Classical Accents

By Robert Lee Wolfe III

It's difficult to entertain a conversation about classical music in the twenty-first century without addressing the decline of the form. The spattering of remaining young musical aficionados regularly laments the sea of gray heads amid the array of empty seats at most classical performances. This situation was nowhere more apparent than in Streams and Savagery, where conductor James Ross' half-runs off the stage after each piece and swift subsequent returns ensured that that he and his orchestra received an extended ovation. This performance by the UMD Symphony Orchestra shows an acute awareness of its predicament, and while it attempts to attract more young people through its use of visual stimuli and a light/dark motif, these efforts to innovate largely fall flat and in some cases even detract from the experience.

The evening opened with selections from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, a pastoral composition that occasioned the adornment of many members of the orchestra in pastel accent colors. After an intermission, the orchestra returned in more somber garb to perform Leon Kirchner's The Forbidden and a piece from Bela Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin." A post-intermission speaker called explicit attention to the accent colors as an innovation and afterward mentioned that a new student group is being formed to support the appreciation of classical music at the University of Maryland. That wearing accent colors should be regarded as an innovation is a bit confusing, but it was unsurprising given the general air of desperation to preserve classical music.

The second half of the evening featured a light show projected against the wall behind the musicians to accompany the Kirchner and Bartok pieces. Unfortunately, the wall behind the musicians was not flat, so what was being displayed was often difficult to make out. Even when one could take in the images, they seemed to amount to little more than a glorified screensaver with ambiguous connections to the music being performed. While it is an admirable attempt to appeal to a younger generation through a visual medium, it seems unlikely that anyone disinterested in classical music will be convinced to attend by a light show. It may in fact be more likely to turn off anyone who does not want to be distracted from the music at hand.

All this adds up to a brilliant musical performance marred by confused marketing. Certainly the decline in classical music is something to be concerned about, but changing the performances themselves may not be the answer.