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In Search of the Holy Grail

At a recent panel presentation attended by numerous people in Chicago’s music community¸ I listened intently as the panelists discussed the future of classical music. The conversation inevitably featured a lot of hand wringing and dire predictions. It seems that everyone is worried about how to attract younger audience members¸ about getting larger audiences in general¸ and even about the continued relevance of classical music organizations.

As I listened to this¸ I couldn’t help but think how removed I am from these concerns. As the director of Access Contemporary Music¸ an organization dedicated to promoting the music of living composers¸ I realized that¸ while we in the contemporary music community certainly have our challenges¸ attracting young people is not one of them.
I never hear any of my colleagues complain about audience size¸ and I certainly never hear anyone wishing that they could appeal to younger audiences. If anything¸ we have the opposite problem! We could really use more older people with disposable income and a history of philanthropic giving in our audiences.
At one of our recent concerts I spoke with a person who works at a funding organization in town and was dismayed to hear him say that young audience members are the “holy grail” for any arts organization. I was surprised how off the mark this was for our organization and that someone who should be “in the know” doesn’t realize that there are different kinds of classical music organizations¸ with very different challenges.

We can’t get older people to come to our concerts because many of them are old enough to have had bad experiences with contemporary music. They’ve seen the self–indulgent performers dressed all in black who don’t communicate anything¸ who come on stage and bloop¸ bleep and squawk and then pretentiously walk off. I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of this performance practice and am truly happy that it is rarely seen in contemporary music circles any more. But the damage has been done¸ and the “holy grail” for us is now the silver–haired couple willing to listen to a performance of music by a composer impolite enough to be still alive or only recently dead.
It seems silly to me that the classical world has created a culture that glorifies a select group of works¸ all over a hundred years old¸ and then worries about the future of their rarified form of ancestor worship. It’s as if a museum stated that there would be no additional acquisitions of art¸ no new shows or exhibits¸ but only a series of renowned scholars coming to the museum to interpret and expound upon the old art that the museum itself has proclaimed a masterpiece.

It is to me a bitter irony that most of the time when people talk about the future of classical music they are actually talking about future performances of music from the past¸ despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of composers in the world writing music and thereby extending the tradition and creating an actual future for it.
As a composer and as the director of a contemporary music organization¸ it has always been my fond hope that one day there will be no need for organizations that specialize in the performance of contemporary music. There will just be ensembles large and small performing music from every part of the living¸ evolving compositional spectrum. Judging by what I’ve been hearing lately–and who I’ve been seeing at the performances of organizations like ours–it seems likely that more up-to-date programming might just help classical organizations find their holy grail.


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