I believe classical music is NOT dead, even though conventional wisdom suggests otherwise.
Standing just off stage, I mentally conducted through the last movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony the way a down-hill skier stands on a mountain and visualizes every turn and bump. A minute later, I was on the podium giving the down-beat for the rousing Hoedown from Rodeo by Aaron Copland. Barely an hour later (it seemed like minutes), after other music by Weber, Saint-Saens, and the Mozart, with echoes of the final chord still hanging in the air, there was an explosion of applause.
It is possible to imagine that this could happen; perhaps in a major metropolitan city with a fine professional orchestra, and an audience of wealthy patrons. But this was a free concert, early on a cold Saturday morning last October, performed by a community orchestra of volunteer musicians. The audience of several thousand was mostly young families and retirees. Our concert was part of the inaugural ‘Day of Music’ celebration in the gleaming-new Schermerhorm Symphony Center in Nashville – “Music City, USA.”
Like the curator of a musical museum, I have lived much of my adult life passionately defending classical music as something worthy of adoration and support. At times I have felt alone; like the people around me had no desire to ever hear another note of classical music. Maybe our lives are so hectic, fragmented, and over-rich with popular music, there is too little time to indulge in something as antique as a Mozart symphony. Because classical music relies on subtle expression to evoke deep emotional responses, it is out-of-place in an impatient, superficial world. There is even some disdain for a type of music that (in some minds) represents the ‘culturally elite.’ As a late baby-boomer, I have lived through the ‘golden age’ of rock music and fully recognize popular music for its commercial entertainment value. Here in Nashville, country music is king. But there is still something special about classical music. It can transcend the social/economic matrix that shapes listening habits and opinions. It can speak to all of us; universally, and across generations.
It can also be very exciting. All music is ephemeral, but during a classical concert the performers and the audience share a sublime intensity that is, at any split-second, both tangible and immediately gone. Classical works are cleverly designed to engage the listener and hold them breathless, supported only by an invisible thread of sound. Even if the music is familiar, the listener feels a curiosity about how the orchestra will interpret a phrase, or how a soloist will execute a cadenza.
I believe my orchestra, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, played well that day. Not every note was perfectly in tune, nor every rhythm articulated with precision. But for those amateur players who had rehearsed week after week solely for the joy of making music together, and for that unconventional audience, it was a magical hour of great, ‘living’ classical music.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.