May 22, 2015: Commencement Address

I want to begin by again congratulating each and every one of you on your graduation from Peabody.  We’re proud of you.  Your family and friends are proud of you.  You worked hard to get here.  The good news is that you were successful.  The challenge is, OK, “what’s next?”  We asked that same question about classical music in our symposium this past fall.  To talk about “what’s next” for you, we should return to that same question, because what’s next for you is inextricably linked with the future of your chosen art form.

What does that future of classical music look like?   Better yet, what do we even mean by “classical” music?  The term is actually a convention of the 20th century.  Before that, classical music was in large part the popular idiom.  In the 19th Century, Liszt and Paganini were “rock stars.”  Before that, Mozart’s Magic Flute was for “the people.”  Not until the 20th century do we see the true bifurcation between Pop and so-called “high art.”

Even earlier in the first half of the 20th century, there was an infusion of classical music in popular culture.  This is way before your time, but think about the early days of television:  Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts; the Bell Telephone Hour & Ed Sullivan where major classical artists were regular featured guests; How about Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera Doc?”, or “The Rabbit of Seville.”  Movies such as “Carnegie Hall” introduced classical artists to the public, and Fantasia where Mickey Mouse stepped up to shake the hand of Leopold Stokowski.  In fact, for a while, it seemed like classical music was consistently finding its way into popular culture.

So what happened?  Was it the well documented and lamented decline of music education in schools?  Life-style changes?  The advent of new and different forms of communication and media?  Did these all contribute to this decline in people attending classical concerts as demonstrated by a National Endowment for the Arts study which showed over the first decade of the 21st Century a 25% decline in adults attending at least one classical event annually?  Do I have your attention now?

What this means is that the 21st century “classical” musician has to be more than a great pianist or violinist, more than a great performer.  As you embark on your musical life after Peabody, you will need to relate, educate, spark interest and creativity, engage an audience, and yes, entertain.

I started to think about this 30 years ago as co-founder of Aequalis, a group dedicated to performing and advancing contemporary music.  By necessity, we thought a lot about how to connect to audiences.  To be sure, what we wanted to do was play the music really well, and introduce people to new sound worlds and the music of living composers.  But we approached it from the perspective of how to create an audience for what we were doing through whatever means possible.

When I began to work with orchestras it had already become clear that we needed to do something different in our business.  That meant offering new and different kinds of music.  It entailed linking the orchestra with popular mediums including film and video game shows.  It involved taking an active role in education, and embracing our communities in new ways.  And most importantly, it meant finding new avenues to identify, interact with, and relate to audiences.

Because at the end of the day, people want to be on the “inside”; they want to relate; they want to interact; they want to be involved.  Think about the fact that today anyone can participate in a very direct way in activities previously left to a few.  Anyone can “publish” a book.  Anyone can be on “TV” – it’s called YouTube.  Anyone can be a columnist – start a blog.  Anyone can be a celebrity – how many followers do YOU have on Twitter?  People want to be involved, and in the know.

In the performing arts world, that means they want to be close to the artist.  They want an intimate experience and a sense of participation.  Examples of this are increasingly prevalent.  Think about Le Poisson Rouge in NYC – a kind of night club for classical music.  Or the You-Tube symphony which brought together artists from around the world for an internet premier of a new work.  The Baltimore Symphony’s “Rusty Musicians” program lets amateur musicians sit side by side with BSO members in a kind of orchestra “fantasy camp.”  Or the New World Symphony’s “Emotion Meter” cell phone experiment, where audiences participated in a performance by registering via cellphone in real time the emotions they were experiencing through the music.

These are all examples of the classical music world you are entering.  For the Peabody Institute, that means expanding our vision to make four pillars central:  Excellence, Interdisciplinary focus, Innovation, and Community Connectivity.  Excellence is essential – we should be as competitive as the most competitive schools at Johns Hopkins University.  And as a school of Hopkins, we should own the notion of the interdisciplinary study of music – who could do this better?  And we should innovate constantly – as the oldest conservatory in America, we should be on the cutting edge of 21stcentury music study.  And with the geography we occupy, community connectivity is critical.  Because that’s where this notion of musicians not just being musicians but being advocates, educators and connectors becomes central.  Yes, we need to educate artists that are at the top of their game as performers as a starting point; but we also need them to be smart, holistic, and creative.  We need citizen artists.

As graduates, embrace this notion of experimentation.  Never stop looking for ways to educate, advocate and connect.  You don’t know where your lives and careers will take you.  Be open to anything; stay flexible, and follow your heart.

I’ve always found it ironic that in our country “classical” music despite its challenges is where people often turn for emotional comfort and reassurance in times of distress.  We were reminded of this and the importance of music in our communities with recent events here in Baltimore.  Music is uniquely human in its expression of ourselves and how we see the world.

The exciting thing about all this is that while in some ways classical music has never been more challenged, in many ways there have never been more avenues to make connections through classical music.  I’m confident that now having survived over the centuries, the geniuses that populate music history will continue to be with us.  And I look forward to watching you with your unique talents and abilities bring new energy and creativity to our art form that will build on and strengthen its history and serve the world in new and different ways.  Again, congratulations to you all.  Thank you and enjoy this very special moment in your lives.