At the start of a New Year, classical music needs to stay current

Christmas is a time of tradition: carols by candlelight in ancient churches, tables groaning with lavish Victorian-style feasts; family histories shared and passed down in the rituals we all celebrate.

But then along comes New Year, and we shrug off our old ways in a headlong dash to embrace the new. We seek to renew ourselves. We undertake detoxes and personal spring cleans. We want the latest books, sports, diets, television and technology, new ways to improve ourselves and our lives.

Of course, there is always the danger that we will go a little far and lose some of what was most cherished in the process.

Nowhere, I feel, is this more true than when it comes to classical music. In our haste to adopt new forms of music, played or heard in new ways, are we at risk of abandoning the rich musical heritage which has sustained and informed us for centuries?

It would be naïve not to be concerned at what happens as we constantly look for the new. The American composer and critic Greg Sandow acknowledged the problem recently when he said: “Classical music has grown distant from our wider culture. We don’t connect well with the world. Most of the music we play is from the past, while the people around us are connecting with the culture and concerns of the present.”

In her book The Inner Voice, opera singer Renee Fleming urges a constant search for connection with modern audiences: “We need to spread the passion for music that makes some people such enthusiastic concert and opera-goers…The music itself will never disappear. Beethoven still makes people cheer, Richard Strauss can thrill and Mozart can even develop young minds. It’s our responsibility to learn how to speak to an audience that is less informed about music to give it a reason to want to come and see us instead of going to the movies.”

That ability to be flexible and agile in one’s thinking seems to be vital to surviving the 21st century in whatever field one works. It is as true in information technology or education as in music itself.

Perhaps that is how we will find the answer. By accepting the need for change within classical music rather than elevating it to a unattainable pedestal. We should enjoy Mozart when it is performed in period dress, but also embrace classical collaborations with rap stars.

I recently attended an amazing concert by Renée Fleming and, 5 time Grammy awards-winning jazz musician, Christian McBride. The program ranged from Moonlight sonata to My funny Valentine. Renée sang the famous Pearlfishers duet, solo, accompanied by Christian. Renée did a poll spontaneously with the audience. Half of the audience raised their hands to indicate they came for Renée, while the other half came for Christian McBride.

“Thinking creatively is our business,” says Fleming, and I concur completely. At this time of year when we are already thinking to the future, we are probably being more nimble in our approach to change – in every sphere – than we know.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation

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