Recently, one of our board leaders commented to me, “I know you prefer playing classical music to pops.” I think he meant to demonstrate his sensitivity to the reluctance of orchestral musicians to play more and more pops shows, a proposed change of course intended to bring new listeners into the hall. I remember my answer clearly: “I think it’s important to say we don’t merely ‘prefer’ classical music. It is who we are.”
Every year my father, a high school music teacher, used to take his music appreciation class to the Metropolitan Opera, the gorgeous old Met at 39th and Broadway with its tiers of gilt and velvet. When I was seven years old, he let me accompany them for the first time. We saw “Carmen.” It was the 50’s, before supertitles, and I recall poking him intermittently to ask, “What’s happening now, Daddy?” And he patiently whispered the essential plot points – love, betrayal, jealousy, murder – into my ear.
Everything made an impression on me: the sumptuous hall, the costumes, the singing. I was in it for the spectacle, but by the final curtain it was the music that dazzled me, the score that embodied the turbulent story. Whatever the limitations of my young sensibilities, I was transfixed, as was my father’s entire class, a supremely unsophisticated group of teenagers from the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
Back then, the word “music” meant what we now refer to as “classical” music. If we meant something other than the world of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, we specified “popular” music. Most kids, even in a town like mine, played an instrument or sang in a choir or – at minimum – took my father’s music appreciation class in hopes of an easy credit. This was before we lost arts programs in the schools and pop culture became the mega-money-making industry it is today and began to drown out the masterworks that used to be part of everyone’s vocabulary. Now I worry that there are people who live their entire lives never having heard even a recording of a Beethoven symphony, let alone a live performance.
Can we play pops? Of course. Compared to what we are capable of doing, it’s a cinch. Do we sometimes enjoy it? Absolutely – like when a favorite performer like Doc Severinsen brings his first-rate arrangements.
But does pops keep us fit for the demands of Beethoven or Bartôk? And, most of all, does it prepare a new audience for Brahms or Mahler? Absolutely not.
We don’t “save” classical music by offering a completely re-engineered concert format meant for a completely different type of listener. We save it by honoring it for what it is – one of humanity’s highest achievements.
It’s true that classical music asks more of its listeners than pops, just as it asks more of the musicians. It has more complex things to say. It illuminates human emotions for which words don’t suffice. A symphony communicates aspects of the human experience that can’t be conveyed in a three-minute “song.”
Happily, however, classical music requires of its listeners not necessarily the ability to “understand,” but a willingness simply to listen. We are not required to “get” classical music. I certainly didn’t get “Carmen” at seven years old, not on any intellectual level. But that one magnificent experience stayed with me for a lifetime, as I suspect it did for every one of my father’s hard-sell students.
My colleagues and I are committed to the limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches. We are committed to performing the very best that humanity has to offer at the highest level. And, I would argue, highest level is the key. For who hasn’t sat through a mediocre rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth and wondered as a result, “What’s so great about that?”
As an enlightened society, we are meant to aspire to more than mere entertainment. We are meant to allow great music in, to let it settle in our DNA, and to bask in the glimpse it offers us of a universe greater than we can otherwise imagine.
The Minnesota Orchestra is the one Minnesota institution that can bring the gift of great, soul-enlarging symphonic music, played at peak levels, to our community.
To donate to the Minnesota musicians or to get updates on the lockout, see www.MinnesotaOrchestraMusicians.org.