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Columns

'Who Belongs at the Orchestra?'

By Leigh M. Wilson, Contributing Opinion Writer
Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday in October. You’ve just had a long, lucrative day at the office, and as you leave, your co-worker asks about your plans for the evening. “It’s Thursday, we’re going to the symphony,” you reply.

You enter your home at 5:15 and greet your lovely wife, JD in hand for cocktail hour. Your kids present drawings of astronauts they made at school that day. After finishing your drink, you change into your evening suit. There’s a knock at the door. It’s the babysitter. You wish her a good night as you and your wife get in the car and drive into the city, where you have dinner reservations at your favorite sushi restaurant. The sashimi and sake are excellent as always, and you finish by 7:45. You walk to Symphony Hall, find your reserved seats on the first balcony, and enjoy a night of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. The concert starts at 8:05 and is over by 10:20. You return to your car and drive home, arriving back at 10:50 to pay the babysitter and retire to bed.

Perhaps this was your grandparents’ weekly routine fifty years ago, but it’s probably not yours. Unlike most people today, they probably grew up listening to classical music and valued the chance to hear it performed live. Decades later though, these people frankly aren’t here anymore. They’ve either passed or are too old to attend a concert in-person.

And yet, orchestras in America still largely assume this antiquated lifestyle for their patrons. Weekly tickets cost thousands of dollars a year, which doesn’t include considerations for parking or childcare. Most performances begin at 8 p.m., to give time for dinner out after work, and let out well after 10, even though a significant portion of their patronage is retired. An unspoken symphony etiquette is highly emphasized; any extraneous audience noise reduces the purity of the performance for others.

One look at the people around you and it’s obvious that there is a single demographic to which orchestras cater: the white, wealthy, and elderly. Retirement centers frequently send entire vans of their residents to classical performances, and ushers rush to help those with walkers, canes, and wheelchairs through the queue to their seats. Every performance is a well-choreographed dance to get the most frail slice of America into a large auditorium. And to what end? Impossibly tight budgets have led to extended lockouts, strikes, and bankruptcy filings of the major orchestras in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Atlanta — all just in the past decade.

Orchestras desperately need new patronage, but attending a concert for the first time as a young person is difficult. There are so many prerequisites — an interest in classical music, money and time in the evening to spare, and some awareness of concert etiquette— that it’s no surprise most people simply don’t even try, or go once and never return. A chance to dress up with a date and attend a concert seems like a good idea, until this never-ending Mozart piano concerto sounds like musical sawdust, and you’re then turned off of classical music for years to come. Or, as an enthusiastic classical music neophyte, you mistakenly clap at the end of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Fifth, prompting shushes from those around you. The traditional classical performance is simply a user-unfriendly experience that keeps newcomers out.

As classical music becomes less relevant to younger generations, orchestra concerts are becoming lonely places, even as music continues to thrive elsewhere. The average college student has a vast knowledge of current artists and their artistic output, and discovers new music every day. Yet classical music, the home genre of some of the brightest and most well-received musicians, is relegated to dusty corners and bottom shelves. To let centuries of stimulating music be forgotten, simply because of an intimidation scheme, would be a gross disservice to ourselves. Art is not expendable like that.

In the spirit of the current national push for inclusion, orchestras need to launch their own inclusion campaign: one that actively welcomes all ages to their events. If they want a younger audience, they’ll have to first introduce their best music to young people where they congregate: on streaming services and social media platforms. If you were to begin exploring classical music, a vast genre that defies generalization, would you know where to start? What if orchestras had easy-access playlists of the most exciting and short classical pieces in the repertoire, that continuously suggested more music based on your preferences?

It would finally establish a pipeline of younger fans and eventually pay dividends for struggling American arts organizations and their newly devoted listeners.

Who belongs at an orchestra concert? You do. There is classical music for you, and everyone of all tastes. The music industry just hasn’t done a good job of showing you where to look.

Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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