There is an adventurous element to it as well. To many, ironically, classical music is a thrilling new form of entertainment. "The symphony is a kind of escapism, and an inexpensive one at that." He notes, "Red lipstick sales are stronger in a bad economy. It makes people feel better about themselves." Following this corollary, orchestras are now trending toward wider, more upbeat performances, and ticket sales, at least for the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, have seen a sharp rise.
Mr. Torn laments, however, the hard time modern composers have in getting new pieces performed. Ford Made in America, part of the philanthropic branch of Ford Motor Company, aims to alleviate this problem. The group describes itself as "the largest orchestral commissioning consortium in the country's history," and "has created a national network through which participating orchestras have access to resources normally not available to orchestras of their size." New works are commissioned from composers by the organization and offer participating orchestras the opportunity to premiere these programs.
Orchestras do take risks in such works and many concert halls have crouched into a certain economic survival mode. Mozart will sell tickets—why endanger the budget for a lesser-known, modern composer? Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts rejects this fear. "As donors decide which organizations to continue to support, the institutions that are doing vital, important work are the ones who will continue to be supported. Not only must the work be interesting but the marketing of that work and of the institution as a whole must be aggressive and creative." His advice is to expand aggressively, and plan major projects years in advance. "Just talking about projects in advance can generate excitement and have a positive impact. Those who think big at this time when so many others are thinking small will recover more quickly when the economy turns around."
David Torn is bullish on classical music and symphony orchestras. "The Internet has reinvigorated the art. Apple iTunes alone has transformed the audience. No longer does a curious listener have to invest twenty dollars in a CD to sample Beethoven. Single tracks can be downloaded for pennies and listened to anywhere. This, he says, has pulled people into concert halls. "Live performances are much, much different from recorded. Our format never repeats itself. A work evaporates when the last note is played. No note in classical music is ever repeated."
Statistics bear this out. In 2007, Wired reported that classical music was the fastest growing music category—up 23 percent from the year before. Notes author Chris Anderson, "this is mostly because Classical is so badly served in traditional bricks-and-mortar music stores. The fact that it's one of the largest categories on iTunes, despite the demographic mismatch with the typical iTunes customer, is evidence that consumers are flocking online for choice." No aberration, this year Sony Music Entertainment launched Ariama, its own "iTunes for classical music" that focuses on high fidelity digital downloads of symphonic works.
Yi-Jia Susanne Hou is one of the most exciting and celebrated musicians performing today. The first violinist ever to earn three Gold Medals with unanimous decisions in international competition, she has no doubt about classical music as a flourishing fixture of art and culture.
"Classical music is immortal," she says. "By its very nature, it encapsulates human relations and emotion. After Beethoven, music was no longer merely for amusement—it became a statement for all of humanity."
As an artist, she concedes that people like to box genres, but she hopes to smear those lines. "All art follows a tradition of creating something, and someone later constructing a variation on it. Much as someone can take a box of wine corks and assemble them into a piece of self-expression, or turn scrap metal into a sculpture, the creation of art is always the same. It is the deepest part of human expression."
As for youth and the symphony, she muses, "Reflection is key to classical music. For many youths, that depth is not as easily accessible as pop or R&B. In such genres, there is a direct conversation between the music and the listener, and is thus easy to relate with." Classical music requires a deeper understanding of life to really connect. "Thirteen-year-olds have so much going on in their lives emotionally and physically that the raw expression of pop music is simply more intuitive." As classical musicians, she says, "it is our job to plant the seeds so that as a young person matures, he or she has a new, deeper outlet.
"When we cease to have classical music, we will cease to be human," she adds.
Led by such a mantra, classical music storms boldly onward. If all art aspires to be music, art may well have quite a bit of catching up to do.