Why the world has gone off classical concerts is a conundrum in which
almost every reasonable assertion is disputable. Take the
attention-span thesis. Many in the concert world believe that its
decline stems from the public’s flickering tolerance for prolonged
concentration. If politicians speak in soundbites, how can we expect
voters to sit through a Bruckner symphony?
It is a persuasive argument but one that I have come to find both
fatuous and patronising. Around me I see people of all ages who sit
gripped through four hours of King Lear, Lord of the Rings or a
grand-slam tennis final but who, ten minutes into a classical concert,
are squirming in their seats and wondering what crime they had
committed to be held captive, silent and legroom-restrained, in such
So what, precisely, scares them off? In a word, the atmosphere. The
symphony concert has stultified for half a century. It starts in
mid-evening and last two hours. The ritual cannot be altered without
inconveniencing the musicians and alarming the subscription audience;
so nothing changes.
My take: You can cite twenty factors, but my core hypothesis is simple. First, the stock of "non-classical" music is much better and much larger than it used to be. The competition gets tougher every year. Second, we are biologically programmed to respond to individual personalities in the arts, also known as celebrities. Classical music, as hard as it tries, cannot communicate such personalities with equal ease. The classics were not designed for electronic reproduction, most of the composers are long-dead, and the performers can innovate on the core material only so much.