Gregory Sandow: Music critic, Consultant, & composer


Not too long ago, I interviewed Greg Sandow--a complete guru on the future of classical music. His blog speaks to much of what I feel lacks in the classical music world, and he has decades of music criticism and journalism to back up his opinion (link to his blog attached at the bottom of the page).

A composer, music critic and consultant, Greg Sandow, teaches at Juilliard, where he's a member of the Graduate Studies Faculty. He holds a Masters in Composition from Yale, has successfully composed and performed (though not all at the same time) four operas, and frequently guest lectures at music conservatories. With decades of classical music criticism behind him, he seems to be one of the few individuals who can criticize the current state of classical music with authority.


LS: What direction do you see classical music taking in the next twenty years with respect to the Symphony as a sustainable artistic and financial model? What direction should it be taking?

GS: The problem classical music has, first and foremost is that it has lost contact with contemporary culture. Classical music lovers, love music with all their hearts; but what they love is Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. What’s not clear is whether an institution that plays this repertoire over and over again is viable anymore. It doesn’t speak to the contemporary world. I’m not saying symphony orchestras would never play that repertoire, but if you look at theater companies, they still perform Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill but do far more work by new playwrights than classical music does by new composers.

To me, classical music will have to change its response dramatically, so that if you went to a symphony concert in the future (should such things still exist) you’d walk into the hall and you wouldn’t feel like you’ve entered this protected preserve. People who come into the hall to hear symphonic music for the first time so often have this feeling--“This is beautiful, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here. And I don’t know this means. What am I supposed to wear and when am I supposed to clap?”

In reaction to this, we now have an explosion of change. In London, for instance there is The Age of Enlightenment, one of the world’s’ most foremost period instrument groups. Ten years ago they started rebranding themselves as The Knight Shift, to do late night performances in clubs and in concert halls. They have built an enthusiastic following of concertgoers and younger players and still play standard repertoire but play it with amazing enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, however, is not the first thing you think of when you walk into the concert hall and see a symphony orchestra come on stage.  

LS: Do you think big orchestras like NY Phil are sustainable? Will big orchestras become smaller?

GS: I think the small regional orchestras are in a better position oddly enough because they don’t do as much. If they’re a part time orchestra and doing six concerts, they can go down to five. If the New York Philharmonic is salaried, but were to go down from fifty-two weeks to forty-eight weeks of salary, now you have violation of contract, and if you try to negotiate another contract you’re going to see what happened with Atlanta and Minnesota. That’s going to be ugly. If you decided instead of doing twenty-six subscription weekends, you only do twenty, well, what do you do with some of your subscribers who go to the concerts you’re cutting? What do you do with the income you would have made? You still have the same expenses, you still have to pay the musicians as much, you still have to maintain your staff and rent out the concert hall etc. But I don’t really see how what they do is sustainable. There are various stats about orchestras from 1994-2014. The orchestras at the League of American Orchestras don’t want the full picture to be known. I’ve known people who have run major orchestras, and have said “the public must never be told the situation,” because they’re afraid that people won’t give money. There’s been a large long term drop in ticket sales to the core classical concerts. Over the decades, orchestras have evolved the model where they do a lot of non-classical concerts. Maybe they put in pop stars, or do one-off concerts of Video Games Live! which requires only one rehearsal, and then they get a full house. Or they do endless holiday music concerts. But when you hear orchestras say they have record music sales, those are record sales in a new environment where a lot of those ticket sales are not strictly from classical concerts. What I gleaned from the League's report was that orchestras will continue their work in the community and efforts to fundraise but as time goes on, will include fewer classical concerts. Either they become a totally different kind of institution, or they can’t keep it up anymore, because their core mission is not sustainable.

LS: Is the problem the core mission statement of orchestras then?

GS: I think that the current model is going to be very problematic for the big orchestras, because they see themselves as international big institutions and expect to go to the Salzburg festival and play. Certainly, if the New York Philharmonic were to feature only artists known in New York, they would not maintain playing in Salzburg.

LS: If people are not paying for their entertainment anymore, then where are they redirecting their media consumption?

GS: Orchestras are certainly interested in streaming, but the big orchestras are severely restricted because of their union contracts. At one point, the union contract specified such high costs for recording, that no American orchestra could record. That was painfully negotiated with the unions so that now recordings are possible. But now the same thing is happening with streaming. So, the Berlin Philharmonic has its famous Digital Concert Hall, where you can subscribe to video streams of their concerts. But how many orchestras can compete in that space, especially with the with Berlin Philharmonic?  Maybe they could locally. They’re going to have to work that out and the income will never really be what the income is from live performance. It’s kind of a new world, and I don’t think they’ve figured that out at all.

LS: What is the biggest hope for classical music as a field?

GS: Generation change is probably one of the biggest hopes for classical music as a field. Although for me the overall problem is the financial model.  I don’t think a financial model exists for the future, of the kind that would allow as many people to make a living as do now. For composers, writing grants, getting commissions, teaching at universities. For many musicians, private teaching, teaching in universities, playing in orchestras etc-- I just don’t see how a model exists for how musicians are going to make a living twenty years from now. Especially if the mainstream orchestra continues to fade. In D.C, we’re seeing half filled concert halls for orchestra concerts even when the Concertgebouw comes to town.

LS: So then, what skills should the 21st musician be honing in on?

GS: Well, for me, I would say the first thing to do is go into your heart, and think about what you love about music and what you would like to do. And yes, entrepreneurship, is very important, and an important distinction which I owe to Jeffrey Nytch. He points out in his blog that entrepreneurship is not the same thing as business skills. But real entrepreneurship is thinking about something that no one ever did before, and making it work. So, I think that if you are a classical musician you should think, “What do I want to do, what’s my dream, what kind of music do I want to play?” And then see if you can find a way to make it work. And you should not censor yourself.

LS: How would you encourage artists to not censor themselves?

GS: The kind of censorship I think people might do sounds something like this. "You know I would really like to play new music, but there's not an audience for that, so I can't do it." And then I would say, "Who says there's not an audience?” There's not the standard classical audience for it. But I think that's a trap composers fall into. They define themselves in the classical music world, and say, "Oh we're too advanced, for that audience. We're doing something cutting edge,” when in fact they're just repeating the same compositional things that have been around for decades. That's not to say there aren't some people doing genuinely new stuff. But they're not really defining the future, or extending the art form. And they're also talking to the wrong people--people who don't like them. An audience of millennials is perfectly open to new classical music and I've seen it happen. So, if you want to do new music, you have to figure that if you like it, there must be other people who like it. Then you need to figure out who they are and how to reach them. Ultimately, you’ll find out how many there are and whether your idea is sustainable. You may be doing the weirdest stuff in the world and only twenty people will like it. We need to be doing what we really believe in, and some of us will get cult followings if what we do is really weird.

If you'd like to learn or read more about Gregory Sandow, check out his blog here:

Lydia SewellComment