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Touchdown or Fumble for Classical Music

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Dudamel at the Super Bowl

This is adapted from a blog post John Hong wrote right after the Super Bowl.

John Hong

John Hong

(Photo by Dario Acosta)

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On the surface it was a feel-good story. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) performed alongside pop giants Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé at Super Bowl 50’s halftime show. When the story broke a couple weeks before the big game, numerous outlets proclaimed that it was a “touchdown” for classical music and the arts. My Facebook timeline saw share after share after share of this news report, and indeed, for a youth orchestra to have a spot on
television’s most-watched event is a huge freaking deal. So how did it turn out on the viewing end? There was a shot of the orchestra playing rainbow-colored instruments as Coldplay’s Chris Martin ran onto the stage and then a decent shot of Dudamel conducting.
There was some cute choreography after that with lots of jumping. That’s it. As I watched, all I could think was, Really? This is a touchdown for classical music? I wasn’t even sure this qualified as a field goal.

Beforehand, I’d wondered whether this would be a triumph of style over substance, and it was. Having kids with rainbow-colored instruments perform purely as a backdrop for Chris Martin felt cheap—it seemed like their only role was to be cute. It was a sobering moment. But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I realized that maybe an appearance at all was the victory. Scores of music-loving kids able to have their faces on the biggest TV event of the year can’t be a netnegative for music. As The Washington Post pointed out, “if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in [a promotional video], other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.”

Maybe what this event did for me is crystallize the harsh truth of our genre: The more realistic approach for true reformation and revitalization of classical music is to infuse the youth culture (i.e. the future) with the aura that classical music is “cool” in the same way that greats like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and now Steph Curry have made  basketball a cool sport. And I think on that score, the appearance didn’t fail. Indeed, kids will think that being invited to the Super Bowl is awesome. Young marching band and orchestra members will have a little extra “hey, I could still be in a Super Bowl halftime show one day” ammo to defend themselves against the “music is for nerds” crowd that I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with. And don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked for any kid to play and dance at an event this big. The show was probably a great experience for them, and I enjoyed seeing them on the big stage. But for classical music, their appearance didn’t feel like it moved the needle. All of the talk post-Super Bowl has been about Coldplay’s disappointing performance and Beyoncé’s racially empowered segment. Wouldn’t you think that a group of underprivileged kids playing at the biggest event of the year would have garnered at least a moderate amount of mainstream news coverage?

I think most of my frustration comes from a point of dissatisfaction with the state of classical music today. In popular culture, it’s seen as weird, stuffy, and avoid-at-all-costs. According to recent data from the National Endowment of the Arts, classical music concert attendance is at an all-time low, and nobody really knows what to do about our situation. Principally, I worry about the  perception that classical music is not sufficient as a standalone to generate hype and excitement among non-musicians. It is universally cool as a backdrop to film (Star Wars) or as a comedic TV series (Mozart in the Jungle) or when underprivileged kids get to dance with Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. But an orchestra concert by itself, great music by itself? It can’t be the attraction. It’s too boring. Too foreign. Too unintelligible.

I don’t know. Was there really no opportunity for a young solo violinist to play a miked-up melody of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida with  Chris Martin, even if “bowsynced” à la Lindsey Stirling? Did Dudamel really not fight for some feature time with the orchestra where
they’re not just dancing, but actually, you know, playing something meaningful as a three-second star attraction? I guess what I’ve been grappling with is this: Is our ceiling as 21st-century classical musicians only to be an accessory for pop culture? Do people outside of the arts really get bored with them that easily? Or is this negative perception of classical music what a few executives have foisted upon society, since incorporating an orchestra in a meaningful way into projects can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming? Maybe Dudamel did fight for his YOLA children to have a more bright and significant spotlight, and just lost. Maybe they just didn’t have enough style.

What do you think? Let us know.

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