Modernizing Classical Music

Jack Fleming

The problem with classical music today has nothing to do with the music itself. Rather, notable flaws in the presentation and accessibility of this genre are what must be addressed in order for it to be revitalized – its “stodgy” reputation must be firmly left behind. Classical music should not be the exclusive domain of rich, elderly white people; such glorious, groundbreaking music needs to be easily accessible to everyone. In our haste to honor the musical giants of the past, we sometimes fail to remember that these composers were not conservative guardians of ancient musical traditions. Often, they were profoundly passionate musical thinkers hell-bent on creating revolutionary works. In order to truly honor such figures’ legacies, addressing antiquated concert hall etiquette and encouraging the free proliferation of classical records must take place.

Successfully broadening classical music’s audience requires acknowledgment of its status in popular culture: classical is essentially an ever-present background music typically enjoyed (or ignored) in the moment then promptly forgotten. The genre enjoys prominence in TV shows, commercials and movies, but is nonetheless remarkably impersonal – the best classical musicians seem to rarely venture outside symphony hall. Cambridge Philharmonic media director Will Roseliep suggests classical music take its cue from hip-hop in order to expand its audience – classical music distributors should treat their records like mixtapes and essentially “give it away for free and recoup later” in order to develop a loyal, diverse listener base. Additionally, Roseliep encourages orchestras and other classical ensembles to put on spontaneous concerts in public venues; the genre certainly doesn’t need ornate concert halls in order to thrive.

Concert hall etiquette is so thoroughly structured and rigid that it only serves to alienate potential listeners. No clapping between symphonic movements? Absolute silence for the duration of a performance? No other musical genre demands such unnatural emotional restraint from its listeners. Imagine a jazz concert where listeners were angrily shushed if they attempted to clap in time to the music. Or a Taylor Swift performance where concertgoers were forbidden to dance when inspired. Regimented concert hall decorum would have likely seemed bizarre to figures like Beethoven and Mozart. Both men were greatly appreciative of clapping between various movements of their pieces – it was considered a compliment and an authentic response to the emotionally moving nature of their works. Avoiding such emotional outpourings wouldn’t make sense in any other musical context and doesn’t in classical either.

The future of classical music is far from hopeless. The LA Philharmonic’s embrace of Gustavo Dudamel and his founding and leadership of YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles – an orchestra for low-income children with no prior music experience) indicates that bringing classical music to new audiences and younger generations is completely within our grasp. Through changing concert hall etiquette, widely distributing free classical records, and frequently bringing music ensembles to public spaces, the genre can certainly remain essential in the long-term. Classical music will always be breathtaking – it’s just our presentation of it that needs some work.