MUSIC

Roll over Chuck Berry, Beethoven is news

Paul McGrath September 13 1982
MUSIC

Roll over Chuck Berry, Beethoven is news

Paul McGrath September 13 1982

Roll over Chuck Berry, Beethoven is news

MUSIC

Paul McGrath

While the Toronto Symphony’s brass section blares out the fanfare this week to open the new Roy Thomson Hall, the other members of the orchestra will have a few spare moments to survey their first new home in 59 years. What they will see is a beautifully appointed $39-million concert hall—with almost that much money in jewelry on display in the front rows, at the largest celebratory gathering of Toronto’s corporate and government elite since the opening of Toronto’s new city hall 17 years ago. Then, conductor Andrew Davis will lead the entire ensemble into William Walton’s Belshazzar's Feast, and with luck all thoughts will turn to music.

It took 14 years of slogging for funds and four years of construction to produce this hatbox-shaped successor to the aged Massey Hall, the centre of the city’s musical culture since 1894. Named after the newspaper magnate whose family contributed $4.5 million to the project, the new 2,812-seat auditorium shines inside and out with an opulence definitely contrary to the general atmosphere of the 1980s. For classical music fans of all descriptions, Roy Thomson Hall is a symbol of prosperity in hard times. As audiences for more profitable arts enterprises shrink and private donations dry up, Canada’s large symphony orchestras are, with some surprise, watching a steady growth in interest in music that has been overshadowed by the mammoth pop music industry for the better part of two decades. At the record store the standard tale of recession woe is nowhere to be heard; sales increase as classical superstars reach out to grab a previously uncommitted public. Also, while Canadians are buying tickets and recordings at an unprecedented rate, they are taking time to get involved in the continuing growth of the country’s amateur and small semiprofessional orchestras, which are born, scratchy and enthusiastic, to the tune of two a year.

Part of the reason for the ground swell of interest is that the young are beginning to go for heavy Mahler over heavy metal. In the ’70s, under-30s reared on rock were shoved at least halfway toward classical by the increasing complexity and ornateness of rock music styles. What started as innocent orchestral accompaniment to Beatles’ tunes in the mid-’60s grew to excessive mock classicism in such groups as

Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. And fans of those bands were wooed to an understanding of multitiered music. As mainstream rock continues to retreat into cliché, younger people are looking for new background music to their lives. When the baby boom approaches anything, that business’ fortunes rise.

Although serious demographic work has not been done, most of those who make their living from classical music are willing to say that an increase in the number of interested young people has boosted statistics on all fronts. Costa Pilavachi, director of music at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, says he sometimes has occasion to feel old: “I go to some concerts, especially chamber music and baroque, and the place is filled

with people in jeans, not at all the standard classical crowd. I’m 31 and I feel like the oldest person there. The baroque audience is much more of an Earth-shoes-and-granola thing. It looks like a folk crowd.”

The phenomenon of growth is perhaps most evident in those large orchestras whose financial problems could have killed them at any time in the past five years. Even those of Canada’s large orchestras facing huge deficits say their audiences are growing at an unexpected rate. The Montreal Symphony has been revived under the flashy brilliance of Charles Dutoit, a man people come to watch and whose recording contract with London-Decca is the envy of other conductors across the country The Toronto Symphony has watched its au-

dience rise a steady 10 to 15 per cent during the past four years and expects to operate at close to 100-per-cent capacity in the first season in Roy Thomson Hall. The Winnipeg and Calgary symphonies report figures similar to Toronto’s, and the Vancouver Symphony is coasting into another season with what is reputed to be the largest subscription audience in the world. But the Atlantic Symphony has probably the most enviable record of them all. Under conductor Victor Yampolsky, the ASO saw a staggering 116-per-cent rise in its audience last year. Yet it, too, faces a deficit, primarily because corporate and private donations have dwindled during the recession.

Trade is more than brisk at the retail end of the business, with no such deficits to offset.

