Left hanging by a string

In the first half of the 20th century, keyboard giant Sergei Rachmaninoff played to sold-out houses across the United States, and conductor Arturo Toscanini lit up the radio airwaves with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein followed along in the 1950s and '60s, bringing the New York Philharmonic into American homes with his televised Young People's Concerts while soprano Maria Callas was a hot topic for gossip magazines. Later, virtuosos like Itzhak Perlman and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg took turns chatting with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

Classical music might not have had the populist appeal of the Andrews Sisters or Elvis Presley during those decades, but it had an honored and essential place at the center of American culture.

But a decade into the 21st century, following a trend that can be traced back to the 1990s and beyond, classical music is confronting an increasingly unsustainable combination of escalating costs, sagging philanthropy, aging audiences and declining attendance.

The competition for ears and shortened attention spans in a world of 90-second YouTube videos is proving too much for a staid two-hour program of Brahms.

"I've just heard a lot of people around the world who say that a lot of times, classical music is just boring. So, I think that is just a massive problem," said Michael Christie, who directs the Phoenix Symphony and the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, Colo.

The specter of a declining place in American culture has hung over classical music for decades, but the threat has become more urgent. A National Endowment for the Arts study found that 9 percent of Americans attended at least one classical concert in 2008 - a nearly one-third drop from 1982.

Perhaps even worse, classical music is becoming a cultural afterthought beyond the insular world of musicians, presenters and devotees.

In an era of celebrity obsession, the genre has failed to produce one bona fide star since Pavarotti.

Not invulnerable

How bad is it? Even some of the genre's most ardent supporters are questioning the need for all but the country's largest and most influential orchestras.

"What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional orchestra in the 21st century?" wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Terry Teachout in a June column that caused a stir in the symphonic world. "Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is it true?"

Tuxedo-clad orchestra musicians arrayed in neat semi-circles across the stage - each paired with a gleaming trombone or handcrafted violin, and with five centuries of prestige on their side - can seem invincible. But today, such a perception is a mirage.

Resistant to change

Aggravating the situation is a stubborn reluctance among many entrenched institutions to acknowledge the severity of the predicament facing the classical world - and an accompanying belief that a few tweaks will set things right.

"Any institution that does things simply because that is the way they have been done before is in grave danger, and that certainly is an attitude that has permeated the world of classical music for a long time," said Peter Gelb, general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Some orchestras, including Charlotte's, have experimented with big-screen projections, cheaper tickets and narrated programs, but there is little evidence those changes alone will make a fundamental difference.

Meanwhile, the challenges mount. In research for his upcoming book, "Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music," Greg Sandow has found a steady increase in the average age of classical audiences going back more than a half century.

World music challenge

Scores of popular world artists are introducing Western audiences to the classical music of a multiple of international cultures.

Indie acts from Bjork to Radiohead to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros mine an operatic sort of drama in their music.

Many younger musicians take this blurring of musical boundaries for granted, with some performing one night with an indie rock band and a conventional classical ensemble the next.

Such musical cross-pollination has been slow to filter into the broader classical world, in part because organizations are scared of alienating their longtime, tradition-bound concertgoers. In addition, the classical field is facing what all brands of live music are facing - many people are less inclined to go out when they can stay home and download virtually anything they could want to hear via iTunes or YouTube.

No way to cut costs

In the face of these negative trends in audiences and attendance, large opera companies and orchestras are largely hamstrung when it comes to cutting costs. Many orchestras are negotiating reductions in musician salaries, but they can't cut the size of their ensemble without harming the very essence of the art form.

No one believes classical music is going to disappear. But many people in the field believe it is set to undergo a potentially tumultuous and painful transformation - one that is already under way.

A key part of that process will be symphonies and other classical presenters finding new ways to connect to their audiences.

Music director Ronen Givony of the innovative Greenwich Village cabaret, Le Poisson Rouge, believes chamber music - small ensembles such as string quartets or piano trios - in particular hold a great deal of potential, because it is similar in size and approach to indie rock bands.

"(Indie rock band) Animal Collective, in another universe, you could just pop them in, and they could just be considered a strange chamber-music group in the same way that the Kronos Quartet is," he said.

Classical music has to start taking some risks. And - often relying on ticket revenue to survive - scrappy presenters across the country like Le Poisson Rouge are.