Our task is to form veritable talents who possess the necessary gifts to become masters, without attending to the ungifted mediocrity.

Liszt to Giovanni Sgambati

Cath a falling star system

25 February 2015

The most widely read and vitriolic music critic of our day is coming to visit Budapest at the invitation of the Liszt Academy so that he can share his latest research findings with a Hungarian audience. As an introduction, check out his essay entitled Catch a Falling Star System exclusively for Liszt Academy’s January-June 2015 edition of the concert magazine.

Norman Lebrecht exkluzív előadása

Norman Lebrecht

In the heat of last summer, a violinist  felt a pain in her upper arm. She went  to see a physician, who prescribed rest  for at least six weeks. The diagnosis,  communicated by her agent to musical  organisations, triggered something  akin to mass panic. Across musical  America, season-opening brochures  had to be reprinted and patrons  informed. Orchestra managers hit  their touch screens trying to dream  up a non-existent replacement,  fundraisers hit the phones to  reassure key donors. 

The star system, a mechanism devised to add glamour to bulk subscriptions,  had spectacularly failed. In the second decade of a celebrity-fixated century,  only three violinists had succeeded in crossing the threshold of name  recognition. The fame game had shrunk itself to size zero. Almost all the  cherries had gone from the concert cake. In an era of anxiety and decline,  with a greying audience and artists booked three years in advance, classical  music found itself totally dependent on a tiny pool of proven attractions.  Wherever one looked, it was always the same few names. At Echo Klassik,  the art’s German TV showcase, only six divas have won singer of the year  since 2002 – as if six were enough to sustain the opera houses of 100 great  cities. Are the rest voiceless nonentities?

China, the fastest–growing music market, is carved up between two viral  rivalries: the global brand wearer Lang Lang and the national youth icon  Yundi Li. Lang Lang has more product endorsements, but Yundi outnumbers  him by tens of millions on social media. Aside from these two, no other  pianist gets a name check in mainland China.

Great violinists, once a bristling pack, have been whittled down to Hahn,  Bell and Mutter, a collective that sounds like a discreet firm of Boston  lawyers. There are still local stardoms – Renaud Capucon in France, Nigel  Kennedy in England, Frank-Peter Zimmerman in Germany – but on the  biggest of stages, the first three reign supreme. Half a century ago, when  Jascha Heifetz was universally regarded as the violinist par excellence, his  fee was just ten percent higher than the next fifteen fiddlers, a margin that  he demanded and one which reflected, accurately, a fundamental equality  at the head of the profession. If Heifetz cancelled, he would easily be  replaced by Milstein, Menuhin, Oistrakh, Stern, Szigeti, Haendel, Kogan,  Gitlis, Elman, Suk, Grumiaux, Francescatti, Accardo and more. Whatever  happened to diversity?

The violinist Gidon Kremer was the first to sound the alarm when, in the  summer of 2011, he made a public withdrawal from the stellar Verbier Festival.  “I simply do not want to breathe the air, which is filled by sensationalism  and distorted values,” wrote Kremer. “Let’s admit: all of us have something  to do with the poisonous development of our music world, in which ‘stars’  count more than creativity, ratings more than genuine talent, numbers  more than… sounds.” In a follow-up letter to me he added: “Some of those  artists are obvious victims of aspects of this modern musical industry… I  do question the integrity of those gifted musicians who are ready to trade  their talent for symbolic ‘recognition’ on the wall of ‘stars’.”

How this planetary impoverishment came about is a process too long for the  confines of this essay, but the final stages amounted to what climatologists  refer to as ‘a perfect storm’. The record industry, which had gently nurtured  a profusion of classical artists for almost a century, suffered an irreversible collapse at the turn of the millennium (you will find the events described  in my book The Life and Death of Classical Music). The end of recording  coincided with the emergence of a quick-click internet, the viral menace  of ‘reality TV’ and the shortening of Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of  fame to something less than 15 seconds. In the new-media environment,  where anyone can become famous overnight for an internet instant, those  artists who had earned a reputation before records gave way to downloads  were able to carry their kudos into the flickering future. Others, younger  or less advanced, found the gateway to fame locked up and guarded by the  dragons of media triviality.

Never in three centuries of concert activity has it been harder for a young  artist to succeed. The sclerosis of the old star system has been compounded  by a parallel sub-industry of international competitions, where music  professors conspire to promote each other’s pupils, and talent is paraded  before an indifferent audience like war slaves in a Roman market. Once or  twice, a true talent has smashed the barriers – as the pianist Daniil Trifonov  did at the last Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – but winning a  competition is no longer a guarantee of a long career. With a dwindling  window of opportunity on mass media and the deadening irrelevance of  most print media, how is a new artist ever to catch the eye of an indifferent  society? Some, like the YouTube pianist Valentina Lisitsa, created online  sensations. Others, like Joshua Bell, attempt live-TV flash mobs. Most,  hemmed in by tradition and fear, carry on flying from one hall to the next,  playing to half-empty rows, praying that the bookings will continue. The  star system has choked the life out of classical futures.

Disaster, however, is ever the engine of invention. Orchestras and festivals,  facing a shrunken fame pool, have been forced to think hard and fast. In  New York, the Philharmonic installed this season as artist-in-residence a  Georgian-born violinist of whom few subscribers had ever heard before.  Lisa Batiashvili, in her mid-30s, is musically eloquent and politically  outspoken, a Kremer in the making who will never play the star game,  and so much the better for that.

On the opposite coast, the Los Angeles Philharmonic employed a video  artist to ‘paint’ the interior of Walt Disney Hall during concerts, changing  the environment, enhancing the experience. In Stockholm, a conductor  asked philosophers to rethink his season. In Budapest, a conductor starts  rehearsals with a half-hour sing-along. This is no time to sit and mourn  the death of the star system. It is a death long foretold and long overdue.  This is a time of opportunity, a time to reinvent the musical wheel.    

The article was originally pubished in the January-June 2015 issue of Liszt Academy Concert Magazine