Spano and the ASO are overcoming young audiences' perception that classical music is stuffy by presenting new works by living composers. It's not the result of any marketing ploy, but a consequence of Spano's choices of composers whose music he genuinely enjoys.
"It's not just a younger generation having an attitude about classical music being stuffy, there's also an older generation that has an attitude that new music is unlistenable," he says. "And both attitudes actually have nothing to do with the truth."
In the mid-1950s, mainstream "classical" composers began losing touch with the listening public. Isolated in their universities, they wrote technically brilliant but coldly intellectual music. For decades, that style was the yardstick. Meanwhile, American pop culture shifted from the adult-oriented good life of the Rat Pack to the youth-obsessed world of teenagers. The young still rule pop culture, and classical music primarily stuck with the fur-and-lavender crowd.
"There's a generation of composers working right now [who are] not interested in being important, or historical, or brainy or in impressing fellow composers. They're interested in communicating something very direct, and very honest, and very beautiful," says Spano. "And it's a music that is very powerful and very inviting."
Two world premieres by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are on tap this week, each commissioned as part of the orchestra's 60th anniversary. The composers, David Del Tredici and Christopher Theofanidis, have come to Atlanta for the rehearsals, performances and sessions to record a CD for Telarc.
Del Tredici, the senior of the two, remembers the rift between composers and the public. "I'm an interesting example of someone born into the time when contemporary music was a small, alienated circle," he says. "I was raised in atonality and I loved it. But for whatever mysterious reason people change, I changed my style, and had a taste of reconnecting with the big audience. It was, in the beginning, a terrifying thing to do! I had no idea that it wasn't crazy, and [worried] my colleagues would shun me."
Del Tredici's inspiration for his piece, "Paul Revere's Ride," was an imperative of personal experience. "I was here in New York City at 9/11. I'm a typically complacent American who had never really known what it is like to be deprived and threatened - that's really the point. To realize that things are very fallible and can be destroyed, and a way of life could actually in a second be eliminated, changed everything. Patriotism suddenly meant something to me "
For his premiere, "The Music of Our Final Meeting," Theofanidis selected a different text: the ecstatic writings of Rumi, a 13th-century Middle Eastern mystic and poet who founded of the Mevlevi order of Sufism. Theofanidis chose translations by Coleman Barks, who lives in Athens, Ga.
Theofanidis' selection resonated with Spano, for whom Rumi is a favorite poet. With the addition of Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony, Spano had a common theme for which he has strong feelings: 9/11. "I love the idea of having Hebrew and Arabic poetry with the 'Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.' David, in fact, dedicated 'Paul Revere's Ride' to the firemen whose lives were lost in 9/11," he says.
New works appear to be drawing a newer and younger audience than the standard classical fare of Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky - even though a Beethoven "Symphony No. 9" will draw a larger audience overall. But while it's hard to pin down in hard numbers, there is observable evidence:
Tan Dun's "Concerto for Water Percussion," performed in March, drew an observably younger crowd and received thunderous applause, whistles and shouts in the ovation. When Jennifer Higdon's "City Scape" was premiered by the ASO, concert-goers excitedly mobbed her in the lobby like a rock star.
There's a natural buzz among the young about "what's new." As in pop music, much buzz is created by CDs and radio broadcasts. The ASO's Rainbow Body CD, with music by both Theofanidis and Higdon, is a case in point.
"Sales of Rainbow Body hit the roof immediately after NPR's 'Morning Edition' aired their feature piece on the recording," says Amanda Sweet of Telarc. Rainbow Body spiked to the No. 1 ranking on Amazon.com that same day - among all types of music, not just classical.
Continuing broadcasts of the CD are generating new performances, helping place both Theofanidis' "Rainbow Body" and Higdon's "Blue Cathedral" among this season's top 10 of new music most frequently performed live by American orchestras.
The ASO is hardly abandoning Mozart and Beethoven, but under Spano's leadership, new music is being cultivated to a degree not seen since the heyday of Robert Shaw. "To me, its just very much part of what we've been doing," says Spano. "The juxtaposition of old and new, and the continuing interest in doing music of our time, really of our time, is very much part of our mix."
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