For my in-progress book on the future of classical music, I’d love to know about classical performances that engaged a community, reaching far beyond the normal orbit of classical music fans.

And I’m especially interested in classical performances that reach to the heart of our current culture. It’s a point I’ve often made, in talks I give on the future of classical music, and here on the blog as well — classical music doesn’t seem to speak for our current culture. It doesn’t (to be a little grandiose) go out and forge the uncreated conscience of our time (to paraphrase a famous line from Joyce). I can think of one classical music event in my time that was important for just about anyone involved in forward-looking culture in New York, the performances of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera house in 1976 (though not produced by the Metropolitan Opera). Maybe Dr. Atomic is having some of that appeal now, though not as strongly.

Maybe there are other examples in classical music. Certainly it’s easy to find them in other arts — Angels in America, Brokeback Mountain, The Sopranos, the very existence of many people in pop music (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, many, many more).

So if you have ideas about this, or know of any examples, I’d love to know them. Tell me about classical music events that rang to the heart of either current culture — not just in theory, but in practice, with wide response from many people — or some particular community.

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  1. says

    I was particularly moved by Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio, composed by Mark Grey, and premiered by The Phoenix Symphony earlier this year. It tells the story of a soldier who comes home from war and is suffering, tormented by internal demons. His Navajo community (depicted by the chorus) supports him in his journey to “slay the enemy within” and walk the path of beauty. The powerful libretto was written by Navajo poet Laura Tohe. The last words sung by the chorus: “Let peace prevail.”

    In my view, it is very relevant to today’s society–addressing the tragic effects of war on soldiers and communities–and also reaches outside of the typical definition of classical music to embrace indigenous storytelling and Native American spirituality.

    Thanks for passing this on. Reminds me, a little, of the big piece Chris Theofanides did with the Houston Grand Opera, involving all kinds of ethnic communities around the city. The question for me, though, would be how the city responded. I’m hoping to find classical performances that had real impact on much of a community, not just on us, or on their immediate audience.

  2. says

    I have a perfect example of an orchestra reaching out effectively! Last year the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra put on a heavily-advertised “Rite of Spring” that was billed as “The Return of the Rite” (think “Return of the King”). What was unique was that there was theatre involved in the concert too! The ISO was educated the audience about these composers while at the same time making it more interesting for the audience!

    Actors portraying the composers and others involved with the creationg of the works (at this concert Beethoven and his Sixth Symphony and Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring) took us back to the progressive nature of these works. Dancers from Dance Kaleidescope danced the revolutionary choreography of Nijinsky during the Rite’s introduction, letting us see how different it is from [classical] ballet. Not only did the time with the actors/composers give us an idea about what the composer was thinking, but the monologues melted into a reenactment of the premiere with actors sitting in the audience shouting insults or encouragement and fighting in the aisles, the actor playing the director actually shouting back while ‘Nijinsky’ yelled dance steps with the orchestra playing excerpts and stopping for the dialogue. All of this led to an experience that was exciting and informative, engaging and sympathetic to the genius and humanity of two master composers (as well as the intelligence of the modern audience).

    But why was this new performance mixture of theatre and music so effective? I believe it succeeded in stirring a theatre of Hoosiers to shouting and whistling for more for five minutes afterwards because instead of dumbing down the music to an association with a Barbie film (like Cincinnati did the same year) or raising it above the audience’s criticism by putting it on a lofty pedestal of genius-dom, this brought the music back to the people and context in which it was created. No piece of music was written in a vacuum, but the non-classical-music listener has no reference point from which to listen to the music. This makes the music abstract and hard to grasp, no matter how beautiful or moving it may be. This attitude has alienated not only the masses but also the music lovers who otherwise might identify with this rich western musical heritage but who turn to the down-to-earth and familiar sounds like alternative rock for identity. Instead of creating a shroud of un-approachability around these works, I encourage all [classical] music performers to find new ways of bringing [classical] music closer to your audiences. Tell the composer’s story, make them people, tell the piece’s context, give it a purpose.

