The New Classical: A New Generation Dodges the “Stuck-Up” Stereotype

Posted on October 07, 2015, 8:25 am
9 mins


“Have you been to any good concerts lately?”

I cringe every time this question is thrown in my direction. So often it’s from a good place, a place of interest and a need for connection, and usually from someone I don’t know very well. My answer reaches their ears like a needle scratch: “Well, I went to a pretty good chamber music concert last weekend! I loved their performance of Beethoven Op. 131.”

Obviously this isn’t what “concert” means in today’s vernacular, especially to my generation. I’m one of those dreaded millennials taking over Seattle, but any classical music lover younger than a Boomer can relate to this story. To my peers, “concert” means studio artists (big or indie) touring their latest album. There is jumping and grinding disguised as dancing, cheap Rainiers, maybe trippy visuals if the headliner has a budget. It’s a bucket-list experience to see favorite artists right in front of you, their music streaming from a cranked-up sound system instead of through Spotify.

But marketing “classical music” to this crowd has been stumping music organizations for decades. Opera houses are embracing bold new marketing campaigns in attempts to attract younger subscribers; Seattle Opera, with its new and younger General Director Aidan Lang is a stellar example of this (just check out their website with its bold design-trendy font and “SO ____” tagline). Symphonies are programming less of the dead-white-guy classics and replacing them with contemporary and commissioned pieces to brand themselves as “innovative” or “forward-thinking.” Organizations advertise special discounts for under-40s and create clubs for young classical music lovers with cocktail hours and networking opportunities. The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts their shows in movie theatres across the country, only casting their youngest and most attractive singers. And yet, classical music non-profits still struggle to fill seats, as their older donors fall prey to time with no incoming class to replace them.

So much of the younger generations’ lack of interest in classical music stems from the stuffiness, inaccessibility and exclusive aura that has been cultivated by the typical audience and canonic classical works. The emergent stigma—that classical music is boring, dead, and only for those with naturally grey hair—is extraordinarily detrimental not only to these organizations trying to stay afloat, but for the entire classical music canon, which otherwise will only exist in scores and academia.

But we are seeing ways in which this unsustainable, standard night out at the Symphony is being subverted—and not just by the organizations themselves, but by the few young classical lovers who are also tired of stereotypical, gussied-up artifice. Organizations are creating new series and programs to broadcast this intimidating and intellectual music in a more accessible light, but some of the more artful ways of bringing music to younger audiences are coming from within the generation and outside the concert hall.

Some more successful local efforts to cater to a younger audience include Seattle Symphony’s informal [UNTITLED] and Untuxed Series, which engage with art music and seek to end the pretension surrounding the genre. [UNTITLED] is held in the Grand Lobby of Benaroya Hall. The concerts begin at 10 PM, automatically skewing the audience younger, and the program contains more contemporary chamber music productions than one would normally hear at the symphony – in fact, the first [UNTITLED] coming up in the 2015-16 season will be a world premiere of works by three UW composers. There’s no stage and no conductor, and you can drink as you listen, relax on folding chairs or pillows, and even clap between movements. The Untuxed series, unlike the avant-garde [UNTITLED], keeps the grand masters of classical music in their program rotations, but instead requires the Seattle Symphony Orchestra to dress in plainclothes. The programs are short (generally about an hour), effectively dismantling the preconception that classical music drags on forever and is only accessible if you have enough money to own a good suit. Musicians love to share their art, and the time is ripe for Seattle organizations to experiment with unconventional methods of bringing music to a newer, more informal crowd.

But more and more, young classical musicians are taking the matter into their own hands, creating space for their work and, more importantly, space to expose their peers to it. While there are present and increasing opportunities for newly-composed music and those with a compositional leaning, making existing classical music more accessible to young audiences takes a certain type of finesse.

Enter Opera on Tap, one of the leading groups in bringing old arias to new audiences. A nationwide organization that hosts informal concerts in breweries and bars, Opera on Tap singles out arias and duets from the operatic repertoire and programs them around intriguing, often hilarious themes. For instance, Seattle OOT’s last performance was “Lost in Translation,” equally bemoaning and celebrating all of the terrible English translations of certain arias. The organization encourages you to pour yourself a drink and sit back to watch some of the area’s best emerging singers bring their art, their personalities, and their humor straight to your local watering hole. A vehement nod to the UW-born Parnassus Project is also necessary, as this chamber music organization music-bombs cafés, parks, libraries and other public spaces with high-quality performances of string quartets and small ensemble pieces.

And for those who don’t even want to leave their living room—I’m looking at you, millennials with dozens of TV shows on your Netflix queue—there’s Groupmuse, a network of young classical music lovers and social butterflies who organize private chamber music performances. You can host a Groupmuse concert in your own apartment, or attend the multiple others happening around the city. RSVP is required for all concerts (do it online at their website), but the show is low-key, funded by suggested donation, and generally involves Solo cups. For a taste of what to expect in one of these concerts/house parties, one needs only to look at the most recent Groupmuse program, which involved two cellists playing everything from Vivaldi to Bartok to Coldplay.

The city’s music scene is slowly shifting towards reflecting the ideals of its younger citizens, both for the artists seeking to rid classical music of its stuck-up reputation and the consumers searching for their personal music niche. So whether you’re a UW student, struggling Capitol Hill artist or a new Amazon employee, you can dodge through the pretense and the preconception, master the art of pairing Brahms with PBR, and carve out your own space in Seattle’s classical music scene.

The next Opera on Tap event will be October 18 at Rhein Haus Seattle. Details TBD. Seattle Symphony presents its first [UNTITLED] performance of the 2015-16 season on Friday, October 23, featuring world premieres by University of Washington composers Richard Karpen, Joel-Francois Durand and Huck Hodge. Learn more on the Seattle Symphony website.

Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.

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