Sun, Dec 19, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Can classical rise from the dead?

Operas, symphony orchestras and chamber music need to take more risks, offer genre-bending music and step outside traditional concert halls to play in rock clubs and coffee shops

By Kyle MacMillan  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, NEW YORK

Equally important is finding new ways to market classical music, not being afraid to step down from the field’s lofty perch and get out there, compete and really woo audiences, using Facebook, YouTube and the host of other new technologies.

The challenges are huge. Classical music is a centuries-old form steeped in tradition, and change doesn’t come easily. Some people in the field are uncomfortable with even the mention of coolness and classical music in the same sentence.

When this subject was broached with famed violinist Hilary Hahn in an e-mail, she replied: “Is this middle school? I’m not sure pointedly trying to be cool helps anyone or anything.”

Her concern is understandable. Too often in our culture, making something more accessible means dumbing it down.

It is easy to worry that classical music will get engulfed in the anti-intellectualism that seems to be gathering strength, as evidenced by politicians who delight in broken grammar and made-up words like “refudiate,” and a steady decline in reading, as a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study documented.

But changing classical music doesn’t have to mean cheapening it. The unlikely world of television offers one possible template.

That “vast wasteland,” as former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow famously labeled it in 1961, has become home to some of the most compelling storytelling anywhere.

Thought-provoking, issues-oriented programs such as Deadwood, Mad Men and The Wire have managed to achieve intelligence and sophistication in one of the most democratic and acceptable entertainment vehicles around.

In short, art and accessibility can work together.

For an ideal role model, the classical music world need only peer into its own recent past at the towering figure of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), America’s most influential classical musician of the 20th century.

Bernstein was an acclaimed conductor and pianist as well as a composer who was at home writing for Broadway as well as the concert hall. He brought visible intensity and passion to everything he did — never hesitating to leap up from the podium to drive home a pivotal point in a score.

He was a master communicator and teacher who was comfortable in virtually any setting and, as he demonstrated with his 53 televised Young People’s Concerts, had a knack for making classical music understandable, approachable and even fun.

Perhaps most important, he didn’t see classical music as merely entertainment but also as a larger force for transformation and healing, as he made clear with his December 1989 concert in Germany celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Through the sheer force of his personality, the breadth of his accomplishments and his obvious sense of style, Bernstein transcended classical music and became a widely recognized figure in culture at large.

Still a force to be reckoned with 20 years after his death, he was a true superstar with intellectual heft and an enduring, still-evolving legacy. Think we’ll be saying that about Lady Gaga and Brangelina 50 years from now?

Some of his dozens of proteges, like internationally known conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Marin Alsop, have worked hard to carry on his tradition. But so far, at least, they have not achieved the maestro’s stature.

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