Too Elitist or Not Enough?

I spend a good deal of time dreaming up bold and unconventional success solutions for the arts. While these proposals typically receive serious consideration from some corners, there are others who emotionally shoot them down immediately without any rational thought whatsoever. It seems the closer someone is to a position, the more threatening a fresh alternative can feel. Even if the current model is clearly not working.

All too aware of this human tendency, I pride myself on considering the merits of any and every proposal. Even if my gut reaction is “NO!” Especially when that’s the case.

And so it was last week, while witnessing a keynote presentation by Brittish novelist and music critic Norman Lebrecht at the Dutch Classical Music Meeting. Author of Who Killed Classical Music? Lebrecht is renowned for thoughtful but provocative, controversial viewpoints.

In a talk entitled Reframing the Classical Music Experience, Lebrecht declared that one word that has been taboo for decades in the classical music world. We shy away from it at all costs. But as organizations look for new solutions that enable vibrancy and sustainability, we no longer need to fear this concept. In fact, we should embrace it:

E – L – I – T – I – S – M

Why shouldn’t we be elitist, he asked? Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.

I cringed. Designing more accessible classical music experiences was core to the “Artistry and Relevance” chapter in my book The Savvy Musician. My message is one of adamant anti-elitism. Or better yet, resolute pro-people-ism.

Is Lebrecht completely wacky, I wondered? Or is my violent resistance simply caused by a closed mind, too attached to personal viewpoints to imagine new possibility? Could becoming more elitist actually help classical music?

Forcing myself to stay open and logical, I pondered whether a valuable lesson could be gleaned from his shocking contention. And after a week of working through this puzzle, here is my epiphany-in-progress.

Elite Access

Without a doubt, there are times where feeling elite motivates. For example, I fly a lot, and cherish my status. Elite Access. That’s what the airline calls it. Going in a special line, getting bumped to first class, raking in miles faster than the other guys. It just feels special, and encourages loyalty. As bizarre as it may sound to a non-frequent flyer, elite status helps define a part of my identity. “I am an elite world traveler.” Spectacular!

Lebrecht suggests that the classical music experience become more selective. More tuxedo…More long pieces…More expensive tickets…Would adopting that paradigm help build loyalty and, in turn, revenue?  


Maybe the problem is that classical musicians today are too much in the middle.

“Anti-elitist” proponents make their concerts more friendly by featuring unusual venues, introducing pieces verbally, permitting the audience to clap between movements, and substituting business casual for wedding formal. But from an event perspective, these shows still pale in comparison to their popular music counterparts. The audiences still listen politely. Performers still hide behind music stands, sit respectfully center stage, and disappear during intermission. There are no light shows, mosh pits, dance competitions, Lady Gaga outfits, or sing-alongs. Such experiences may be profound, but not particularly populist.

On the other hand, consider more “serious” events such as traditional orchestra concerts. The hall is still breathtaking. The pieces are still long and glorious. The musicians still look as serious as brain surgeons. But these otherwise high society events are made slightly more accessible by the availability of cheaper tickets, pre-concert lectures (lectures?), and a conductor who shares some words from the stage. Slightly more approachable for the uninitiated, but also less exclusive.

Splitting the Difference

One gargantuan challenge for most classical organizations is expanding their fan base. The current audience consists primarily of seniors accustomed to time-tested conventions. But they hope to attract younger folks as well, who have different expectations about what a concert experience should deliver. So, in an attempt to be all things to all people, ensembles design some type of middleground that isn’t particularly elitist or populist. Said another way: In an age where many people seek extreme, niche experiences, these groups split the difference.

Two Classical Musics

Maybe we need two classical musics. Classical-A is exclusive, hardly available to the masses. For Elite Access, you must pony up, dress up, and pay up. Anyone who learns this club’s secret handshake is far above average. They are exceptional human beings with exceptional taste.

Classical-B provides hip, fun, interactive entertainment presented in user-friendly formats. The only audience these events discriminate against are ultra-snobby stuffed shirts, who eat caviar while wearing a monocle on their yacht. Of course, Classical-B still features extraordinary virtuosity, beauty, and many other unique dimensions its creators can access. But this is first and foremost an art of the people.

Cages & Rainbows

Norman Lebrecht may have rattled my cage, suggesting that expanded elitism might be good for classical music. It’s doubtful I’ll be joining that camp anytime soon. I’m too busy fighting for new audiences. For the opportunity to touch many more lives, not fewer.