    I agree — things like this can be very effective. Did this presentation really galvanize the community? I have to admit that I was looking for more than effective outreach. I’m hoping to find things that become focal points for a community, the way Einstein on the Beach did in 1976 for downtown arts people in New York. I can name no end of effective outreach programs in New York, both before that and since, but none of them got the whole city (or some large part of it) talking.

  3. says

    Hi Greg,

    The only examples I am directly involved in include performances of works that bridge the worlds of classical and pop composers. This past weekend, I brought the Leroy Anderson Concerto with Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue to the Richardson Symphony in Texas:


    Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News remarks that orchestras might consider this style of programming. Other thoughts involve my adaptation of Billy Joel’s classical piano pieces into a large-scale concerto, which I performed several times in 2006 as ‘Symphonic Fantasies’. Currently, the ‘classical’ ‘Concerto no. 1′ by progressive rocker, Keith Emerson, is getting known slowly through my performances with orchestras, 31 years after its premiere. As it took some 15 years to help get the Leroy Anderson concerto on the map, I believe the Emerson can follow a similar future.

    If these are of particualr interest and we should chat more about it for your book in-progress, I would be delighted to do so.

  4. says

    Here’s an odd suggestion. How about Joshua Bell’s subway busking performance? While there wasn’t much light during the performance, there was plenty of heat after it.

    Good thought! Though the heat only came because the Washington Post decided to do a story on it.

    The deeper story, by the way, didn’t circulate as widely as the dismay over the lack of attention Bell got. Any experienced busker could have told him (and one did, on the web — sorry I don’t have the link) that he’d picked the wrong time and place, and that (as the video shows) he didn’t know how to work the crowd.

  5. says

    The problem is not the fault of the classical music world, or of individual

    orchestras etc.

    Too many people are just unaware of classical music, and it’s not their fault.

    If we could just get a lot more people, of whatever age, not just teenagers and young adults to TRY concerts and opera etc, they might be really excited, and want to hear more.

    Also, many people unfortunately buy the myth that classical music is stuffy, boriong and “elitist”, and that if they went to performances, they would be bored out of their minds. Unfortunately, many people’s minds have been closed by this myth.

  6. says

    The Detroit Symphony’s April 2008 performance featuring Honda’s robot ASIMO and Yo-Yo Ma was remarkable, although I’m not sure whether it qualifies as an event that engaged a community. The hall was filled to capacity with both concertgoers and media representatives, and there was a palpable energy. Numerous subscribers were talking about how nice it was to see all of the seats filled. And although I’m sure lots of people came out of curiosity, Yo-Yo Ma’s warmth and enthusiasm superceded the technological achievement of having a robot “conduct.” We traveled from Chicago just to see the performance (family of robot lovers and classical music enthusiasts) and I’ve wondered many times since then if that event helped rejuvenate the rest of the DSO’s season, despite current economic hardships.

  7. says

    Brad Lubman’s new ensemble, Signal, played Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and “You Are (Variations)” at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC,

    and drew a young, indie-rock audience to the club, selling out the venue two nights in a row (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/17/arts/music/17sign.html?ref=arts) Listeners surrounded the ensemble, which was set up in the center of the space; they gave the music their rapt attention, and Reich himself an ovation worthy of a rock star.

    In terms of the cultural moment, it may be that people were responding to the communitarian aspect of the unconducted “Music for 18″ as much as they were to the hypnotic music itself…

  8. says

    I think Steven makes a good point…I’ve been reading in politics class that Americans have drifted away from many communitarian activities and that this created a generation that feels alone and isolated in the individualism that evolved from baby boomers’ time. Perhaps the success and cult following of the movie Fight Club is a manifestation of this need for communitarian feeling. On one hand, Norton’s character is stuck in a world of artificiality with only himself and his bitterness as company. Until he meets Durden and founds Fight Club. He finally feels “alive” in this group of forgotten men until the end when it threatens to destroy him. He realizes that neither the extreme of isolationism nor communism is the truth.

