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Classical music revamps its image to attract a younger audience

Classical music's death has long been predicted, but some orchestras and conservatories are evolving to remain relevant

Growing up in a rough part of Northeast Baltimore, Tariq al-Sabir swore he was going to be a rapper. His grandmother bought him a keyboard when he was around 10 years old and he said he "just went crazy" making beats.

Then, in sixth grade, he turned on a special airing on Maryland Public Television and heard Andrea Bocelli sing “Che Gelida Manina.”

Now, with the help of a scholarship, the 20-year-old attends the historic Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, one of the nation's top music schools.

“I have friends who just didn’t make it. Some of them passed away. Some of them are in jail now because of bad decisions," he said.  “But I also think, man, what if they just had an outlet like I did.”

But people like Sabir are increasingly rare. Peabody's enrollment has dropped slightly, as is attendance at symphony orchestras across the country, and the cash flows that come with it. To fill seats, many are going global to places like China, where the market is strong. A third of Peabody's students are international.

Some orchestras are trying to mix up their presentation in order to keep their audience interested in classical music.
National Symphony Orchestra/AP

Between 2003 and 2012, attendance for classical performances dropped more than 1 percent each year, according to Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. A labor dispute and financial troubles have Atlanta's orchestra in a lockout. Orchestras in Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Denver and Indianapolis have all faced serious financial problems in the last two years.

"Part of what's been happening is our whole culture has been changing. People are really wanting to consume, to engage, in very different ways," said Rosen.

To attract bigger audiences, many orchestras are changing the way concertgoers engage with classical music: adding videos, celebrity appearances or even mixing in more popular music. In June, Sir Mix-A-Lot performed with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. In September, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra announced it would be ditching its tuxes and tails. This week, Ben Folds performed his pop piano ballads with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra doing backup.

“I think one of the great things about the time we’re in now is that the definition has been opening up,” Rosen said. “The way we think classical music is has never been a fixed repertoire or mode of presentation.” 

A lot of the new and edgy programming is directed at younger audiences, who traditionally haven't flocked to Rachmaninoff. And when it comes to entertainment, younger people tend to have slightly different tastes. Specifically, they want more interactivity and a range of media, according to those who work in the field, beyond just watching the musicians play.

“There is an assumption in the industry perhaps that a classical music audience is less open to having sort of cross-forms of presentation for the music because they’re slightly older, slightly less tech-savvy,” said Thomas Dolby, who's helping to create a new center for technology and the arts at Johns Hopkins. “ [It] becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you choose not to use the media that are popular among young people, then young people aren’t going to listen to your classical music.”

Best known for the synthpop anthem “She Blinded Me With Science,” one of the first popular music videos in MTV's early days, Dolby has long dabbled in the intersection of art and tech. Back in the early 1990s, his Silicon Valley company created the progenitor of the polyphonic ringtones found on more than 1 billion phones today. 

Thomas Dolby speaks to his students at Johns Hopkins.
Patrick Semansky/AP

And as a professor at Johns Hopkins, he hopes to inspire students to find the next “new thing” and think outside the music box. He's currently co-teaching the course Sound on Film, which connects film students and composing students to produce film soundtracks.

“Technology could be a great liberator here,” Dolby said. “You might get a brilliant, young composer or instrumentalist who becomes an international star … through the fact that their brilliance is exposed to millions of people, using the technology that we have today, and they bypass the whole industry.”

Conservatories, including Peabody, have tended to be “very conservative places and very, sort of singularly focused,” said Fred Bronstein, who just took over as Peabody's dean following a six-year stint leading the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But Bronstein wants to change that. In St. Louis, he helped revamp the orchestra’s marketing and branding campaigns, leading to increased revenue and ticket sales despite the Great Recession.

And Sabir wants to be part of classical music's evolution, seeking new sounds and new ways to market himself and, hopefully, an audience to support him.

“I plan on writing some really cool stuff,” he said. “I want to be a singer. I want to be a classical singer who’s bringing something beautiful to the table.”

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