"Why the hell should I listen to classical music? That's what they play in elevators and department stores. What do the antique doodles of dead Europeans have to do with modern music, anyway? The people who dig it are old and out of touch: pompous, self-righteous asses or hopeless geeks who think they're too good for the rest of us."
Spoken out loud or not, such sentiments are an all too common refrain — the opinion of what seems to be increasing numbers of people in modern society. Distorted as such notions are, there's some sad truth to them. And — let's face it — the prejudice often runs both ways. The festering gap between classical and pop culture is very much a self-inflicted wound. Holier-than-thou elitist spirit feeds both individual arrogance and a relentlessly stuffy public image. Hey, if the shoe fits...
And that's not the only way classical music has shot itself in the foot. Pioneering 20th-century composers like Bartók and Schoenberg sparked a 60-year contest to see who could write the least accessible music. You couldn't hum the tunes anymore on your way out of the concert hall. Hordes of listeners were turned off by all the 12-tone dissonance and mathematical complexity. But the brain trust declared it good, symphonies played it, and audiences started stalking out at intermission.
It's not the public majority's fault that they don't know the classics: educational neglect has cost us several generations of supporters (as I described in my last column). Shrinking media support compounds public ignorance in a pop-heavy culture. The classics demand close attention and concentration — fat chance of that, in a world where we're conditioned to three-minute sound bytes and music has become mostly brainless background to the nonstop bustle of daily life.
It's only been in the past couple of decades that tunesmiths like Arvo Pärt, Morten Lauridsen, John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki, and Eric Whitacre have revisited their art's roots, restoring lush tonal beauty and spiritual reflection to modern music. The early minimalists (John Adams, Philip Glass) and leading film composers (John Williams, Ennio Morricone) also have done their part to restore listener appeal in different ways.
It all boils down to exposure. Bring me anybody with ears, and I'll find some classical music she'll respond to. The young virtuoso Matt Haimovitz discovered that when he took his cello to Greenwich Village a few years back and played Bach suites to a club full of punk rockers. They not only listened, but invited him back.
De-formalizing helps, too. Musicians who perform in jeans and talk to their audiences about the music as they go have a way of bringing their lofty craft back down to earth. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra does just that in their popular Casual Classics series. They also packed the Gaillard with young people for the first time ever last fall for a memorable gig with hometown rock heroes Jump — following a similarly successful gig in the Exhibition Hall where they accompanied the original work of local filmmakers. Crossover music has its uses. Some call it "dumbing-down." I used to be one of them. But now I call it progress.
There are few happier pursuits than bringing good people and great music together. I speak from experience. Rather than scoff at the "unenlightened," we need to seek them out and inspire them. It's time to shed our pretensions, preach the classical gospel with missionary zeal, and take our converts wherever we find them. Even if it's in an elevator.