David and Art - "Learning the Classics"

Apr 20, 2020

If you like classical music, do you remember where and how you acquired your taste for it?  This is no small question these days.  Any number of studies indicate that the audiences for symphony orchestras are slowly shrinking.  Therefore, getting what’s known as “classical” music into the ears of more people is an important mission for any orchestra, and a daunting challenge as well.

There’s something of a consensus that such tastes are largely developed in youth, and that may well be the case. My earliest memory of classical music is of an album my parents had of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, recorded back in 1960.  I was captivated by it, and vividly remember listening to it over and over.  I listened to it on the way in to work this morning.  It’s still good.

Bernstein himself was dedicated to educating young people about orchestral music.  Beginning in 1958 when rock and roll was sweeping the country, he took over the New York 

Philharmonic’s famous “Young People’s Concerts.”  He eventually did more than 50 of them over the next 14 years.  Bernstein wrote the script for his narration and chose the music.  The concerts were broadcast live on CBS television, and each one either looked at a particular composer, a theme, or a musical question like “What Does Music Mean?” or “What is a ‘Mode’?”  Today you can watch them on YouTube.

The broader challenge behind all this however, is one that involves not only orchestras.  Any number of arts venues that don’t traffic in what’s popular at the moment face the same trouble:  how does something like an art museum or a ballet company cut through the din of popular culture?  How do you let young people know that there’s something out there beyond what’s popular today that is worth their attention, even though it may not be as immediately understandable as the latest Marvel movie?

If a good answer is to get it in front of kids when they’re young, one obvious avenue to do this is through the schools.  But by now every arts supporter knows that such instruction is endangered, with fine arts teachers being let go right and left as districts trim their budgets. 

Continually encouraging school boards not to cut arts programs would be one course of action; another is for individuals to get involved too. People who love, say, orchestral music, should talk it up and introduce people to it, especially their children. It’s simply up to us.  Everyone talks about the elements of pop culture, and that’s partly why they’re popular.  Beethoven, Sibelius, and Bach may not break into today’s top-40 list, but they’re worth talking about too.  Plus, at their age, they’ve already proven to have plenty of staying power