Classical Musicians Embrace a Broader Viewpoint

By Kanny, Mark | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Classical Musicians Embrace a Broader Viewpoint


Kanny, Mark, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Recognizing categories or boundaries is useful in many ways, from clarity of thought to daily convenience. But the point at which categories begin to cross may actually be more interesting in some ways.

In July, the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society presented three "Just Summer Concerts," an unpretentious title for an organization stepping outside of its comfort zone. Usually, the society presents straight classical music performed by top touring ensembles, mainly string quartets, playing a mix of music by old masters leavened by contemporary music.

The "Just Summer Concerts" featured three string quartets, but ones that have made their name playing a much wider variety of music. The Harlem String Quartet played jazz and jazz-inspired compositions. Brooklyn Rider's repertoire was influenced by folk music from Romania, Hungary and Persia. And the Spektral Quartet was joined by Julien Labro on bandoneon for an evening of tango.

"We offered them because there is a global new trend in chamber music in which ensembles of a very high caliber are starting to experiment mixing other genres in with classical music to create a new sound. We wanted to present that in Pittsburgh," says Annie Mollova, the society's executive director.

But no less importantly, the "Just Summer" ensembles enabled the society to reach out to younger music lovers. The target audience was people 35 to 50 -- young professionals beyond their school years and in the prime of their working lives.

"We had good turnout, the musicians talked a lot from the stage and at mixers before and after," Mollova says. "We had a more diverse audience than we usually have, agewise and culturally."

"Young people today tend to be very wide in their musical taste," says veteran critic, composer and consultant Greg Sandow, who specializes in the future of classical music. Since 1997, he has been a member of the graduate studies faculty of Juilliard School in New York City, where he teaches the course "Classical Music in the Age of Pop."

Sandow says that among younger people in classical music, there is not much boundary-making between genres. "Everybody knows there are differences and different kinds of music function differently, but value judgments are less likely to be made. People are more likely to be more interested in playing music of all types."

He applauds the rise of multigenre musicians.

"There's an astounding number of people who play classical instruments as members of rock bands," Sandow says. "A violinist who took my Juilliard course emailed me a couple of years later to tell me she was going to be on 'Saturday Night Live' playing with Vampire Weekend. It was a huge thrill for her. She loved the band, loved the music, was just overjoyed. I love seeing this kind of melting of boundaries."

Sandow, who cites the work of Princeton University sociologist Paul DiMaggio, says young audiences also are more open in their tastes.

"A different character has emerged in those 35 and under who don't make distinctions. They know what (genres) are called, but they don't separate them in their watching and listening. They might enjoy singer-songwriters, hip-hop and indie bands. …

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