Fans have their fill of the (old) classics

A local classical-music station, at least at drive time, plays its equivalent of the "golden oldies."

The (usually short) works, if they aren't by one of the three B's or Mozart, turn out to be familiar for some other reason: Perhaps they've been used as theme music in a famous movie or a television show (Rossini's "William Tell Overture" and "The Lone Ranger" are quick examples) - or maybe even accompanying some frantic horseplay in a 60-year-old cartoon still rerunning on the tube.

That doesn't show much confidence that there's an audience for "serious" or new classical music. Fans of this genre are a devoted lot, no question. But they're a tiny minority: If a classical recording sells more than a few thousand copies, it's a huge hit.

This week, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that Bertelsmann, the German entertainment conglomerate, would vastly scale down its classical music division, known in the United States under the famous RCA Victor (with listening-dog logo) and RCA Red Seal labels. They have a legacy going back to recordings by Enrico Caruso, Toscanini, Rubenstein, and Heifitz up to Van Cliburn and Leontyne Price. Recording contracts with many of today's classical musicians would be terminated.

Today's classical fans, it seems, have built up their CD libraries and now have all the recordings they want of their favorite compositions by their favorite artists.

The answer, of course, is to generate interest in new classical music being performed by today's outstanding musicians. This music is being written, but so far the marketplace isn't demanding that it be stocked on store shelves or played over the airwaves.

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