Steven Brown, a 50-year-old musician, reminisces about the days when he was a little boy sitting in his Brooklyn home listening to the stereo blasting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the sounds of trumpets and cellos echoing through the living room. Today, that stereo has been replaced with iPods and ear buds.
Musicians like Brown lament on an ongoing decline in popularity of classical music, especially for millennials. While the sounds of pop, hip, and rock may drown out those violins, trumpets, and timpani, some fans are working to revive classical music in a way that GenY will appreciate.
“I think a major factor with my generation is that we had the benefit of knowing the music of the generation before us,” says Brown, a former associate teacher at Long Island University and a performer alongside Stevie Wonder and other renowned musicians. “I don’t think the younger generations, for the most part, have that experience to draw on.”
As Generation X rebelled against traditions set before them, they did so through rock music. GenY was then the product of a previous generation that already began to forget about the classical music genre. A recent New York Times op-ed by Les Dreyer, a former violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, blamed the younger generation’s waning interest in classical music on orchestra tour cancellations, a decrease in classical music radio circulation, a focus on pop sensations, and decreased monetary support for orchestras. The article, “Is Classical Music Dying?” generated multiple comments including one from Anthony Rudel, a former vice president of programming for WQXR and author of “Classical Music Top 40” who points to a lack of classical music education.
“The failure to bring younger audiences to classical music happened more than 30 years ago…Too many of those listeners were never introduced to the power of Beethoven, the elegance of Mozart or the soulfulness of Mahler, and if they were, it was the aural equivalent of ‘eating your vegetables,’” he wrote.
Another reason for the continuing disinterest is that classical music has become an art that is watched rather than participated in. “Classical music is no longer a living culture,” says Alf Bishai, a music theory professor at New York University and music director of Trinity Grace Church. “When you go to a museum, the whole idea is to preserve the past. You can’t go and touch the painting. There is a sense that classical music is to be observed as masterpieces.”
Bishai, who is working on a book on the future of the genre, explains that classical music in its origins used to have responsive and critical audiences. Concert halls would echo not only with the sounds of instruments and concertos but also with those of applause, and sometimes, negative commentary.
A classical music and Indie film composer, Bishai also believes composition is at the heart of interest in the genre. As composition changed in the 1900s, so did attitudes towards classical music. He believes that for interest in classical music revolution to increase, audiences need to feel free to “boo” again.
“Right now, you can’t applaud between movements, and that would be a disaster in Beethoven’s time,” Bishai says. “It would be like going to a comedy show today and holding your laugh until the very end of the show.”
Another cultural difference is that GenY grew up in front of a television set watching the music videos on MTV and VH1, where dance moves and scenes matched artists’ musical works. Maybe the culture of classical music will change if audiences are allowed to dance along to the music of the New York Philharmonic.
C Music Television is trying to do just that, offering classical music videos. A television channel focused on classical and film music, C Music TV broadcasts music videos of musicians holding see-through violins with flowing curtains in the background and young men that appear to have come out of a One Direction style band passionately playing their cellos. Because of this form of presentation, the music channel recently won the Best Music Channel at Eutelsat TV Awards 2012 for “bringing classical music to a younger audience.”
In an NPR interview, “Classical Music Gets MTV Treatment,” Julian Rigamonti, the CEO of C Music Television, explained his motivation. “If you want to compete for the attention span of younger audiences particularly, it’s important to approach them on their own level. The pop music phenomenon has been around now for 25 years and there’s been a whole generation who understands it intrinsically.”
Another step in getting the younger audience interested in classical music would be to play contemporary music, like that of pop culture stars such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, on classical instruments. Yut Chia and Jonathan Archer, a young subway musician duo, are often found playing modern popular music on their violins. While their playing sometimes causes the sounds of Vivaldi’s “Spring” to bounce around the station walls, the music that attracts much of the younger audience are drawn from the Billboard Top 100.
“Young musicians should combine the simple style of music that we sometimes play, a more modern style, with classical roots,” Archer, age 21, says. “Younger audiences could then get interested in where the classical music styles originally came from.”
Chia, age 19, enjoys the younger audience’s reaction to his subway performance. “People my age are more into rock and hip hop and pop, and when they see it on an instrument, they’re like ‘whoa,’” Chia says. “When I was playing Thunder, we once got these guys starting to dance and do some beat boxing along while everyone just enjoyed the show.”