Sunday, December 28, 2014

What makes a classical music fan?

Austin's Mother Falcon at Zanzabar
Now that I'm writing about music on a fairly regular basis as a freelancer, I spend a lot of time thinking about music. One question I've been noodling is what makes me a fan of the opera and orchestra at a time when dwindling audiences and revenues for both seem to be the norm in many places?

One reason this question has bubbled to the surface for me is the recent arrival of our new music director for the Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams. He's obviously on a mission  to revitalize the orchestra - putting the musicians out into the community, trying to win new fans, and coming up with creative programs that will draw a more diverse audience. Kentucky Opera, under the direction of David Roth is also experimenting with programs that feature new works and more rarely performed operas. Will it work? How do people become classical music fans? Why am I one?

I'm not exactly the poster child for classical music fandom. First of all, unlike my husband, who was in band and his college orchestra, I totally lack any hands-on musical education. I regret now that I never tried to make music myself. I formed my passion for reading and writing so early that it pushed other pursuits to the margins. When you've already decided by age 8 or 9 what you want to be when you grow up, you tend to be laser-focused on that one thing. I never thought about being in the band or taking up an instrument, even though I had close friends and family who did. I'm sure I was so much in my own little world of books and scribbling that it didn't occur to anyone to distract me from it with encouraging words about music lessons. Well, at least I had a thing!

Part of Mom's collection
 Second, I grew up in a tiny town in Southwest Virginia in the very heart of country and bluegrass music where the nearest orchestra halls are hundreds of miles away. Family get-togethers often included (and still do) some kind of "picking." I love that kind of music, but I also learned to love a lot of other styles, and when I started to think about it, I realized that I had been listening to classical music since I was a child.

I played the vinyl we had at home from the time I could operate the turntable, so I credit my mother's record collection for my complete disregard of genre.  It was everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis to Sarah Vaughn and the Four Seasons. Chubby Checker and Connie Francis were early favorites, along with classical music compilations and Herb Alpert. My ten-year-old self was just as likely to be listening to "Twist" as Bizet's "Habanera." Willie and Waylon lay cheek by jowl with Pavarotti and the "Evita" soundtrack I had checked out from the local library.

The other big influence on my musical tastes was Great Performances. We usually could tune in about two-and-a-half TV stations where I grew up and one of those was PBS, thank God. I watched ballet, orchestra, and Met operas. I vividly remember "Rigoletto" with Pavarotti playing the Duke. I don't know why it made such an impression on me except it was very dark, and I was a little girl with a decided affinity for the macabre. There was also a production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" that I loved. Who can resist a madwoman in a bloody, white gown screeching down the staircase after dispatching her husband with a dagger on her wedding night? Now that's entertainment! At least to those of us raised on Appalachian murder ballads. (Belated kudos to Marilyn Mims who played Lucia when I finally saw it live at Kentucky Opera in the 90s.)

In college, I was very involved in drama, and of course, there was a lot of cross-over between the fine arts departments. I went to all my friends' concerts and recitals, so I never really lost interest in classical music, particularly opera, which combined music with theater. In graduate school, working two or three jobs and going to class, I was all about the free music opportunities. One of  the more memorable was Sam Ramey performing a solo show one night on campus. Whoa! Mephistopheles ... totally dreamy. You can keep your Barihunks.

One thing I'll extrapolate from all of this, is that it's important to capture the imagination of kids if you want to grow the next generation of classical music fans. You don't have to explain the plot of an opera to them, and for God's sake, don't imply that classical music is good for them. Is anything more deadly than an adult telling a child what they should like? No one ever did that to me. Just let 'er rip and see what they latch on to. It doesn't have to make any sense. Arts programs in schools have fallen on hard times, but all it takes is that one magical musical experience for a child to be hooked. I don't think anything is more important than having the orchestra, ballet, opera, etc., get into schools and libraries as often as possible with their outreach programs.  Clearly, this is a long-range plan.

And is it possible to turn the 20- and 30-somethings into classical music fans if they've never been exposed before? Well, it's at least as possible as convincing them that a handlebar mustache is a good look or that Pappy Van Winkle should be served as a jello shot. Social media is the key. If you can project yourself positively into the craft beer and cronut crowd, then you might lure them to a concert. If you make it cool, they will come.

Open it up, invite more people, make new friends. I think all these things help shake off the stuffiness that still clings to orchestras and opera companies. I know that I've heard more people talking about the orchestra in the last year than I ever have before. And as someone totally invested in having a healthy arts community in my city for years to come (because it's all about me!), I'm for anything that puts butts in the seats.

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