Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Column: Classical music can make even young hearts race

I'm a graduate student studying classical music, and some of my family and friends think I am out of my mind. Honestly, I do sometimes feel like I would have been better off entering a career in taxidermy.

The Minneapolis Orchestra recently lost its esteemed director due to a musicians' strike. The New York City Opera gave its final performance in September after blowing through its endowment. The Philadelphia Orchestra emerged out of a tenuous bankruptcy in the summer of 2012, and the Florida Orchestra has struggled financially for the past 10 years.

While some of my friends from college are entering fields that seem to offer bright futures, I'm looking at one that seems to be going the way of Blockbuster stores.

There have been some mildly successful efforts recently to attract wider audiences for classical music. The Metropolitan Opera has filled movie theaters with its "Live in HD" opera simulcasts. Some orchestras have incorporated visual elements or entertaining lectures into their concerts. But the battle for the future of classical music still feels Sisyphean.

Many in the white-haired generation of concertgoers, the bulk of classical music's audience, speak longingly of a supposed golden age when there were five major U.S. symphony orchestras. Today, few Americans can name a living American composer or conductor. (John Williams doesn't count.)

In fact, the "golden age" was more gilt than gold. Since its earliest days, classical music has been enjoyed mainly by society's elites and enabled by their patronage. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all enjoyed steady incomes from wealthy benefactors, although they also fought for artistic freedom and independence.

In our country, many cultural institutions developed out of a perceived need among the upper class to make American cities culturally competitive with their European counterparts. Their philanthropy endowed the Metropolitan Opera and other great institutions. But even these cannot subsist today on ticket sales alone.

Over the past few decades, universities have emerged as the primary patrons of classical music, providing tenure and commissions to composers, and hosting resident ensembles such as string quartets.

And though universities are home to young people and many forms of music, classical music remains somewhat separate on many campuses, as it is in the wider society. The titanic length of a 60- or 70-minute-long symphony simply demands more investment from listeners than the simple three-minute arc of Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe. Its musical vocabulary feels antiquated to many young ears.

The situation reminds me of what's been happening to baseball. Although teams like the Cardinals and Red Sox, which recently settled their World Series score, have big payrolls and occasionally provoke national conversation, many young Americans have become oblivious to them, preferring football, basketball or extreme sports. The recent premiere of AMC's Walking Dead drew far more viewers than the baseball playoffs.

Still, classical music remains so much more than a historical relic. It offers an emotional, harmonic and rhythmic range that no other music can match, from the pathos of Tchaikovsky to the sarcasm of Mahler. Regardless of the size of its audiences, it is a treasure that deserves support.

Its advocates should continue trying to expand its audience. Education might make classical music more accessible, although most "introduction to music" courses are insufferable. Advertisement helps; the curly hair of Gustavo Dudamel, the young director of the L.A. Philharmonic, fills an entire movie screen.

Realistically, however, a governmental or philanthropic lifeline is probably the only way to keep classical music institutions afloat. The truth is that classical music is likely to continue feeling distant to many Americans. It even feels off-limits most of the time to me, who attends concerts wearing sneakers and a flannel shirt.

So why do I choose to devote my life to this subject? It's because even as classical music seems to be dying publicly, it still pulsates with life and remains capable of changing lives. I know I am not alone in this devotion, nor am I embarrassed to embrace it. Regardless of the size of its audience or whether it has a primetime awards show, classical music matters.

Harrison Russin is a graduate student in classical music at Duke University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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