After reading the many posts in this series last season, I have to admit that I felt a bit out of place contributing to this collection of perspectives. But, as Drew reminded me, the whole purpose of the endeavor is to encourage people to advocate the art and to motivate them to introduce new people to an orchestral performance. In a way, I am that person.
In the broader picture I am new to Classical Music, having joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s marketing team in 1999. I’m a child of the 70s and 80s and was raised on rock ‘n’ roll.
My father was a skilled musician who played piano, trumpet, accordion and whatever else he could get his hands on. Big Band jazz was his love and my brother and I grew up listening to Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington. My dad had a clarinet in my hands by the time I was seven and my brother took on the trumpet around the same time.
While I enjoyed my dad’s music, the first time needle hit vinyl on Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker, my life was changed. Led Zeppelin’s epic second album was the first record I had ever purchased and something broke through for me and I would never be the same.
You may be thinking “what in the world does any of this have to do with orchestral music?” Well, I’ll get there. Many people who I invite to experience the CSO for the first time have taken a similar musical path to mine and you may know people just like us.
After High School and some brief musical adventures of my own, I moved on to a new stage of musical awakening. By that time, Punk was raging and it swept me off my feet. The intensity of the music paired with the critical lyrics connected with me. Experiencing that energy of these bands in small clubs and the impact it had on the audience was thrilling. When I first purchased Hüsker Dü’s Flip Your Wig and heard their song Divide and Conquer, I was hooked. And then, I discovered Sonic Youth. Their ability to take alternative harmonics and chords into new directions showed how diverse the music could still be.
All of this music motivated me to pick up a guitar and learn how to play. Music is so powerful and everyone should take part. That is the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll, and through its ancestry, the blues. The blues is such an incredible tool in that it enables everyone to be part of the music. While my father probably had different ideas in mind when he bought me my first clarinet it nevertheless launched my journey towards loving music so much that I still write and perform to this day.
I remember when I was offered the position to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s administration. As a musician, I was always in awe of the legend of the CSO, but admittedly had a lot to learn about the music and frankly, I was a bit intimidated. I probably felt the same perceived barriers that people have in their minds today that stop them from entering the doors for the first time. I asked myself the same questions I know they are asking:
“What if I don’t understand the music?”
“Will I appreciate it less without that understanding?”
“Is this music really for me, given what I usually listen to?”
Then came the first performance I attended. On the program was Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. As the music began, I felt it absorb me completely. It greeted me with those same sensations I had when I first heard Heartbreaker. I was awash with the same intensity that overwhelmed me with Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth but in such a different way. When the music ended, and the audience erupted with applause, I realized that all the questions I had in my head prior to the experience were irrelevant. It was the music. It took me over with the same incredible rush that I experienced with The Who, The Clash or whoever else occupied my musical drive. It was the music.
While I had not known the story of this phenomenal piece at the time, it didn’t matter. It was not important. What was important was this amazing experience of seeing 100+ musicians on stage working collectively and individually with such precision and beauty. With superb subtleties and highs that could raise the roof off Orchestra Hall, I was in awe. And the result was absolute brilliance.
The more I experience, the more I love it. I’m lucky to also have had the great opportunity to meet many of the musicians in the CSO and I enjoy talking with them about the music and the performances. Those conversations made me appreciate it even further. I know how hard they work to create the music we enjoy. And they share with me the absolute satisfaction they feel when, upon completion, the reaction of the audience sends a jolt of lightning through them. It reminds me of my favorite quote from Daniel Barenboim as he spoke of the moment when “we all become one, the orchestra, the audience and conductor.” It’s that moment that everyone strives for and the musicians, more than anyone, reach to incredible heights to bring it to the audience.
It’s that sensation that I believe people are missing. They need the encouragement of others who have experienced it to help them along. Everyone I have hosted has absolutely loved it, but there is always a preparation and then a post-concert download of the experience that people like to share so that they feel they are part of it. While the music creates a very personal reaction, there is a social component from talking with your friends about what you all just experienced.
When I try to think of which programs are right to introduce a new audience member, I try to think about their own musical tastes. I have friends who have a history of appreciating more experimental music. If that’s the case, I know I can take some risks and they will enjoy the experience. However, that is not for everyone. My friends who are more traditional rock ‘n’ rollers definitely seem to gravitate towards the more traditional repertoire. While that might mean an introduction through Beethoven’s 3rd or 7th, it certainly must also include the music of Shostakovich as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. With the CSO performing Shostakovich 5 and 10 this fall, I already have plans! And anyone who loves powerful music will want to experience Mahler’s mighty 5th Symphony. That’s a given.
Maybe my musical past draws me towards the bigger, more powerful pieces. But I’m also probably a little biased after hearing such a powerful orchestra day in and day out for the last six years. And I can tell you that my rock ‘n’ roll friends are affected in the same way. All that power, drive and energy, and without any Marshall stacks! Amazing.
Whoever you are inviting, their other musical tastes can help you determine what program will draw them in. And in the end, the musically curious are always musically curious. They may come hesitantly, but your invitation can help bridge the perceived gap of understanding that’s keeping them from trying something new. And in the end, I’m sure they’ll love it, because of the music.