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Blogging classical music's high-stress test

The Olympics of the piano world is being blogged and Webcast, bolstering a grassroots movement in art music.

The world will get a rare live look into the high-stress world of professional classical music performance beginning Wednesday night, with all the catastrophically missed notes, beads of sweat and spine-tingling performances intact.

From its stage in Fort Worth, Texas, the International Van Cliburn Competition--often dubbed the Olympics of piano playing--will be Webcasting its quadrennial finals through this week. As a bonus for Net-heads, a sharply opinionated blog, written for casual music listeners as well as for professionals, is keeping score.

The live events provide an unusual window into a level of performance to which few casual music fans have access. But the online components are also tapping into a growing undercurrent of grassroots music activity that some view as providing hope for the struggling classical music business.

"This allows experts a way to see (the competition) in a way as close to live as possible," said Carl Tait, the computer scientist and amateur pianist who is blogging the event. "But the blog is also a forum for at least one person who knows something about piano music to stimulate discussion, and to give people a little bit of help in understanding what they're hearing."

Indeed, like other areas before it, from politics to open-source programming, the classical music world is finding a democratic spirit online that could help shape its future.

For now, that future remains uncertain. Scarce arts funding, declining concert attendance and anemic record sales made worse by the broader music business' decline all have taken their toll on the industry.

But with little support from big institutions, a bloggers'-age network of fans, musicians and writers is building support for concerts and recordings online. These advocates, ranging from interested amateurs to professional composers, are taking on the roles of evangelist, educator and reviewer once largely played by newspaper critics and radio stations.

The music business has been "waiting for the white knight to come in, waiting for the top-down solution that's going to save classical music," said New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who maintains his own well-read blog. "I think the answer is not from the top down, it's not waiting for the big corporations and institutions to come to their senses and discover classical music. There has to be a grassroots model of getting people interested one step at a time."

This movement has a long road ahead. Despite a handful of Web-savvy symphony orchestras and Net radio stations, classical music's commercial presence on the Web remains spotty. The big digital music services, from Apple Computer's iTunes to Yahoo, focus more specifically on pop music, and offer relatively thin classical catalogues.

"The classical music industry is going though a rough patch at present, and a lot of even world-class artists are being dropped because they're not selling in high quantities," said Nolan Gasser, artistic director of the Classical Archives, a subscription service for independent recordings. "But there are good signs, and blogging and Webcasts and podcasts are part of that."

With its live performances starting tonight, and even a feature allowing Webcast-watchers to vote for their favorite performer (the winner of that prize gets a Photo iPod), the venerable Van Cliburn competition has put a foot squarely in that grassroots camp. As one of the most prestigious competitions in the world, with career-making prizes of up to $500,000 for the winners, its actions will likely be closely watched by others in the arts community.

"This way we can increase the outreach for our mission, which is to share music with the greatest number of people possible," Van Cliburn foundation spokesman Sevan Melikyan said.

By late Tuesday, close to 10,000 people had registered to watch the broadcast, and more than 16,000 people had read the ongoing blog, he noted. Perhaps even more important, the Webcast was allowing parents of competitors to watch the live performances from half a world away, he added.

It's that live experience classical music fans hope will help bring others into the fold.

"It's the equivalent of TV, but better," said blogger Tait. "This is not just a recording, it's got the immediacy of a live performance. It's right there."

The competition will be Webcast live on the Van Cliburn foundation's site every evening this week, with a winner announced Sunday.