The south-facing exterior wall of the University of Manitoba’s Marcel A. Desautel faculty of music bears the words, “DEMOLISH SERIOUS CULTURE.” Attempts to remove this puzzling imperative from the smooth limestone have been partly successful, but classical music’s image crisis isn’t limited to graffiti. The branding of classical music as “serious culture” is a pervasive and unfortunate one.
According to Robert MacLaren, a voice teacher at the U of M’s music faculty who has performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, this conception drives some people away from classical music. “It has become an elitist music,” he said, “and people don’t feel that they belong to that elite, so it seems strange or foreign.”
This is bad news for companies like the WSO. For years, orchestras and other ensembles across North America have been feeling the effects of decreased interest and attendance, but it wasn’t always this way. In 1998, a survey found that 8.2 per cent of those surveyed had attended a performance of classical or symphonic music in the past 12 months. Just six years earlier, that number was 12.2 per cent .
Like many orchestras, the WSO now offers a series of “Pops” and “Soundbytes” performances in an attempt to draw people, who might not otherwise be interested in classical music, to the symphony. This year, the Pops season includes orchestral arrangements of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and of the music of Frank Sinatra.
The effectiveness of these attempts at bringing more people to the symphony is undoubted, but many classical musicians hope it will do more than that. “I understand what they’re doing,” said MacLaren of popular music series. “I’m hoping that if they’ll come to hear a symphony orchestra do one thing, they’ll come to hear something else.”
Charmaine Bacon, a flautist who has performed with the WSO, is confident that this is the case. “Orchestras speak for themselves,” she said. “No matter what [is] played, pop or classical, people generally go back for more.”
Jan Nato, an award-winning vocal major at the university, cites his own story as an example of the transitivity of music preference: “I grew up seeing singers like [ . . . ] Pavarotti [ . . . ] reaching out to the so-called ‘non-classical’ world,” he said. “As a result, I sought out their more classical performances, and I loved it.”
Assuming new audiences turn their ears to classical music, will they like what they hear?
According to MacLaren, there is nothing about classical music that is intrinsically more difficult to appreciate. “It’s the conception rather than the reality,” he said. The inaccessibility of classical music is especially exaggerated when it comes to young people.
“Very often,” he said, “we underestimate what [young people] can absorb and what would excite them.” Bacon admitted that “classical music takes a little bit more study to really get,” but warned against perceiving it as highbrow. “These composers were hip to their time,” she said.
Others point out that any discomfort people feel with classical music performances may be the result of having to focus solely on the music. “Popular music [ . . . ] serves as a background to other activity,” observed Nato. “The great majority of [classical music] was never intended to play second fiddle to anything.”
Whether or not it is accurate, the idea that classical music is exclusively the province of intellectuals persists.
“How many people realize that there’s humour in Shakespeare? That [it] gets actually pretty smutty at times?” MacLaren wondered. “Right now it’s [ . . . ] a thing to analyze and tear apart in your literature course.” Is this a Wagner which I see before me?
The 2010/11 season of the WSO began Sept. 24.