AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Making Theater About the Midwest | Main | Gilbert & Sullivan's Radical Chic »

November 11, 2007

Regional orchestra piquing curiosity

John Stoehr

Finding young people (that is, folks under 40) at a concert by any American orchestra is a challenge. More often than not, a gaze across the audience will show a tide of silvery gray heads, the dedicated season-subscription holders, the ones who go to every concert no matter how many times they nod off during the middle movements of Mozart's Jupiter.

The die-hard fans are getting older but the next generation, the so-called Junior Boomers or Gen-Xers, are not stepping up to replace them. That's the conventional wisdom anyway, like going to concerts is some kind of cultural obligation. Hence, their donations or their season subscriptions are also not being replaced. Among art lovers, especially among Boomers, there's a tendency to blame. But the problem isn't that Junior Boomers or Gen-Xers are getting coarser, more in thrall to popular culture, or less sensitive to the joys of high art.

The problem, from the perspective of American orchestras, is that there's more competition out there, more culture being created by more arts organizations. There's never been a bigger, more dynamic cultural menu to choose from.

That said, the Charleston Symphony is doing something right. Friday night was the second in a series called Backstage Pass in which the orchestra presented music you don't typically hear in mainstream Masterworks programming. The theme was music written by Hispanic composers or composers enamored by the sounds and rhythms of the Hispanic diaspora. The concert was just over an hour (a very nice duration, I think, quick and fresh). It started with Fandango by Spanish composer Roberto Sierra (the only one on the program who's alive). I missed most of this one and so can't say much about it (I got there late, sorry).

I suppose in offering a concert of music that you haven't heard before you're going to run into a few duds. That was the case of Darius Milhaud's Le boeuf sur le toi, or Bull on the Roof. I normally like Milhaud and his blending of a Brazilian vibe with a keen Parisian sophistication. But this one was dead in the water: a string of cha-cha motifs punctuated by thorny modernism. I appreciated hearing the piece, don't get me wrong. I just won't seek it out again.

Silvestra Revueltas' mariachi-style composition brought my attention back into focus. Scott Terrell, who conducts the series, noted a strong streak of Stravinsky in the composer's work. It was hard to miss. His Eight for the Radio (meant to imitate the sound of turning the radio dial, with sudden shifts in tempo and form) had a kind of laid-back Margaritaville feeling with a intoxicated avant-garde edge. Call it Rite of Spring Break.

My favorite was The Three-Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla. It was written in 1917 and it had a wonderful blend of Mexican flavors and that Frenchness you find in the work of Debussy and Ravel -- tall harmonies, shimmering textures, dancing to a South-of-the-Border beat.

I counted at least a dozen or so young people (these being under 30) in a crowd of about 250-300 at the Sottile Theatre. It's small number, but the nature of the concert suggests having a dozen or so young people is advantage the Backstage Pass series has over the Pops series, where you'll find plenty of children and their parents and grandparents.

The nature is curiosity. Terrell curated the programming to entice your curiosity. For this series, you won't hear any of the Three B's: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In fact, this series, and its indie-music sensibility, would quickly remind you that Beethoven is dead and has been dead for a good long time.

Having a dozen or so young people at this kind of concert means they actively sought out the music. They didn't go out of a sense of obligation (thanks for the pops tickets, Grandma!) or out of a sense that classical music is high-class stuff and I want to appear like a high-class kinda guy. No, they went because they were curious and I can't think of a better way for classical music to once again mean something in people's lives.

Cross-posted at Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at November 11, 2007 2:43 PM