During the past decade, reports about the impending death of classical music have arrived with such regularity that doom-saying is practically...

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During the past decade, reports about the impending death of classical music have arrived with such regularity that doom-saying is practically a full-time activity for several arts journalists.

Today’s pop culture, they say, with the idol-of-the-moment TV spectaculars and the cult of celebrity — combined with the serious decline of music education in many school districts — has built a society in which classical music is terra incognita to most people. Concert activity, buoyed up by a handful of aging donors, is confined mainly to blue-haired dowagers who make their increasingly decrepit way to the halls in order to hear the same stale pieces performed by the same bored musicians.

Or so they say.

Attendees at a national classical-music summit held at Seattle University last month, however, had a whole span of quite different views. Presented jointly by Seattle U. and Bellevue Philharmonic CEO Jennifer McCausland, the summit brought in representatives from coast to coast — Carnegie Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, The Washington Post, and several others — and described a classical-music industry that is doing considerably more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Most of them, in fact, took a line pretty close to that of moderator and Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, whose introductory remarks included this observation: “This is the most positive time in my career for classical music. When I came to Seattle 25 years ago, the Symphony had 4,000 subscribers; now we have more than 35,000.” And when you count education and community programs, the Symphony reaches 315,000 people a year.

Schwarz, who is 60, has a long history in this art form, from his school days as an aspiring trumpeter to music directorships in locations from Tokyo to Los Angeles, New York and Liverpool. Even given the challenges of his past few years, including the well-publicized strife with members of the Seattle Symphony, his optimism about the classical field was evident — and it was shared by the majority of those who came to discuss the future of this art form.

That future lies in education.

But in today’s public schools, educators are often asked to choose between providing for the arts and providing for such other vital subjects as computer instruction. In Seattle there are bright spots, where inspiring teachers and dedicated parents nurture such programs as Garfield High School’s orchestra and jazz programs. Not every school is that lucky; we’re still far from enabling every child who would like to study instrumental music.

Innovative programs

At the forum, speaker after speaker described what their orchestra, their opera company, their educational institution was doing to reach into the community and (especially) its schools. If the school districts can’t muster the funding and manpower to teach youngsters about great music and how to play it, these groups aren’t going to sit idly by while their art form fails to renew itself.

Among the more interesting presentations: Leni Boorstin of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose orchestra will soon be led by the visionary 27-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, talked about Venezuela’s much-admired “El Sistema” — which arose in a garage in the 1970s and now involves more youth-orchestra players than the country’s youth soccer teams. With money from Venezuela’s health department, El Sistema has brought about tremendous social change by giving kids free instruments and free instruction — starting at age 2 — in more than 50 community music schools that take over when school gets out. As Boorstin notes, “It keeps them off the streets,” and through eight different political regimes, El Sistema has spawned 200 children’s and youth orchestras (and 30 professional orchestras).

The top youth orchestra, named for Venezuelan national hero Simón Bolívar, recently toured major cities in the U.S. to rapturous acclaim, led by Dudamel, himself an El Sistema graduate.

Not surprisingly, the L.A. Phil is taking a leaf out of El Sistema’s book, establishing youth orchestras in underserved areas of L.A. and giving kids free instruments and lessons in conjunction with community partners.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Symphony is hopping right into the schools with “Adventures in Music,” a free program that reaches every child in every one of San Francisco’s public elementary schools (plus several parochial and independent schools, for a total of 91 schools). The music curriculum is tied to the schools’ other subjects, from math to history, and the San Franciscans also go into communities as far afield as Fresno to work with teachers and create an infrastructure of support for music education among local institutions and companies.

The orchestra’s telegenic maestro, Michael Tilson Thomas, is also getting the word out with a sophisticated series of PBS broadcasts, “Keeping Score,” in which great works are explored in their cultural context.

Here at home, Seattle Opera, which works with 30 area high schools (some of them in Eastern Washington), did a demonstration of the opera segment they’re taking to the kids: a scaled-down, colloquial-English version of the first act of Wagner’s mighty “Ring,” in which talented, frisky members of the Seattle Opera Young Artist sing and act with piano accompaniment. The presentation had everyone riveted, as the three young “Rhinemaidens” teased and taunted the ugly dwarf who was later to take a revenge that corrupted and ultimately ended the world. The parallels to contemporary playground bullying, to the hostile treatment of youthful outsiders who later explode into vengeful violence, were scarily clear.

