Music in Weird Places

I’m hearing of more and more unusual contexts for classical music: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in a town square flash mob, chamber music in bars, solo Bach electrified in a rock club. Bringing the music to the people is not a new idea, but it’s being pursued with a passion all over. And it’s refreshing to see so many musicians willing to make a break with tradition, to take themselves a bit less seriously, and let their favorite music speak for itself on Main Street.

I think this is creativity – it may be creativity in its early stages, but it’s creativity nonetheless.

For way too long, musicians have furthered the notion that the great composers are deities. We forget that these guys were musicians, they had sometimes vicious and raunchy senses of humor, untidy abodes, work stations and personal lives, and really had to figure out how to make money. In addition, they chose a creative vocation that is rife with failure.


It’s easy to look at a Schubert song and believe that this came into musical life without effort or strain. Inspired, yes, but also crafted with an eye on the public and an ear to the publisher. And the pathway to a work of art is strewn with all matter of personal and artistic roadblocks that must be overcome.

It’s a messy business, creativity.

And we performers need to get messy too.

I believe there will always be great symphony orchestras, but it’s not obvious that there will be. Just as Mozart, Haydn, and nearly every great composer you can think of created music with roots in folk music, we are in desperate need of more Gershwins and Bernsteins to create new, exciting and emotionally satisfying orchestral music that everyone understands intrinsically.

Rock violinist Mark Wood has made the point that musical innovations of the last fifty years did not happen in academia, but in pop music.

So too, the institutions – universities, symphony orchestras, etc. – will most likely not be the sources of innovation and cultural change in musical performance. That will happen through a thoroughly messy – and potentially joyful – process of trial and error.

In the meantime I will enjoy every Bach suite played as a fiddle tune, it’ll be great to hear a Joshua Bell in the subway, a Mozart Divertimento outdoors at sunrise, a flute solo in a reverberant lobby. These are the sounds of a culture changing.

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