Playing Mahler in an Eminem world
Youth orchestras overflow with serious talent. But will they have an audience in the future?
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No, it's not Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. It's The Juilliard School in Manhattan, a premier training ground for tomorrow's classical musicians. The competition is so intense that just 9 percent of applicants are accepted each year. (Only the Coast Guard Academy accepts a smaller percentage.)
Across the United States, thousands of teens lugged violins and trumpets, even bulky harps and double basses to music camps this summer and will be playing them in school and private youth orchestras this fall. Many have a goal of getting into a top conservatory like Juilliard. Some 400 private youth orchestras alone are home to 50,000 young classical musicians.
These children and teens range from those with broad interests to those who are already single-mindedly committed to pursuing a professional career. In a world where the TV and radio airwaves are filled with the sounds of Eminem and Lil' Kim, not Mendelssohn and Mahler, they're committing themselves to an art form that some say has an uncertain future. But as the audience for classical music grays and sales of classical recordings slide, a look at a sampling of these young players reveals a brighter picture: Musicians who are in love with and committed to performing the music that has helped define Western civilization over the centuries.
Since pop culture is devoid of this kind of music, these youngsters needed someone or something a parent, teacher, or school program to open up the world of classical music to them. For Erin Arai, it happened over a meal.
Erin first heard the harp being played in a dining room at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen or ever heard," she says. "I was about 11. I asked my mom if I could try that. But it's really an expensive instrument.... So we waited until I was 13, and my parents rented me a harp for four months and gave me a few lessons. And it just took off from there."
Her dad and mother both play some piano, and they "love to listen" to classical music. "I've always had classical music around me," Erin says. "I wanted to make it instead of just listening to it."
"It's a sad day if I can only play an hour," says the 15-year-old harpist from Andover, Mass.
Asked if her musical tastes extend beyond classical music, she replies, "I love salsa and mambo. I'm not too big a fan of pop music." And, say, Britney Spears? "No, not at all! Gag!"
Those who might wonder where the classical musicians of the future will come from need only wander into a school like the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where Erin attends a summer program, to see that the pipeline of talent is overflowing. The real question, observers say, is how many professional orchestras will there be for them to play in and will there be an audience to listen?
"There are more really, really qualified artists coming out of the conservatories than there are professional entities to hire them," says Polly Kahn, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. The quality of playing in youth orchestras and conservatories is "astonishing," she says, resulting in a level of new talent available to professional orchestras that is "fantastically high."
The training available today in the US is superb, drawing students from around the world. "Most people would concede it has never been stronger than now," she says, even though she concedes that can't be proved objectively. The system "feeds on itself" as great players in turn teach the next generation.
While many of the top-level teens train privately outside public schools, even classrooms have seen a modest comeback in support of music programs. "We're probably at the level we were about 20 years ago, which is a pretty healthy level," says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va.