Classical music thriving in Charleston 

Notes From The Underground: The Great Classical Die-Off?

Folks everywhere — in top rags, mags, and blogs — have been tolling the death-knell of classical music for some time now.

And their concerns are real.

Orchestras and opera houses everywhere are fiscally feeble, and many have gone under: Witness the demise of Savannah's orchestra in 2003, not to mention our own Charleston Symphony's recent near-collapses.

Classical radio stations are an endangered species. Decades of educational neglect have left entire generations largely ignorant of the classics.

Classical culture must figure out how to coexist with the pop culture juggernaut: Its stuffy image can't compete with the ease and informality of today's populist styles.

Who cares to stomach the complex fodder of elitist nerds? What do the brainy creations of dead white men have to do with the here and now? Who can cope with an hour-long symphony, when the modern media have conditioned us to superficial three-minute sound-bytes?

Modern classics? We shot ourselves in the foot during much of the previous century, driving audiences away with atonal complexity ... we couldn't hum the tunes anymore. Alas, the latest Mozart CDs will never outsell super-hyped hotshots like Britney Spears or U2.

But in the new millennium, the vastly outnumbered forces of classical music are fighting back, struggling for their fair share of fresh audiences. We needn't win decisively or displace other genres; all we want are enough converts to ensure the healthy survival of the music we love.

As I've said before in these pages, classical music will never die — but for quite awhile, it's been in real danger of fading into ever-geekier obscurity, defended only by academia and the big-city cultural fortresses.

Highbrow musical institutions everywhere are reinventing themselves. My last column covered the Metropolitan Opera's new high-def satellite simulcast initiative. Last month's broadcast thrilled nearly 100,000 paying customers in 600 movie theaters worldwide, including over 200 happy opera fans at our own Charleston County Library (for free).

Many orchestras are "de-formalizing," inviting audiences to dress down, sip wine as they listen and mingle with the musicians afterwards. Our current crop of composers has brought melody and harmonic beauty back to the fore, and performers are packaging their work in audacious new ways.

Crossover music is playing its role, too, despite strident "dumbing-down" cries from the purists. But it's a proven way to "step up" the masses to the joys of great music.

Ironically, classical salvation nowadays is also being boosted from afar: Japan, China, and South Korea are emerging as new classical bastions, even though the Western classics hardly reflect Asian history and culture. It's resounding proof of the classics' enduring universal humanity.

Another promising ally is the internet. Musicians of every ilk are selling more CDs and downloads via hot new websites than they ever did in CD stores. Web meccas like iTunes have been reporting double-digit classical sales, as opposed to around 3 percent in stores. The innovative Naxos label is selling educational products like The A to Z of Classical Music by the truckload. A recent series of free BBC Beethoven Symphony broadcasts inspired millions of downloads, after expectations in the thousands.

So, how is all this playing out here in Chucktown? Very well, I'd say, compared to most communities our size. The key to classical viability is exposure — and around here, that's been mostly thanks to Spoleto.

As local crowds (40 percent of total box office) gradually caught the beauty bug, cultivating the longer attention spans and deeper concentration that the classics require, the demand for quality local institutions arose — and now we have one of the nation's finest regional orchestras.

Praise be, the local business community has rallied behind them lately, promoting the CSO as a vital community asset — resulting in its best long-term survival prospects in years. Relaxed dress codes and chatty mini-lectures between pieces are helping them to bridge old gaps and attract younger crowds. And their fabulous educational program is introducing more schoolkids to the classics than ever before.

Our Spoleto-induced hunger for chamber and choral music is well-satisfied these days too, thanks to (among others) moonlighting CSO musicians, a burgeoning music program at the College of Charleston, and several outstanding church music programs. Outfits like the New Music Collective keep the hardcore avant-garde faithful happy. North Charleston's Magnet School of the Arts is one of the nation's finest.

So let the cultural pundits yammer on: Many problems remain, and we must keep the ideas and solutions flowing. But, from the perspective of my nearly two decades back home in Charleston, our own classical scene has never been better. And that's a trend we can't ever stop working on.


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