Think Classical Music Is Dying? Think Again.


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In The School of Giorgione, Walter Pater wrote, "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." Yet few art forms are perceived to be so endangered as classical music and the symphony orchestra. As early as 2005, the New York Times reported, "All over the Western world, the alarm is sounding that classical music is in trouble. Orchestra subscription sales are dropping widely, in some cases by as much as two percentage points a year. Ensembles are not balancing their budgets. Audiences are getting older; young people are turned off by classical music. The Chicago Symphony can no longer sell decently even at its own festival." Last week, the New Jersey Colonial Symphony announced its final season. Presently, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, one of the top ten orchestras in the country, is on strike pending a budgetary agreement.

One might be tempted to predict, if not the end, then the beginning of the end of the classical recital. Doing so, however, would be to mistake its enduring influence on life and culture, and the quiet resurgence underway. According to American composer David Maslanka, "Classical and symphonic music rarely makes headlines because it is almost by definition old." And though today's headlines are often bleak, he adds, "Classical music is a very powerful undercurrent in these very turbulent times. It is a force pulling us through this age."

Technology is fostering and cultivating a younger audience. Ambitious young musicians with nothing more than a laptop and a copy of Finale by MakeMusic, can compose entire symphonies from home. And venues like Video Games Live are inspiring such talent. Tommy Tallarico has been a composer of video game music for 20 years, and is the creator of the Video Games Live phenomenon, where symphonic versions of popular arcade titles are performed around the world. Mr. Tallarico holds the Guinness World Record for having worked on 275 game titles, and is cousin to Steven Tyler.

Though he (naturally) grew up influenced by rock, his life changed in 1977 when he saw Star Wars. It was the first time music of the symphony orchestra affected him. "My God," he asked himself, "What is that? Who is this John Williams guy?" He scoured the library in search of more information on Williams, and learned that the composer was himself influenced by names like Beethoven and Mozart. Mr. Tallarico, determined, studied the greats and honed his newfound passion for classical music and composition. Now, twenty years later, he argues, "It is video games which are influencing the world's youth to pick up and learn instruments."

A lot of symphonies, he says, are having a difficult time connecting with a younger audience. "We're trying to help that, to change the perception of the symphony as nothing more than old people sitting quietly in tuxedoes. Beethoven and Mozart were the rock stars of their day, drinking and womanizing. When they held performances, it was Elvis in the '50s or the Beatles in the '60s. The world had never before heard music like that. These guys took charge."

He suggests that venues like Video Games Live, Star Wars in Concert, and Bugs Bunny on Broadway trace their lineage and panache to such performances as the premiere of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, when the Russian composer fired live cannons from the stage. "The greats of symphony were real showmen in their time. Somewhere along the line, that got lost, and classical music became 'music for old people.'" This, to Mr. Tallarico, is "crazy."

When Video Games Live performs with new orchestras, there is always a bit of apprehension from the musicians, and rightfully so, he says. "Some of these folks have been playing professionally for forty or fifty years—Haydn and Brahms—and open our sheet music to find 'Sonic the Hedgehog.' Then they play for an audience." Video game scores, according to Mr. Tallarico, have become the soundtrack of an entire generation. "This music is drawn from the masters. You can't write symphonic music without influence from the greats. And when performed to audiences of two, three, or twenty thousand at a time, and there's a reaction, again, like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The musicians can't believe it. And it's even better because they are playing to a house of young people. Apprehension quickly becomes adoration."

A live performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony can move even the most hard-hearted symphonic neophyte to tears. Mr. Tallarico describes the tears he sees after shows, not only from the audience, but also from the musicians on the stage. "One violinist had been trying to get her seventeen-year-old son to hear her perform for years, but he'd never attended a concert. Now he's showing up to shows with friends in tow, and bragging that his mom is on that stage." Says Mr. Tallarico, "I can still see the tears in her eyes."

"There is a fever in the air, and it's carrying over to the classical world." After performances, young girls are asking to learn the violin to play the theme from The Legend of Zelda. Just as Mr. Tallarico was once drawn into symphonic music by Star Wars, thirty years later, the same thing is happening to a new generation. And it's happening, he says, after every performance.

There are other ways classical music is finding a new audience.

Dr. Maslanka, who composed this year's anxiously awaited "O Earth, O Stars - Music for Flute, Cello, and Wind Ensemble" and such masterpieces as "In Lonely Fields" points to the rise of wind ensembles as a major influence in classical music of the 21st century. "Remarkable things are coming out of these groups, and all ages are coming together." With this blurring of the young and old, "The quality of discovery at wind concerts leads to further discovery. As human beings, we have an innate need to make such music, to make such discoveries. It is not going to go away."

David Torn is the assistant conductor of the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest and most respected performing arts institutions in the South. "Orchestras," he says, "are not innately accessible." But symphony leagues have found innovative ways of reaching out to local communities through workshops and youth programs. "The goal is to help audiences understand and build a personal connection. People are often unfamiliar with the form. They're not sure whether they'll like it or not. Through community involvement, we are able to say, 'You will love this. You should experience this. We've worked hard on it.' The human connection makes the concert hall more accessible."

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.