But perhaps there’s a pot of gold on both ends of this rainbow.  The trick is committing to one side.

What do you think?


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  • Rick Robinson

    I just saw this David. Congratulations for conquering your ego to examine this extremity for its gold! If the universe has a balance then theoretically elitism should “pay off” just as well as populism. At least financially an artist could make as much with one rich patron than with a thousand loyal but poor fans. Alas I have been a member of the elite group as a major orchestra member. But I have been compensating for my guilt by doing volunteer work for “the rest of us” with CutTime and now Classical Revolution Detroit. I’m leaving that orchestra to bring the two together and I really appreciate your website, observations, articulations and sense of balance. I just need to check here more often!
    We must admit that there is a market for elitism. As artists we were encouraged to be uncompromising. Having made it on the principal, I feel for those we left behind, who deserve as much beauty and meaning as I can give (create or recreate). Giving such meaning is often simply a matter of explaining a musician’s perspective in emotional, layman’s terms rather than in historical facts or artistic gobbledygook. Touching the lives of those who avoid classical music has become my art.
    Here’s an interesting website on populism. http://www.popmatters.com/

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  • David,
    What an intriguing post.  I have to admit that at first I didn’t want to even read it simply because of that one word – “elitist.” But I’m glad that I went back and really read it because you bring up some really interesting points.  

    For me finding a place that feels comfortable and that pushes my passion button is tricky.  Part of what got me into music in the first place was the atmosphere in the concert hall, the fancy clothes & how they make people look so good, the applause, the sense of intellectualism.  So it’s hard for me to not still be pulled in by those things.  But ever since college, I’ve questioned how much those things still motivate me.  After some thought,  I don’t think they do. I love audiences, I love people, I love musical colleagues, I love communicating.  You can get those things in the more elitist world of classical music but in my experience it doesn’t happen as often.  So I’ve started to wander into different territory and I have to say I’m so much happier and I enjoy performing much more.  I finally feel like I have a purpose with my music that doesn’t involve proving myself.  

    In summary, I agree with you that both end of the rainbow seem to work, but perhaps with different results.  There may be gold at both ends but I think I’ll take mine from the end where it’s not quite so intimidating.  

    Thank you again for the post.

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  • Rob Pittman

    A provocative and interesting article. I will just note that this is not necessarily a worldwide solution, or even a worldwide problem. 

    I vividly remember the spring of 2007 which I spent in Austria. I witnessed a performance of Bruckner’s obnoxiously long, but glorious Third Symphony, performed by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Roger Norrington. The performance took place in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, on an unseasonably hot mid-May evening. 

    The hall was packed. Not with subscription tickets, and it wasn’t sold out ahead of time. I bought my ticket that morning. This says to me that a fair chunk of the audience members asked themselves “What’s going on tonight?” and chose to go see a classical music concert. As for demographics, there were families with children, university students, other musicians, blue-collar types, and silver-spoon folk. 

    It was about 28 degrees celsius outside, or about 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the old hall, it felt like a sauna. There were some wearing ball-gowns and tails, while others were in shorts and t-shirts. After the second movement, Maestro Norrington, bathed in sweat, took a moment to joke with the people sitting in the first several rows of the audience about the heat while catching a breather (and allowing one for his stellar orchestra). 

    The performance was fantastic, with all the emotional scope one would expect from the music of Bruckner, and from one of Germany’s best orchestras. The cognoscenti in the crowd appreciated the rendering for it’s technical and interpretive strengths, while the young students sitting next to me seemed to be pushed back in their seats through the sheer force of the sound, like on a flight taking off. 

    In short, the experience was neither elitist nor base. Or perhaps it was both? In any case, there was a house fully appreciative of what they experienced, which was a phenomenal rendering of a piece that’s very difficult to digest, and even harder to understand. Maybe this is a result of a much more developed musical culture in Vienna than in other places (especially North America) where classical music is both a “special event” and an everyday occurrence. 

    I’m not a researcher, writer (clearly) or critic. I don’t know the numbers on concert attendance demographics. I’m a musician trying to synthesize my experiences as an audience member. I truly wish North American audiences understood music better; sometimes performing Mahler feels like speaking German to a room full of Chinese speakers. But I know that the concert-going experience is not the same the world over, and that it is possible for classical music to retain a certain level of decorum and intellectualism while also being comprehensible to the classical music initiate.


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