    My point is that the youth generation identified with the movie and feel that it represents their generation’s struggles/emotional conflicts. Just as they identified with the communitarian aspect of Reich’s piece.

  9. says

    I think Steven makes a good point…I’ve been reading in politics class that Americans have drifted away from many communitarian activities and that this created a generation that feels alone and isolated in the individualism that evolved from baby boomers’ time. Perhaps the success and cult following of the movie Fight Club is a manifestation of this need for communitarian feeling. On one hand, Norton’s character is stuck in a world of artificiality with only himself and his bitterness as company. Until he meets Durden and founds Fight Club. He finally feels “alive” in this group of forgotten men until the end when it threatens to destroy him. He realizes that neither the extreme of isolationism nor communism is the truth.

    My point is that the youth generation identified with the movie and feel that it represents their generation’s struggles/emotional conflicts. Just as they identified with the communitarian aspect of Reich’s piece.

  10. Jessica Weissman says

    It’s not recent, but what about Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?

  11. says

    Hi, Greg–

    Just a follow-up to my post and your response on the Navajo Oratorio. The Phoenix Symphony world premiere concerts were sold out. The audience included tribal leaders and members of the Navajo Nation. People of varying backgrounds traveled from outlying areas to attend the concert. So I do believe that it was effective in reaching beyond the traditional audience to people who have never attended a symphony concert before. (Note: the blog security words I get to type in this time are “broader” and “deeper.” Coincidence? Hmmmm…)

    Lovely coincidence, Holly. And it sounds like a lovely event.

    The question now would be what the orchestra does to stay in touch with the Navajo community. I don’t want to be overly skeptical, but that’s been a huge problem elsewhere in the past.

    Cases in point. A couple of decades ago, the American Composers Orchestra did an oratorio by Hannibal Peterson (hope I’m remembering how to spell his name), a jazz composer. Big involvement from the African-American community. And, a bit later, the New York City Opera premiered Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X. They’ve never (at least in my experience) had so many black people in the audience.

    Neither organization ever returned to the black community for anything, and never did anything that the black community would care about. Don’t think this wasn’t noticed. I’ve heard scathing remarks made about this by African-Americans involved with classical music in New York. The only reason there wasn’t any public outcry is that, at least in the past, the African-American community expected this to happen. So they reacted with rage, but also with resignation. The classical music world has to do better in the future.

  12. says

    The American Composers Forum (ACF) is coming to the end of a multi-year project called Continental Harmony. ACF commissioned over 100 new works – at least one in every state. Every project was chosen on the basis of how it would make new music relevant to the participating community.

    There was a concert in Roswell, NM commemorating the 200th & 515th Coastal Artillery Ex-prisoners of World War II – all survivors of the Bataan Death March. In Keene, NH composer Larry Siegel worked with the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies and wrote an oratorio marking the Center’s 25th anniversary and the 70th anniversary of Kristalinacht. A piece written for the community of Scottsville, KY used the continuing tradition of shape note-singing.

    There are dozens more stories like this on the Continental Harmony website (www.continentalharmony.org).

  13. says

    Our culture is becoming more and more specialized and segmented, so no single work or cultural event reaches the same percentage of the public as events and works of the past did. The hits are getting smaller as we move into the Long Tail economy of abundance and people’s attention moves down the tail. Doctor Atomic isn’t having as much impact as Einstein on the Beach had, but neither is Radiohead having as much impact as The Beatles had. So in measuring cultural impact against historical models we have to adjust for cultural decentralization.

    Once we do that, more classical events start to appear broadly culturally significant. The NY Phil trip to Korea. The death of Pavarotti. Johnny Greenwood’s “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” and his score to “There Will Be Blood.” The film score for “The Lord of the Rings.” Sting’s John Dowland record. John Adams’s “Transmigration of Souls.” Met movie theatre broadcasts. Gustavo Dudamel’s appointment in LA. The Beethoven Symphony downloads offered by the BBC in 2005 (1.4 million downloads). Alex Ross’s book. And so on.

    I don’t mean this as an argument that classical music hasn’t receded in mass cultural appeal and relevance–clearly it has–but as a healthy major subculture it’s still managing to impact the mass culture from time to time.

