Classical Music Overview

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

On one Friday, like most Fridays, the crowded subway platform of our nation’s capital was in full swing at L'Enfant Plaza. Only this particular Friday, a journalist from the Washington Post was conducting a sociological experiment. He wanted to know if commuters recognized great music talent outside the concert hall. Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violinist performed incognito as a street music. Dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, Joshua was passed, over a thousand times by subway travelers and earned a measly $32 and change. Only seven people stopped to listen to him perform, while twenty-seven of them actually gave money, mostly on the go. Compare that to the going rate for a seat at one of his concerts of $100.

You may have already heard of this famed experiment, which took place two years ago. Now, with the economic crisis upon us, just how much will our classical music programs suffer? Arts organizations rely heavily on income from endowments, corporate donations, and community support to keep programming alive.

Recently, the classical music scene has seen lay-offs, pay-cuts, and program cancellations. Some organizations have filed for bankruptcy as a survival strategy, and fear closing down their operations entirely. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra is asking for a million-dollar bail-out. The Baltimore Opera has just filed for bankruptcy. The Pasadena Symphony changed their programming this season to include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to insure stronger ticket sales.

In some cases, as in the current Honolulu Symphony crisis, musicians have had to play without pay. Amanda Armstrong, violinist, along with her concertmaster/husband, Vahn, rely on the Virginia Symphony income to support their family. Amanda has most recently been performing electric violin in a band called The Music of Led Zeppelin with four other classically trained musicians. They play to sold-out symphony audiences as the opening band.

Classical musicians continue to find innovative ways to keep traditions alive in modern youth culture. In Philadelphia, conductor Rossen Milanov runs his concerts like college football games, where hoagies are served, mascots dance outside the auditorium and even baseball-like trading cards are given to the orchestra's youth membership. Re-working rock, indie and electronic music is now a popular practice by renowned classical artists. Younger audiences welcome groups like the Kronos Quartet doing Nirvana, or the orchestra Alarm Will Sound rendering computer-aged music by bands like Aphex Twin as live acoustic performance.

In the last few years, the classical community has diversified with podcasts, interactive websites, creative electronic distribution, and other trends to introduce the genre to new audiences. And while rock bands experiment with a pay-as-you-wish on-line distribution, British violinist Tasmin Little issued her last recordings as digital downloads, completely free of charge.

But few are aware that classical music is growing in the video-game industry. Most assume raucous video games are filled with adrenaline-infused rock bands but the suspenseful crescendos may not what you'd think. In games like, Halo or Bioshock many of the musical climaxes are performed by orchestras like the LA Philharmonic, and inspired by the likes of Bartok, Rachmaninoff, or even Gregorian Chant. Tommy Tallarico, the game composer who founded the Game Audio Network Guild, says, "If Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer.” Just think about that!

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.