by Linell Smith
Artistic excellence is no longer enough to sustain a professional career in classical music. How must musicians adapt—and what role should conservatories play?
Frances Pollock intends to graduate from Peabody with a master’s degree in voice and the experience of composing and producing a crowd-funded opera—her original work about the trial of George Stinney, the 14-year old African American who became the youngest U.S. citizen to be executed in the 20th century.
The topic of racial injustice is close to the heart of the 24-year-old composer from South Carolina, and Pollock believes that conservatory-trained musicians should be able to create and share art music that calls attention to such vital topics.
“How do we make classical music a public service, something that people value and is relevant to their lives?” she wonders. It’s a question that leaders at Peabody are considering as they plot the future of the nation’s oldest conservatory. Recently, it also formed the basis for a lively discussion at “What’s Next for Classical Music?” a symposium for faculty and students held in Friedberg Hall in October.
The event was the brainchild of Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, who also served as its moderator. The panel included Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Ben Cameron, director for arts funding at the Doris Duke Charitable Trust; Thomas Dolby, professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University; Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras; and Peabody faculty artist and flutist Marina Piccinini.
In a wide-ranging conversation that was also live-streamed to several hundred viewers, the group discussed how the environment for classical music is changing, how professional musicians can adapt to it, and what role conservatories should play—both in terms of developing artists and in building audiences for them.
One point upon which all agreed: Artistic excellence is not enough to sustain a professional career. “Being a great player is no longer the end point; it’s the starting point,” Bronstein said. “We all know how hard it is to get to that point, and that hasn’t changed. But the reality is that it’s not enough.”
Panelists spoke of the need for young artists to know how to create and engage with a fan base through social media and to form collaborative partnerships that can illuminate the emotional core of their music. They urged students to be open-minded and entrepreneurial.
“There’s no real formula for being successful,” Marin Alsop told the audience. “You can put together almost any kind of life for yourself. It’s all up to you. It’s whatever you want to make it. The more creative and proactive, the more a good citizen of the world you are, the better your life will be.”
She urged them not to delay. As the conservatory-trained child of symphony orchestra musicians, Alsop said that she learned about marketing, how to make a program compelling, and how to raise money only after she graduated. When she could not find conducting work, she decided to create her own ensemble. Now, as the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, she continues to develop audiences through such innovative programs as OrchKids, an after school music education program that serves 750 Baltimore city students pre-K through 8th grade. Many teachers in the program are Peabody faculty and staff members.
“Rusty Musicians,” another community-building program, brings amateur adult musicians on stage with the BSO to rehearse and play through works like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. “When I first said, ‘I think we should invite some non-professionals to play with us,’ one musician said, ‘Yeah, and tomorrow I’m going to perform brain surgery!’” Alsop recalled. “They said, ‘How will we select the people?’ I said, ‘It’s not about perfection; it’s about having a human experience.’
“Now we have these very successful evenings that are incredibly rewarding. It’s about connecting with people over music.”
Other panelists also called for expanding the scope of classical music performance. “It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you view classical music as removed from popular culture, you’re going to exclude exactly the kind of young audiences you need to keep it thriving,” Thomas Dolby said.
Marina Piccinini emphasized the importance of playing in untraditional places, whether apartment lobbies or eclectic musical showcases such as Le Poisson Rouge in New York. “Experience is everything,” she said. “Supporting performances in many platforms is a huge way we can help support our students.”
Many of these young musicians—both those in the hall and those following online—asked questions throughout the afternoon: Should the curriculum change to reflect greater collaboration with groups beyond the conservatory? … Is the symphony hall still relevant to audiences?
Although panelists believe that art music is already thriving in new venues and partnerships, they are less sanguine about the future of the traditional concert hall.
“My greatest worry is that my generation’s passion for how deeply meaningful it has been to go into an auditorium, see the lights go down, and feel a wash of Mahler go over us, will keep us from undertaking the bold experimentation we need because we’ll confuse the fate of the symphony with the fate of classical music,” Ben Cameron said.
The growth of arts organizations in the 1960s and 1970s created hundreds of new orchestras, based on the traditional performance model, that are now struggling to survive. “There’s a generation of institutions that are fundamentally insulated from the world in which they exist,” Cameron noted. “Many of these professionals still perform at their communities rather than with their communities or for their communities.”
He mentioned innovative exceptions similar to Rusty Musicians: a program at the University of Michigan where musicians help medical students improve their ability to listen to their patients, a project in Memphis where chamber orchestra members teach UPS executives how to make decisions collaboratively.
Jesse Rosen said classical music organizations must reconsider their mission. “It’s not enough to say we’re in the business to put on concerts,” he noted. “There has to be a larger purpose to impact the world and make it a better place through music. Our purpose is to support, to engage, and to contribute to the fabric of our community.”
Conservatories must also rethink their role, Bronstein said. “A major cultural institution like Peabody has an obligation to be part of the community, but I don’t know that we’ve always seen ourselves that way. We have assets and a breadth of talent that should be shared. It’s enlightened self-interest: Anything that strengthens the community is also good for us.
“The community becomes the nexus of both musician training and audience development. The reality now is that everyone who cares about an art form had better see themselves as being in the audience development business.”
Brad Testerman, an undergraduate who is double majoring in saxophone and voice, is particularly passionate about new music, both performing it and creating it. He was delighted to hear Piccinini endorse interdisciplinary collaborations within Johns Hopkins University and was inspired by Alsop’s charge “to get out there and make it happen.”
“We spend years training to perform this music, and to do it justice, so that we can move other people. By helping them share part of our lives, and the composer’s, we help them experience something new,” he said. “In my view, that’s the whole reason we do music.”