While sales of popular records have fallen to the point where large U.S. recording companies are laying off upper management, classical sales have grown to take up an increasing amount of the total volume of recording sales. Deborah MacCallum, classics manager for the nationwide A&A Records and Tapes store chain, says the increase has been 10 to 15 per cent each year for the past five years. She has been surprised at the success of music such as Ravel’s Bolero, given a new lease on life since the release of the movie 10, and of novelty items such as Hooked On Classics, a medley of classical tunes backed by a disco beat, which has brought people into the stores looking for the real thing. “Even 18 months ago nobody could have forecast that kind of interest in anything to do with classical music,” says MacCallum. “Five years ago we were on the fringe, not an important part of the business. Now classical recordings accbunt for about a quarter of our nationwide sales.”

The big sellers, the classical packages, such as Columbia’s Greatest Hits of 1720, and the crossover hits, such as opera singer Placido Domingo crooning John Denver tunes and flutist James Galway playing traditional melodies, are the items that keep the traffic brisk. Classical musicians have realized that

there is another more profitable world of listeners out there. “Every time there’s a big seller,” says Vas Pollakis, vice-president of PolyGram Records’ classical division, “the increase in traffic affects the entire range of classical music.” The buyers are attracted by crossover personalities such as tenor Luciano Pavarotti and end up moving toward the more serious parts of their repertoires. “There are all sorts of ways that people get into it,” says MacCallum, “and once they’re in, they become serious, committed buyers.”

Those who make the money from this healthy situation sit back contentedly because a risk has paid off; classical performers and administrators have learned to accept something that was once anathema: marketing. A classical fan is not born ready-made but has to be nurtured. That realization has changed the public image of classical music and musicians drastically over the past few years. “In the past, people involved in the music didn’t want to think about selling it,” says Betty Webster, director of the 70-member Association of Canadian Orchestras. “Now they have grown up in a way. They realize that they have to get out there, do whatever has to be done to expand the market.”

Marketing equates with some odd tactics and strange venues. On the Toronto waterfront, the Canadian Opera Company competes for attention with the horns of Great Lakes steamers to bring one-hour distillations of wellknown operas to the tourist crowd in the hopes of similar regular-season sales. According to COC publicity director Michael Howell, last year’s program attracted 2,000 people to the opera season and the lineups for the Harbourfront program this year suggest even better results. Playing outdoors in the summer is not the only gimmick. Last year the Calgary Philharmonic featured bluegrass music in orchestral arrangements to try to capture the urban cowboy market. This year the members of the Prince George Symphony will dress in period clothing, hire an actor to play Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, and play an evening of Strauss waltzes as a fund-raiser. In places such as Saskatoon, Sask., and Sherbrooke, Que., pops concerts that feature the lighter side of the classical idiom complement the regular seasons as artistic directors set their sights on the majority of Canadians who still look elsewhere for entertainment. The froth can often subsidize the more serious pursuits.

The Canadian Brass has learned that lesson well. Early on they earned all the critical nods they could desire for their superb classical ensemble playing, but what made them the highest-grossing classical act in the country was their leavening of the usual with the novel: ragtime, comedy, even a John Philip Sousa medley done to a disco rhythm track. They also reached out. Two years ago Seagram’s Distillers offered the Brass a $250,000 interest-free loan for “exposure”; they took it and ran. A continent-wide media blitz ensued, including appearances on the major U.S. talk shows and Sesame Street. The Brass now asks $10,000 to $25,000 for a night’s work. By the new year they will have waded into totally uncharted waters by releasing a 45-r.p.m. single.

If all this suggests certain parallels to the machinations of popular music, it is because smart classicists have learned much from pop promotion and have, in some cases, taken on the attributes of pop stardom through proximity to pop artists. Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman was not really a household word until he did his tricks on The Muppet Show. James Galway has put his flute to pop purposes and will further attract pop audiences when he enters the recording studio with Elton John for the English singer’s next album. In the mid-’50s, when Chuck Berry rudely asked Beethoven to roll over, he could be forgiven for thinking the competition was dead. Few would have thought old Ludwig would roll back again.