Will lure of pop culture pull public from ballet, symphonies, opera?

January 04, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Gurtman & Murtha Associates, well known in the concert management business for having handled bookings for Vladimir Horowitz, the Stuttgart Ballet and other distinguished artists, has a new client this season: the Amazing Kreskin, a so-called mentalist, or mind reader.

"I never thought I'd be handling Kreskin," said James Murtha, vice president of the firm, who cut his teeth working for the legendary impresario Sol Hurok. "But we don't want to get caught with 400 classical artists signed up and no bookings. We have to listen to what the performing-arts presenters want."

What the presenters increasingly want in these days of financial wariness are mass-appeal pop events that attract ticket buyers more readily than do programs of classical or difficult new music, theater and dance. The result is that the performing-arts industry -- agents and directors of presenting institutions who were interviewed at their two annual conventions just before Christmas -- is significantly shifting from serious, challenging or experimental work to popular entertainment.

The two conventions, which drew several hundred participants from around the country to New York City, were held by the International Society of Performing Arts Administrators and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Many arts professionals are angry about the situation. "We've become a second-rate cultural nation," said Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. "There's a tremendous amount of talent available, but serious work doesn't have the respect or endorsement it used to have."

He pointed to the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco as examples of regional non-profit theaters that are increasingly steering clear of challenging work in favor of polished frippery.

Harold Shaw, president of Shaw Concerts, is so indignant over the lack of public interest in the recital of classical music that he is terminating the annual $20,000 award he has been giving to the most imaginative presenter of a recital. "Last year we had only four applications, and this year two," he said.

Small presenters who don't have the financial backing of a wealthy institution or board of trustees are particularly vulnerable to the trend. Jack Globenfelt, managing director of the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts at Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx, said that not only has he reduced his entire programming by 60 percent in the last two years but also has "drastically curtailed" offerings of classical music and ballet, replacing them with hip-hop performers and Danny Rivera, a popular Puerto Rican crooner.

"We have to take cognizance of the impact of the recession and changing demographics in the major cities," Mr. Globenfelt said.

Robert Merrill, the former Metropolitan Opera baritone, is one of many classically trained musicians who has lately turned to pop. Mr. Merrill, who sang with the Metropolitan Opera for 32 years, is soon to embark on a solo tour billed as "Figaro to Fiddler," in which he mixes a few operatic chestnuts with the show tunes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Some performing-arts presenters who refused to adapt to the new pressures have recently gone out of business. The Sacramento Symphony filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 10, and the San Diego Foundation for Performing Arts, which specialized in dance, collapsed on Nov. 2 and has yet to make refunds to subscribers.

"People will still pay to see Pavarotti and the Bolshoi Ballet," said Fred Colby, the former executive director of the San Diego Foundation for Performing Arts, "but last October we could sell only 44 percent of our capacity for the Lyons Opera Ballet. We knew that was the end."

Some arts professionals say the current situation results from a failure of education as well as from the recession.

Betty Allen, president and former executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts, recalled that a teen-ager recently showed up at an audition for the school's Concert Chorale, a 35-member chorus, and began rapping rather than singing.

"He didn't know the difference between singing and talking," Ms. Allen said. "That's a direct result of the fact that in 1977 New York City eliminated music teachers from elementary schools and all but a few in the upper schools and specialized schools."

Mr. Shaw agreed. "You erase the arts from the schools as we did during the Reagan years," he said, "and young people no longer have that empathic participation in them. We are living in a period of neglect.

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