Marla Schwaller Carew wrote a deeply felt message from Detroit, about how hard it seems to be to get younger people — like herself — to go to classical events:
I recently attended two excellent concerts as part of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival (the Emerson String Quartet played the opening concert in a lovely, smallish hall, where I was able to sit 15 rows from the stage and hear and see like I could never at larger Michigan venues. The second night featured two of the Emersons with other excellent musicians at a very choice, small location). My husband and I, both under 40, were among the youngest people there by far (a few teenagers with parents, us, and the 50-90 year-olds). This pained both of us — especially regarding the outstanding Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets on opening night. Such beauty, such talent and such disinterest from our peers! We’re not huge culture snobs, just products of middle-class parents who wanted us to take music lessons which were enough to instill love of classical music (and neither of us play any longer). I know were weren’t the only kids in metro Detroit who took those lessons years ago, either.
Very touched by what she said, I asked Marla why she liked classical music. She took a lot of care with her answer, for which I’m grateful:
First, this is probably not the only area in which my husband and I are demographic freaks. But once again, we’re proud freaks (e.g. don’t watch reality TV, don’t spend our lives at the mall shopping, read a lot and are happier for it), and the other classical music fans my age are the same kind of oddities — we were probably all nerdy kids (I certainly was) and kept reading and loving things that take a little effort into adulthood. (Some, including myself, came from private schools but not all and that does not seem to be a determining factor in the group I know).…
What do I like about classical music? Good question, it’s very hard to explain in many ways (just like explaining why you love your spouse can start to sound like a boring laundry list and undermine what you feel — “nice, generous, sense of humor, kind to small animals blah blah blah”). I’m not wholly anti-popular music, I do listen to it often during commutes (Detroit no longer has a classical music station and the Canadian and NPR classical shows are often at odd times for me or are too difficult to pull in on the car radio) and feel that it can be better for some things (party and bar background sound, music for the Nordic Track etc.).
But about 8 years ago (mid 20s) I just started to find it all really empty — like junk food, the enjoyment of it wore off quickly leaving little interest or re-playability.…Also, I got into Bobby Short in college, which led me to broader Porter, Gershwins, Arlen etc., and then into Ella Fitzgerald singing the canon, and once you learn to love Porter, Gershwin etc. you never see pop/rock the same again.…During all of this I was listening to classical music but gaining more and more interest in it as I appreciated the quality and greater pleasures available to active listeners…It can be something bigger than you, not just the guy next door with drums and an amp.
I suppose that is what I like best about classical music (though I still love Ella and Bobby and listen to jazz) — deeper and more lasting enjoyment that changes through time, benefits from thought and poses an enjoyable challenge to the mind and self. .…The Emersons playing Beethoven’s quartet Op. 130, a recent Detroit Symphony performance of the Enigma Variations, Murray Perahia and the Academy playing Bach in 2000 (not to mention Les Arts Florissants and Sequentia’s Edda in past years) were just plain inspired.…Many of the above were so moving to me that they brought me to tears, not out of sentiment but more out of recognition of the power of the performance and appreciation of what a special experience it was to be in the presence of such greatness and human talents combined to produce much, much more than their sum.
I asked Marla what she thought would bring more people like herself to classical music. She came up with something I wish more classical music groups would try:
I think that there are some curious, intelligent people out there who don’t know what they would respond to in classical music or that there is anything to respond to. I’m not sure that “sexing” up classical music would work for them (i.e. an ad campaign with half-naked actors in pseudo-plot scenarios from operas, or text that reads like a soap or a tabloid — all real strategies, likely with mixed results). But maybe something that offered a glimpse of context and meaning would help? Rather than stating that an evening’s program will be X, Y and Z or Opera X, make it very obvious that there is a theme or meaning — Carmen, the Danger of Female Sexuality or Shostakovich, An Artist’s Response to Tyranny etc. — something that might show potential listeners that it just isn’t pretty sounds.…I bet that responses to political instability, or economic stress, or gender, or whatever could always find a number of interested younger patrons who see the point and might be curious about how it was approached in the past.
Marla, thanks so much for all of this. I had to make some cuts in what you wrote, and I hope you won’t mind. I was quoting from three long e-mails, and wanted to get as many of your thoughts in as I could.