Not all the participants in the classical summit were equally sanguine. Journalist/composer Greg Sandow, a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, was the program’s provocateur. He cited a survey that showed a gradual rise in the median age of classical concertgoers over several decades, as well as a national survey (by the League of American Orchestras) showing a decline in total sales since the mid-’90s (except for an uptick in the past two years).

Sandow played a simple, four-chord Lucinda Williams song and called it an example of “a real feat of composition.” He suggested classical music should “blend with pop culture and rejoin the world,” and urged presenters to make performances more informal and more amenable to the audience chatting, interrupting, applauding; more, in short, like pop music.

Not everyone would agree. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini took a different view in a piece last December, when he wrote: “to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music.”

Tommasini went on: “Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability — and patience — to listen to something long [is] crucial to an appreciation of classical music.”

What about the aging of classical audiences? Henry Fogel, former 18-year president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association who became president of the League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) in 2003, says in his blog “On the Record” that such death knells have been rung for many decades: “The first time I saw imminent death predicted for classical music was in a 1962 editorial in Stereo Review, which observed (without evidence) that the audience was aging significantly, and that if something wasn’t done soon we would see some major orchestras folding. Guess what? We’re still here, and doing better than ever.”

Life on the Web

While debates go on about the future of classical music, there are encouraging signs of life in this art form all over the globe. Some of the optimism is generated by classical-music downloads, which have taken off like a rocket as symphony orchestras launch their own private music labels and offer both downloads and live streaming on the Internet. Never has so much classical music been so widely accessible: a trip to YouTube will let you see and hear great performers of the past and present singing arias, playing piano preludes and conducting orchestras.

Newsweek recently reported that while total sales in all music categories (on- and offline) fell 5 percent last year, “classical sales grew by a whopping 22 percent.”

In the sphere of live performance, every year sees an expansion of symphony, opera and chamber programming, and people are buying more tickets all the time. Just ask the Seattle Chamber Music Society, whose summer festival at the Lakeside School was so consistently sold out that they added a new Eastside festival, which also has been selling out. Imaginative and experimental chamber music also is doing well; Seattle-based Quinton Morris and his ensemble the Young Eight play Mendelssohn’s Octet right alongside hits from 50 Cent and Beyoncé, and attract turn-away crowds.

Even the most expensive form of classical music, grand opera, still manifests a tremendous appeal: the Metropolitan Opera sold $2 million of tickets in one day last summer, and whenever Seattle Opera stages Wagner’s “Ring,” all 12 available performances (more than 36,000 seats) sell out in a single day.

Meanwhile, classical music is gaining popularity in other countries, such as China, where music teachers are in demand and the country has become the world’s largest instrument-making country, churning out 370,000 pianos and about 2.5 million violins annually.

In England, Classic FM reported last December that nearly half a million listeners under 15 years old regularly tune in. In Canada, music critic John Terauds reports sellouts by both the Canadian Opera Company and “the entire season of concerts by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto — which has the most uncool name of any music presenter in the city.” And in Korea, the pop composers are sampling Bach and Beethoven to create hits for such divas as BoA and Baek Ji-young.

Still, the Toronto-based musician Owen Pallett recently said in a forum hosted by The LA Weekly, “I love new classical music, but the world prefers Amy Winehouse, and so do I. New classical composers are fighting an uphill battle for any sort of relevance.”

Reasons for hope

But does classical music really need to fight this uphill battle? As Seattle Opera’s education director Perry Lorenzo says, classical music “has never been for everybody.” It isn’t pop music, no matter how hard people may try to bridge that gap or to dumb it down. But as long as music education — that is, education about all music, playing all instruments — can be brought back to thrive in our schools, kids will have the right to choose what they love to hear and play, and the means to do both with intelligence and good training.

Gerard Schwarz, who recently judged a KZOK Radio competition in which 46 marching bands played their own arrangements — including a band from tiny Decatur Island — says, “We [classical musicians] don’t have to answer the question ‘are we relevant’ anymore. We are everywhere.”

What’s the best reason for hope? The brilliant young Seattle Opera singers and players — including violinists Marié Rossano and Simone Porter, and cellist Joshua Roman — who represent the potential of tomorrow. Listening to them perform at the summit was enough to remind everyone there why they care about classical music in the first place, and to work for its secure future.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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