I often write in blog comments about the need for musicians to assume the lead making classical music (esp. symphonic music) truly accessible. By saying truly, I mean going beyond the usual exercise of playing a traditional program for elders at a church or kids at a school, or showing that an orchestra can cover a popular song. I’m talking about discovering what it takes to pull new listeners INSIDE the tradition of instrumental music. If this is where our hearts live, we should be able to give tours. I call this relevance-making process variously realizing classical, making classical real, cluing in or real-ing in new listeners. GET REAL is what we say today to help each other reconsider another’s perspective.
The good news is that when we play devil’s advocate with ourselves, we can hear (or perhaps remember) the objections we need to overcome to warm up casual listeners for fine art music. There are several common objections mentioned here which we need to face. I’ve found ways to address some of these in casual settings but we can’t hide behind the podium anymore.
The world has changed considerably, culturally, politically, economically, technologically and demographically, calling into question support for a classical tradition which serves much less than 5% of the American public. The good news is we don’t need to design and implement another study to verify what turns real people on or off. Publications over the last 20 years such as The Americanization of American Orchestras (1993), the Magic of Music series (2003-04) and the recent WolfBrown report on concert format experiments by the New World Symphony point to, if not to hard conclusions, then to the need for personality and experimentation in presenting art music; to feature what truly matters.
To be fair, the ultimate rebuttal to experimentation was written early on by the late Edward Rothstein, legendary New York Times music critic, in 1993, from which the battle cry don’t dumb it down has largely discouraged messing with a tradition fully vested in formality, refinement and European authority. While this paradigm worked to preserve and even raise performance standards in America, it also locked out the vast majority and some complementary innovations.
If I’m still not clear, I’ll write it plainly. It IS time to get beyond dumbing down… for the sake of Americans curious about ALL music, and for orchestras and other concert presenters needing to connect indelibly to them. I’ll give a short presentation at the 2nd annual SphinxCon in Detroit on February 21, 2014 on this theme… and will include simple demonstrations of real-ing in new listeners which musical instrumentalists can recreate and improve upon. Getting our hands dirty to plant the seeds is an attitude adjustment… a warming up of what makes classical music speak to us and part of the art of making art music truly matter.