-hand reductions of Beethoven symphonies are a common form of in-home entertainment, the future demands that institutions stratify content to a much greater extent than they have. There is still an audience for core classical repertoire, but there is also one for pops, another for movie scores, still another for a series with Broadway singers and, to the extent possible without eclipsing the orchestra, pop singers.

Imagine the appeal that a Jill Scott recording with this orchestra might have - artistic integrity, and popular appeal. Does the orchestra have the institutional vision and will to make these kinds of projects happen?

Crossover can be part of a solution. But the potential of core classical to make deep connections is undiminished. There will be no shortcuts to alleviating the supply-demand imbalance it is currently experiencing. Only the hard work of restoring music education to our children's schools and lives can restore audiences.

But that doesn't mean classical shouldn't be pulling in new fans where it can with artistically important projects. Renée Fleming's full-throated national anthem promises to dissipate among a hundred million listeners waiting for the main event. Jill Scott, on the other hand, whispered and lilted a message to 1,200 cultural leaders last weekend that, if heard as the clarion call that it is, could end up carrying farther and longer.


pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

www.inquirer.com/artswatch

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