    Thanks, Galen. Exactly the kind of list I was looking for. A very healthy tweak to my thinking.

    I’d quibble with some items, though. Not sure the Adams piece made much impression even on the people who heard it live. Certainly it didn’t become any kind of touchstone for grieving after 9/11. When people (at least people I know) talk about the NY Philharmonic (which premiered the Adams piece) in a 9/11 context, they remember the Brahms Requiem performance right after the event. And these are people inside the classical music world.

    As for the Met theater telecasts, that’s a fascinating case. Much talked about in the press, but not (according to the Met’s own data) attended by many people who aren’t already opera fans. Only 5% of attendees had never seen an opera live. We need some new category for this — media flurries that outshine the reality behind them.

    But, again — great list, and well-taken points. I wonder if the whole long tail business isn’t exaggerated, though. High School Musical, Britney Spears, Madonna (still!), Bruce Springsteen, Obama — sounds like mass culture to me.

    [Added a minute later.] And James Bond! We talked about the new movie in my Juilliard class today. This is a class full of smart, thoughtful people, with strong opinions. But talking about the Bond film sent them into a new dimension of interest and alertness. All our music talk, whether it’s about classical music, jazz, or pop, seems to be about an interest we share (even though the students are either young professional classical musicians, or young professional jazz players). Bond jumped out as a culture we shared — a much deeper thing. And last week, when we talked about the election (impossible not to do that, since we were meeting the morning afterward), I had the same feeling. This was a culture we shared, not just among ourselves, but with everybody (outside of a few southern counties where the Republican vote was stronger than in 2004).

  14. says

    I recently started a production company, The Nouveau Classical Project, that blends classical music, fashion, and nightlife and we’ve sold out all three of our events this year. We have a very specific target audience that we know very well: young, hip, the people that are very much a part of downtown culture. 95% of the audience are non-classical listeners (maybe they are now :).

    I think each classical music establishment–whether it be a group or org., needs to focus on who their target listener is in order to draw more listeners. It will help them market themselves better. This way they will not just seem like another generic group, but a group that makes something specific that the listener will find valuable.

  15. says

    Perhaps two older ones that continue to resonate are performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw” and Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”

    Galen Brown’s list of more recent comments appear to be right on the mark.

    Another less considered example, though, is the extensive amount of classical music in films and, though it feels strange to say it, in video games. (Think of the orchestral music in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, etc.) Wasn’t there even a performance a few years ago of classical/art-music that had appeared in video games? Or perhaps this isn’t what you mean.

    Orchestras have played the Lord of the Rings score. It’s a special presentation that they can book, I believe with Howard Shore conducting (he wrote the score). They do it outside their normal subscription concerts, and it’s a big draw for an audience that otherwise wouldn’t hear the orchestra. I don’t think there’s much, if any, crossover into the orchestras’ main concerts — the Lord of the Rings audience mostly isn’t interested. I do think the Lord of the Rings shows give the orchestra some buzz in the community, but then it dies out. To really maximize that, they’d have to do a lot more that made some community buzz.

    The LA Philharmonic and maybe some other orchestras have presented concerts of videogame music, again with great success with an audience that wouldn’t come to the normal concerts. Again, it’s a good way to root the orchestra deeper in the community, and make some buzz.

  16. Michelle says

    Darin Atwater’s Soulful Symphony, based in Baltimore and also performing in DC. They’re a 75-member symphony orchestra dedicated to the celebration of multicultural musical idioms within a classical framework…which is to say, they rock. Darin composes some neat original works, but he also arranges core classical rep in new styles…a jazz version of Ravel’s Pavane, for example.

    Soulful Symphony has become a cultural touchstone in Baltimore, particularly among the city’s African American community. The city takes pride in Soulful Symphony, and they usually perform to packed houses. But I think what’s more impressive is how they draw a completely diverse crowd in DC-young, old, black, white, asian…all completely engrossed in a unique musical experience.

