Norman Lebrecht needs no introduction, but for the sake of newcomers we offer a short one here.
Lebrecht is the proprietor of Slipped Disc, which is the news source for the classical music community. If you want to shorthand it, you say Lebrecht is the classical newswire.
In addition to his daily beat, Lebrecht has penned titles like Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power and Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics — not exactly light takes on the classical ecosystem. Lebrecht has also authored a couple books of fiction, including The Song of Names and The Game of Opposites.
Norman Lebrecht went back-and-forth on email with us about his classical criticism, his pitch to classical newbies, and what music gets him up in the morning.
You recently moved your operation from ArtsJournal.com, where you’d been writing since 2007, to a standalone website, slippedisc.com. What prompted the change?
I was getting 1.25 million monthly readers on AJ/Slipped Disc, half of them under the age of 35. It would have been irresponsible not to offer to connect this readership to products and performances they might want to know about. Recognising that print media had failed the classical music sector, I was keen to try a different form of connectivity.
How do you manage to write about — and break — so many stories that cross your desk every day?
Most are sent to me by people who know the size of our readership and who want to be part of our community. Not have to hunt for stories makes life a lot easier. I spend about 90 minutes in the morning writing for Slippedisc.com and another hour at night. In between, I write books and do a lot of radio.
How did you cultivate sources for Slipped Disc — an ironclad promise of anonymity? When did it seem like more people were coming to you with scoops, instead of having to sniff them out?
(…) I’m fairly well known after writing 12 books about music and making a lot of programmes.
Do you feel guilty taking days away from it? Does it bug you if you miss some big breaking story — a conductor retiring, a new hire with a major orchestra, etc?
No. We seldom miss a story.
When there was an outbreak of turmoil in Ukraine in the spring you covered it from the vantage point of the Kiev Conservatory — which was on the front lines of the uprising. You also covered various anonymous (and then later, unmasked) pianists playing amidst violence in Kiev. Both were unique angles that the BBCs and CNNs of the world weren’t covering. How important is it that Slipped Disc carry this kind of content? What reporting did you have to do that differed from the daily churn on the site?
Absolutely essential. We had three correspondents in Ukraine sending us material, and just as many in Russia. All we had to do was select and apply good editorial judgement.
For those who don’t know, are you a practicing musician? Have you always viewed yourself as writer first, musician second? Judging by the list of books you’ve written, I’m guessing you’ll say writer first.
Writer first and last. I’m a very poor musician, never got both hands to [w]ork well together.
I’ve heard you interview the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, Andris Nelsons and Riccardo Muti. How do you acquire such a laid-back, matter-of-fact delivery when talking with some of the “royalty” of classical music?
Mostly, they’ve known me a while, and trust me. They all read Slippedisc.
I need to hear something loud & fast at the start of the day, to get the blood flowing — what is the first thing you listen to when you get up in the morning?
Whatever’s top of the review pile on my desk.
Was there a time — maybe in the early ’80s — when Norman Lebrecht was listening to punk music, or some of the early rap pioneers? Or has it always been classical?
I’ve always listened to everything — especially world music and microtones. Never much bothered with rap, but my children feed me segments from what they consider to be the high end of popular culture and I love to be amazed.
Right now as I type this Lindsey Stirling has the #1 classical album on the Billboard charts (Shatter Me). Are you a fan? What is it Stirling is doing right that classical players — some of whom may not be thrilled about the mainstream pop angle she’s taken — should emulate?
Shrewd business sense, simple message: what you see is what you get. She’s not overwhelmed [w]ith prizes and reviews and all the other paraphernalia that classical musicians use to market themselves. She’s just herself.
If you, Norman Lebrecht, were starting an orchestra in 2014, what would it look like? How many members, how many shows per year, what kind of programming?
I wouldn’t start one. I might try to save one.
Do you envy musicians starting up today? And, do you think it’s harder than it was in, say ……. 1950?
Harder than at any time since Bach and Handel were alive. But with infinitely more opportunities to be yourself.
Do you have a 30-second pitch to lure people into the classical fold?
No. Nothing that is done in 30 seconds is worth much. It takes time.
Along those lines, can you make the case why someone should buy yet another rendition of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony when she could just as easily pick up the new Jack White album or some Iggy Azalea and hear completely new music?
Come to one of my Mahler talks and I think I know what you’ll buy. But the talk [w]ill take an hour of your life and the symphony more.
If you had to write about one place in the world with the biggest potential in terms of future classical music developments, where would that be?
No question: China. I go there every other year. The enthusiasm is genuine and the potential limitless.