Chucktown bucks the trend

Folks everywhere have been tolling the death-knell of classical music for some time now. And their concerns are real.

Orchestras and opera houses everywhere are fiscally feeble, and many have gone under: Witness the demise of Savannah’s orchestra in 2003, not to mention our own Charleston Symphony’s recent near-collapses. Classical radio stations are an endangered species. Poor education has left generations ignorant of the classics.

Who cares to stomach the complex fodder of elitist nerds? What do the brainy creations of dead white men have to do with the here and now? We shot ourselves in the foot during much of the previous century, driving audiences away with atonal complexity. But, in the new millennium, the vastly outnumbered forces of classical music are fighting back, struggling for their fair share of fresh audiences. We needn’t displace other genres; all we want are enough converts to ensure the music’s healthy survival.

As I’ve said before, classical music will never die, but for quite awhile, it’s been in real danger of fading into ever-geekier obscurity. Highbrow musical institutions everywhere are reinventing themselves. Take the Metropolitan Opera’s new high-def satellite simulcast initiative. December’s broadcast thrilled nearly 100,000 paying customers in 600 movie theaters worldwide, including over 200 happy opera fans at our own Charleston County Library (for free). Many orchestras are “de-formalizing,” inviting audiences to dress down, sip wine as they listen, and mingle with the musicians afterward. Our current crop of composers has brought melody and harmonic beauty back to the fore. Performers are packaging work in audacious new ways. Ironically, classical salvation nowadays is also being boosted from afar: Japan, China, and South Korea are emerging as new classical bastions, even though the Western classics hardly reflect Asian history and culture. It’s resounding proof of the classics’ enduring universal humanity.

Another promising ally is the Internet. Musicians of every ilk are selling more CDs and downloads via retail websites than they ever did in CD stores. Web meccas like iTunes have been reporting double-digit classical sales, as opposed to around 3 percent in stores. The innovative Naxos label is selling educational products like The A to Z of Classical Music by the truckload. A recent series of free BBC Beethoven Symphony broadcasts inspired millions of downloads, after expectations in the thousands.

So, how is all this playing out here in Chucktown? Very well, I’d say. The key to classical viability is exposure, and around here, that’s thanks to Spoleto. As local crowds gradually caught the beauty bug, cultivating the longer attention spans the classics require, the demand for quality local institutions rose. Now we have a fine regional orchestra. Relaxed dress codes and such are helping bridge old gaps, attract younger crowds. A, educational program is introducing more schoolkids to the classics than before. Our Spoleto-induced hunger is well-satisfied these days too, thanks to (among others) moonlighting CSO musicians, a burgeoning music program at the College of Charleston, and several outstanding church music programs. Outfits like the New Music Collective keep the hardcore avant-garde faithful happy. Charleston County’s magnet School of the Arts is one of the nation’s finest.

Our own classical scene has never been better.