    I’ve never seen a more engaged and excited symphony audience, and it’s connecting new people to classical music.

  17. Yvonne says

    «I’d love to know about classical performances that engaged a community, reaching far beyond the normal orbit of classical music fans. …classical performances that rang to the heart of either current culture — not just in theory, but in practice, with wide response from many people — or some particular community.»

    Among the things that classical music needs to do is to wake up its own, existing community.

    So while my example may not fit your requirement of reaching well beyond an orbit of fans (although it did that a little), I think it does fit the bill as far as ringing to the heart of current culture, and of provoking a wide response from the people who experienced it.

    Earlier this year the Sydney Symphony performed the premiere of Kalkadungu, a programmatic work by William Barton (also the didgeridoo and electric guitar soloist in the piece) and Matthew Hindson (a “younger” classical composer known for his frequent incorporation of pop culture elements in his music, not that this was an overt feature of this piece). Kalkadungu was performed in three concerts: two in a evening series intended primarily for high school groups but also attracting a substantial grown-up audience, and one in a short morning concert that attracts a much older audience. I will also add that, quite by happen-stance, the concerts occurred not longer after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to indigenous Australians. And the performances were preceded by a traditional “welcome to country”.

    The effect of this piece on this most diverse of audience groups (across the three concerts) was tremendous. There was a palpable awareness in the hall that this was a piece and a performance of some moment and real significance. People were as much moved by what it represented to them as Australians as by what they heard and saw on the stage; they were perhaps more moved by this music than by any masterpiece of the canon in their recent concert-going.

    To give an idea of the overwhelming audience response (and I quote in general terms and from memory): give us more of the modern pieces (from a morning concert subscriber); when will you perform it again? and will you record it soon?; one of the most important things you’ve done; I nearly cried it was so powerful…

    Did this concert get the whole city talking? No. Did it reach the full breadth of the indigenous community. I suspect only a subsection. According to your criteria it’s flawed. But the thing that struck me was the profound impact that it had on the people who did hear it (say, 6500, more if you count the national broadcast).

    If classical music can touch the hearts of its fans instead of lulling them into a false sense of security with the same-old same-old then we have a start. If we can’t touch the hearts our fans, if we can’t truly move and excite them through repertoire and performances and the love with which these are presented, what hope have we of touching the hearts of anyone else?

    You’re the voice of truth, Yvonne. Thanks so much for this. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, or in our case, classical music’s case, with a lot of steps, taken by so many of us, separately and together. What you describe sounds wonderful, and your last point is eloquent. We need to wake ourselves up. A friend of mine who works for a big foundation got tired of hearing people say the arts are “transformative,” and challenged his staff to name arts events that truly had transformed them. But if we wake up, maybe we’ll create some transformation, just as you describe.

  18. says

    Hi, Greg — A late addition to your comments on this issue. I’ve lived in Berlin for the last three years, a city where classical music (whether of the pre-20th century or up-to-the-minute variety) seems to have kept a far deeper relevance to listeners of every age than in most U.S. cities. One concert series may go particularly to what you’re looking for, however. It’s essentially a club night, called Yellow Lounge, sponsored by Deutsche Grammophon, which once every few weeks takes over one of the city’s high-profile dance clubs for a chamber music concert and DJ performance.

    The artists tend to work from the standard repertoire, and are usually plugging their latest DG album. They typically spend a fair amount of time introducing their work, in a far more personal setting than a concert all. The DJs play all classical pieces, through speakers built for mind-numbing techno. Lets you feel the cellos in your guts, particular with haunting modern pieces. The clubs range from a post-apocalyptic-looking former power station to former Soviet-era halls, making the experience anything but staid. Although largely unadvertised, the nights almost always fill up to the point of turning people away, with long lines stretching out the door just as if it were a normal dance club night.

    Definitely has made for some of the best live “classical” experience I’ve had.

    Thanks, John. Very good to know about. One of the many changes sweeping through classical music. Nobody catalogues these things, so the only way to find out about most of them, in my experience, is word of mouth. Or word of blog comment. Thanks again!