There is much speculation these days regarding the viability of symphony orchestras. Let's face it; they're expensive to run and U.S. orchestras must rely heavily upon donations to survive. Orchestras now face competition from many other forms of live entertainment and from the internet's endless supply of recordings and videos. Understandably, orchestras throughout the country are suffering financially. Not all orchestras are struggling, though. For example, there was good news about the Minnesota Orchestra on the internet today. The Minnesota Orchestra surpassed its 40 million dollar goal for renovation of its hall!
Within any large city there exists a segment of the population which truly appreciates the opportunity to attend live symphonic concerts performed by musicians who live in the community. The civic pride associated with sports teams can apply to symphony orchestras as well. Loyal symphony fans often speak of the incredible visceral energy of a live performance which keeps them coming back.
Benjamin Zander, the outspoken and charismatic conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, does not agree that only a small percentage of people "get" classical music. He insists that classical music is for everybody- it's just that they haven't found out yet! He proves his theory in this video.
Arts managers estimate that approximately 3% of the population appreciates classical music, but Zander's experiences, as you can see in the video, suggest otherwise.
That visceral energy of a live performance is difficult to describe. I have vivid memories of certain classical music performances which I will never forget. In some cases I was a member of the orchestra or chamber group performing the music, and in others I was an audience member . These memories include precise auditory detail along with the sensation of being in the midst of ineffable greatness, and in some cases I can even picture the conductor's expression during a heart-stopping moment. Although I am sometimes deeply affected by listening to recordings, my most memorable musical memories are of live performances. One example is Mahler Symphony No. 6 which I performed with the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra in Boulder. Musicians from orchestras all over the world participated in that once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster performance. There is no video of that performance (you had to be there!) but here is a sample of Mahler 6 featuring Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
What an unspeakably powerful piece!
The ancient Greeks took it upon themselves to explain how music works. They proclaimed that music was about relationships among invisible, internal, hidden parts of human hearts and souls. Music moved those parts around until the positions were "right." The 7th grader in Zander's video demonstrates this theory, as the music seemingly found and re-positioned the movable parts of his inner being, enabling him to finally release his grief and to cry over the loss of his brother. The residents of Manhattan also proved the ancient Greek's theory in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Their first organized efforts following the tragedy involved music, including performances of the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, which they intuitively knew would contribute to the healing process. Other cities throughout the U.S., including Columbus, followed suit.
The first time I ever became consciously aware of the effect of live classical music was when I was 8 years old playing in my school's marching tonette band. (A tonette is a plastic recorder-like instrument for children.) I recall the thrill of the experience- it was almost as if an electrical spine-tingling charge surged through my body- as we marched through the center aisle of my school's auditorium during an assembly. A few years later when I was a teenager I heard a live performance of the aria Voi che sapete from Mozart's opera Le Nozze di Figaro. It was probably the first time I had heard Mozart live, and the young woman singing the aria was immensely talented. I was completely overtaken. Have you ever had goosebumps from listening to music? If so, chances are it was live classical music that you were listening to! The following video of Maria Ewing singing Voi che sapete provides a reminder of that stunning live performance I remember from so many years ago.
Three hundred years ago the English dramatist William Congreve wrote the following:
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
Surely such charms, along with the symphony orchestras which offer them, are timeless.