Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Finding the Contemporary in Classical Music

Classical music has been slowly decomposing most notably over the past few decades, illustrated in declining ticket sales and CD purchases. My studies at Northwestern have exposed me to a variety of genres in music, with particular emphasis on classical music. The articles below share my passion for the arts, with varying concern for the future of classical music.  

A recent article on Slate.com commented on the not so subtle reality of classical music’s rapid spiral toward extinction. Author Mark Vanhoenacker lists declining figures in concert attendances (less than 9% have seen one per year) CD purchases (down approximately 21% in 2012), community opportunities and music education programs. This trend is perpetuated in television shows and generation gaps, discouraging concertgoers and excluding of classical music from acceptable music tastes. Vanhoenacker provides his support for local and large-scale inclusion projects like Groupmuse that engage communities, but fears for the future of the art form.

In response to Vanhoenacker’s article, Jay Gabler of Minnesota Public Radio collected responses from members of MPR as well as music directors, businessmen, and performers across the country. Gabler and his colleagues are enthusiastic for the future of classical music, listing new educational programs, exciting new literature and enthusiastic performers as building blocks for reestablishing, or in some opinions, growing the already flourishing genre. "The 500-year old tradition remains vibrant today because of [the American youth's] enthusiasm about the discovery of what it means to be alive," claims Michael Tilson Thomas, director for the New World Symphony.

With Vahoenacker and Gabler's insight, musicians, music directors and administrators should strongly consider the following action items to attract new and existing audiences to the classical genre and outlast declining sales and performance attendees.

1) Keep it relevant: Design concert programs that deal with contemporary issues, and can translate to current issues in culture, politics or relationships as an meaningful form of expression.

2) Share meaningfully: Describe how composers tackle modern issues through their music in relatable terminology for persons of all ages, ethnicities, religions and demographics to understand.

3) Respond: Allow followers to communicate with organizations and participate in thoughtful discussions via social media.

Given these action items, followers should be moved to resolve conflict and experience more of the discussion through the performance of these various works. The end goal is to promote the pieces performed by any organization or ensemble, and to encourage new audiences to understand how contemporary issues have been in discussion for hundreds of years, learning from the art of the past to inform the future.

Jack McHugh is a senior Music Education and Integrated Marketing Communications student at Northwestern University. Jack rotates through practice rooms on trumpet, piano and voice, and looks forward to teaching choral and wind ensembles in Shanghai this fall. Talk to him @mchughjn


  1. Insightful post. I would add that I think more emphasis should be given to accessible music of our own time. Works like the violin concerto of John Adams, the Clarinet concerto of John Corigliano, and classical music by John Williams (though his film scores are also excellent symphonic music) are relevant and exciting to contemporary audiences.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mr. A! I agree- there's a number of modern works that are accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, and are still considered great works of music. Hopefully in the next few years we can see some of these contemporary classics making more rounds in the classical circuit.

  2. #4 Remove barriers ruthlessly. Length of performance, size and appearance of ensemble, dress code, social audience conduct rules, time of performance - interdisciplinary work. All of course needs to be done while maintaining a net audience/relevance gain.

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