Sunday, December 13, 2009

Saving the Classical Arts

Last night we went to see the Broward Symphony Orchestra. It's a curious construction: retired members of other orchestras (probably famous in a different life) and students and the occasional midlife musician.

I don't see much live orchestral music these days. As we sat and waited for the music to start, I thought of my grad school days when I worked for the newly opened Koger Center in Columbia, South Carolina. I remember getting paid minimum wage--which, much to my shock, hadn't changed, since I got my first job at Wendy's--and getting to watch the show. We had to deal with the occasional rude patron who arrived late and got worked up into a state because he/she couldn't be seated once the show started. But the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, and the main advantage was that I got to see all sorts of shows that would have been outside the budget of a grad student.

Last night's program had travel as a theme: "Composers on Vacation." As with many orchestral programs, I wasn't familiar with most of the music beforehand. However, the show opened with Gershwin's An American in Paris. What a thrill to actually know the music!

My first thought was how different it sounded to hear it live. But in a way, it's like the difference between hearing a CD and an old fashioned vinyl record. The live orchestra, like the vinyl, sounded softer, richer, rounder, more buttery. The CDs of the piece sound so brittle and one-dimensional by comparison.

I loved hearing all the instruments and watching the musicians. In some ways, it took me back to the music appreciation experiences I remember from childhood, where the record would play a sound and the picture book would show the instrument.

The experience also took me back to an experience from some years ago when we heard an orchestra in Charleston, South Carolina. The Chamber of Commerce (I think it was the Chamber--it may have been some other promotional institution) had a program where you could be a tourist in your own town for January. It was a slow tourist month, so those of us who lived there got special deals on entrance fees to plantations and gardens. One year, we got to hear one of the area's orchestras. We went to a Sunday matinee, which was designed for families. Before each piece, the conductor turned around and explained a bit about the piece we were about to hear and told us what to listen for. It was one of the best orchestra experiences I've ever had.

Sure, I should have picked up a lot of that in college. But I didn't. And if I, daughter of a classically trained musician and possessor of a liberal arts education, if I didn't get that education, why do we assume that other adults did?

If you want to save the classical arts, start by explaining them to people who need guideposts to appreciate them.

I count poetry as one of those classical arts. We start off loving poetry--if you don't believe me, check out the children's section of your bookstore. We poets need to help adults remember that they loved poetry once, and they can love poetry again. We poets need to be like that conductor in Charleston: "Here's what you're about to experience. Listen for this and enjoy that."

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