It had to come. The huge sums currently being pulled in by sports stars and media heroes have been noticed by classical-music celebrities and those who market them. Sauce for the pop-goose is now sauce for the art-gander, and we are only beginning to see the repackaging of serious performers for the mass—and young—market.

Acase in point is the decision of Deutsche Grammophon, the mighty German classical-record label, to circulate to the press a deck of thirty-eight “All★Star Cards,” modeled on the baseball cards so treasured by young American boys of yesteryear. On the front of each card is a glamorous photo of a reigning—or would-be reigning—performer (or group) of the day, and on the back is (in the case of solo performers) the artist’s birthday, birth place, place of study, 1992 CD releases, a “Scouting Report,” and a personal factlet. The deck begins with conductor Claudio Abbado and ends with pianist Krystian Zimerman. In between, there are such undoubted DG superstars as pianist Martha Argerich, soprano Kathleen Battle, conductor Leonard Bernstein, tenor Plácido Domingo, pianist Yevgeny Kissin, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. There are some groups too, such as the Emerson String Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and such up-and-coming (but as yet little-known) artists as flutist Patrick Gallois and pianist Lilya Zilberstein.

Significantly, the birthdays are without birth years; in today’s musical world (unlike in sports), the great are forever young. The “Scouting Reports” are invariably couched in hyperbole; for the purposes of these DG cards, everyone bats 1.000, and every hit is a home run. And the concluding factlets are almost all trivial and often cutesy: the late Leonard Bernstein “could never choose from his many Swatch watches, so he often wore more than one,” conductor Pierre Boulez “loves red wine and good jokes in several languages,” harpsichordist/conductor Trevor Pinnock “once took to the stage with two different shoes on,” and soprano Cheryl Studer’s “alleged favorite dessert is Cherry Strudel.”

Agood argument could be made that all this is silly and harmless. Reputations and careers will doubtless be decided in the future as they have been in the past, by excellence and the opinions of music lovers. And yet there is something at work in this kind of selling that isn’t quite so silly and harmless. Behind this DG marketing initiative must lie an awareness that the present scale of economic activity in music can only be enlarged, or even maintained—by an appeal to a new, uneducated, and unsophisticated audience. This new audience, if it exists at all, is predominantly young and as yet unformed. In appealing to it, DG is only echoing the consciously made policy decision of our leading American orchestras to arrange concert programs and publicity campaigns so as to appeal, not to those who are already coming to concerts, but to those who have not as yet come. What is so dangerous about this new approach to getting an audience is that it places the emphasis on attendance as a good in itself, not on the music. As with body counts on the battlefield, numbers are all. It is sad indeed that so many first-class artists are only too happy to let themselves be used in the cheapening of what was once a noble profession.

“What is a museum? Museums are no longer built in the image of that nationalistic temple of culture, the British Museum. Today, almost anything may turn out to be a museum… . The experience of going to a museum is often closer to that of going to a theme park or a funfair than that which used to be offered by the austere, glass-case museum… . In the past … the ‘general public’ was offered carefully designed exhibitions which had been researched with scholarly precision, and which presented themes and topics of complete absorption to the curator. Those people who did not share this fascination … were regarded as somehow deficient. Now the ‘client’ demands active rights and expects good service. A ‘client’ has a contract for the delivery of goods or services, and is in a negotiated situation where he or she has an equal position of power.” Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Lecturer in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, in Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (Routledge, 1992).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 9, on page 2
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