Can youth orchestras save classical music?

Under the steady baton of Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, the energized playing of the Seattle Youth Symphony, and a heavenly contribution from the Seattle Choral Company (Fred Coleman, the Seattle Choral Company’s music director is a SYSO alum), Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection Symphony) thundered across the heavens this past Sunday. Those of us who made it to Benaroya Hall for the concert knew we were in for a sonic treat when a small statured first violinist took a microphone and described Mahler’s last movement as “cool.”

Seattle is lucky to have a youth orchestra program as large, talented as the Seattle Youth Symphony. With public schools squeezing arts education and interest waning in classical music generally, youth orchestras like the SYSO could be essential to ensuring classical music doesn’t wither away like many people predict will happen.

For the family behind me, the health of classical music wasn’t a topic on their minds. They bantered casually about the musicians on stage, wondered how the principal players for each section were selected, and candidly confessed their unfamiliarity with Gustav Mahler. Naiveté of this sort would be frowned on by experienced concert goers. One might conclude that naïve concert goers are also unserious. Sunday’s audience proved otherwise. It was attentive, generous, and engaged. Unlike other concerts I’ve been too, there was little shuffling through the program during slow movements, pianissimos weren’t mauled by a barrage of unseasonal coughing, and when the first movement — a dour and emotionally depleting slog, — ended there was generous, guilt-free applause.

As audiences age, arts administrators have focused considerable outreach and audience development efforts on young adults. A few weeks ago, I heard a Seattle Symphony board member talk about next season’s rush hour concerts – shorter programs with an earlier start time – as a new initiative to capture the entertainment dollars of this elusive demographic.

There is no question young adults are a valuable constituency. Just as important, perhaps more so, are people nearing middle age, in their prime earning years, with most of their parental responsibilities behind them. Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical critic has written about this same demographic and an alarming downward trend in “generational participation.” The generational groups Ross is most concerned about are the ones best poised to immediately fill tomorrow’s seats when today’s audience is gone. These generational groups are the Seattle Youth Symphony’s audience – parents, aunts, and uncles.

Because youth orchestras are engaging this demographic already, strong youth orchestra programs now could mean strong classical music audiences in the future.

When Gerard Schwarz conducts Mahler’s Second Symphony to close out his twenty six years as the SSO’s music director he might have to thank the SYSO for at least some of the people in the audience waiting for the down beat and the the symphony’s opening tremolos.

Mahler’s Second Symphony was an appropriate choice for Sunday’s concert. The symphony — a five movement behemoth — lumbers, sings, dances, and yearns before finally reaching a triumphant apex. Mahler’s masterpiece resembles both the current, dire conventional wisdom on the future of classical music but it t also resembles a future in which classical music exists with renewed cultural importance. Looking at the first and last movement of the Resurrection Symphony, the first movement describes how many people feel about classical music now – an art form at the end of its cultural relevance.

But the drab first movement isn’t the end of the symphony or classical music as we know it, it is only the beginning. As the orchestra presented each subsequent movement, the opening lament became a relic of the past and not a predictor of the future. When the final movement came, it oozed the emotional honesty of youth and with this the promise of a better future. Radcliffe and the SYSO made us believe in a heavenly power and made me believe in the future of classical music.

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6 thoughts on “Can youth orchestras save classical music?

  1. Interesting article, Zach. I would hope that some of your predictions come to pass.

    I’m curious about the graph you’ve included – what was the source? The population sampled would be interesting to know, particularly with the huge swell and then drop-off in the “early boomer” group. The numbers overall are certainly discouraging, wherever they come from.

  2. Before we can begin to argue the point, we need to be able to define what we mean by “classical”. If we are talking about Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, et cetera, “classical” music is as dead as Latin, the language. It is just as possible for youth groups to perform 21st century compositions as it is for major orchestras, probably even more so.
    In fact it would seem to me that the function of youth groups should be to do just that.
    I’m beginning to wonder if the job of “music director” has the same requirements the job of male soprano used to have.

  3. Hi Zach,
    The board of the Thalia Symphony Orchestra wanted me to let you know that we have hired Stephen Radcliffe as our new music director. He will be replacing Dr. Eric Hanson, who is retiring after 23 years as our director. We’re sorry to see Dr. Hanson go but are very excited about working with Stephen Radcliffe. Dr. Hanson’s last concert will take place on June 3rd at 7:30 in the First Free Methodist Church in Queen Anne.

  4. Finally, someone gets it! Youth Orchestras train both the future artists and the future audiences for symphonic music by instilling a life-long love and appreciation for the art form. Students that go through a quality school and youth orchestra training programs are far more likely to become ticket buyers, subscribers, donors, volunteers and board members of orchestras in whatever communities they live, and in whatever professions they choose. If professional orchestras across America were to take even a fraction of the funds they spend on “exposure” concerts, and instead use that funding to assist school music teachers in building their instrumental programs, a decade from now (or less) there would be far more young people at their subscription concerts.

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