Marketing Classical Music - Is the Music Enough?

Gidon Kremer wrote a letter to the Verbier Festival withdrawing from the performance: "Gidon Kremer: why I quit the celebrity rat race"

There are some important elements in the letter I'd like to point out. The letter is overall a comment on the sensationalism of the current classical music culture, the need of stars to draw crowds, and Kremer's desire to no longer be part of that culture. After stating he is withdrawing from the festival, in the second paragraph he says, "I can only imagine how disappointed you will be." That one line speaks volumes. It has an arrogance that implies he feels he is so important his appearance (or lack of) will be damaging to the festival. Looking at the list of performers at the Verbier Festival Kremer is hardly the star attraction --rather one of many.

In Jessica Duchan's article about Kremer's letter, "Kremer versus...?" she points to several young artists which are exceptional performers --perhaps some of the very ones who Kremer feels provide an air "filled by sensationalism and distorted values." Maybe there is some showmanship in their performances, but don't let that take away from the music.

While I understand his reasoning, rage against the machine, classical music festivals, orchestras and artists are struggling in today's market driven, media centric environment. Too often I've spoken with musicians who feel the music should be enough to get a crowd --"If we play, they will come."

Yes, it's frustrating to think this beautiful music isn't enough to draw thousands of supporters, fill concert halls and festival stands for every event. But thinking the music is enough simply isn't true.

Music is a performance and there is more to the performance than just the music. A great musician must be more than just technically accurate. One of the reasons Hilary Hahn gets such rave reviews is because not only is she able to perform all the notes with technical accuracy, but there is a passion in her performance. The same goes for Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell, Julia Fischer, Nicola Benedetti ... the list continues. Great violinists who understand performance is more than just music. Bryn Terfel is a world class Baritone and appearing at the festival. Is his "stardom" merely flash? I think not!

I've written several articles on this blog about the use of sex-appeal in selling classical music. Do I agree with the concept? Hard question. On one point, no - the appearance of an artist doesn't have anything to do with how well they play. However, if it gets people into seats who then become fans --is that a bad thing? If all it becomes is a sex show, or a carnival act then yes, we have lost something. But at some point classical music venues and ensembles have to reach out to an audience.

Classical music marketing departments shouldn't rely on flash to sell their product. If the musician isn't up for the performance, don't make more of him/her than their ability. However, if they are exceptional, then using any angle to draw an audience is worthwhile (in my book). Let's get audiences to see just how exceptional these artists are.


Chip Michael said…
I should also note Lear Auerbach, a Russian-American composer replied with her own letter here.
Eddie Louise said…
There is a kind of ridiculous idea that classical music performance should be 100% tied to the music. As if the printed page trumped the living breathing performer.

We would never accept this kind of attitude from an actor. What Shakespeare wrote was brilliant - but it takes an actor (with the accouterments of performance - costumes, make-up, lights, staging) to make those words truly live.

What are the accouterments of musical performance? Dress, stage presence, charisma, passion. The greats have always known this: JB Lully, Mozart, Paganini, Liszt.

This performer's letter reeks of sour grapes. Some people have a natural stage presence, some do not. But as the thousands of acting schools around the country attest - it is possible to learn the art of engaging an audience and of filling a stage with your personality. If it doesn't come naturally to you, get training.

The audience hasn't changed. Girls used to throw their knickers at Paganini, now they throw them at Joshua Bell - WHY? because he knows to combine the brilliance of the music with the magnetic power of personality in order to create a complete performance.

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