Last Thursday, Beethoven’s music was given new life by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and André Watts for the Hill Auditorium’s Beethoven Festival. Watts, a German-born pianist, is truly a modern-day classical music superstar, a child prodigy turned virtuoso performer, who has maintained relevance in the classical community for decades. The press geared towards students for this concert was mostly lost amongst the announcement for Schoolboy Q’s upcoming show and the Pussy Riot Stamps Lecture, both incredible events, but ones that left Beethoven’s music out on the fringe.
Like many young adults my age, I do not mention classical music when I’m asked what kind of music I like, or what my favorite songs are. It’s a genre that for me has fallen to the wayside, discarded amongst wrapped mint candies, dentures and the geriatric.
All musical genres take cues and inspiration from their predecessors. Modern rap evolved from funk, blues and spoken word poetry; country music has come from western swing music and bluegrass; EDM draws from disco and ‘80s techno.
This Andre Watts visit made me wonder: how did classical music, once considered the highest form of entertainment, become nearly irrelevant to this generation? If we’re to believe our grandparents (at least mine), young people once flooded concert halls to listen to wordless symphonies and sonatas. Even my mom likes to listen to some Chopin while she cooks. Why does much of our generation just not care?
My personal relationship with classical music has been complicated. Starting at seven years old, my parents enrolled me in classical piano lessons with a sugary-sweet old woman who I was convinced was no younger than 100 years old. Her papery skin was magnified significantly under her enormous glasses, her house smelled like cigarettes and she kept mint Lifesavers in a wicker bowl on the piano, which I would eat out of pity and then immediately excuse myself to the bathroom where I could spit them out in the sink. Nonetheless, she was far too talented to be teaching incompetent elementary schoolers scales and chords for the entirety of her day, and I continued taking lessons with her until she passed away in 2009.
Here’s the thing: no matter how sweet Mrs. W was or how long I kept it up, I really did not enjoy taking piano lessons. At all. I appreciated the fact that my parents could afford to send me week after week, I liked making my grandmother happy when she asked me to play a sonatina, but I really didn’t understand what the big deal was all about. Of course I feel guilty about this, but I know I’m not alone. Many of my childhood friends who played classical instruments in their youth, mostly coerced by parents, dropped it as soon as they found a way out. It’s a time-consuming hobby that can easily become a drag if your heart isn’t into it.
Getting good at a classical instrument isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really fucking hard. It takes years, even decades to master a classical instrument, with hours of practice a day. It could easily be argued that classical musicians are the hardest working and most talented performers of any genre. The average member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has a salary of $98,000 a year. Last year, Katy Perry made $39 million.
Why does our generation shy from classical? It’s not like we get bored from the lack of words — wordless electronic music artists have become music festival headliners and influencers. I’d say the answer lies somewhere between our association of classical music with our grandparents and the genre’s lack of adaptation to satisfy millennials’ ears.
The truth is, classical music is beautiful and universally considered so, and I would argue that a lot of this beauty comes from the fact that the same pieces were considered beautiful a couple hundred years ago, and are still beautiful now. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season runs until April 25th, and I’m making it a goal for myself to immerse myself in this beautiful culture a couple times this school year. Join me?