Despite its reliance on old masters, classical music in Monterey County has its sights set on innovation. | Cover


Steve Friedlander vividly remembers his introduction to classical music decades ago. Growing up in Oklahoma City, the traveling ensemble of the local symphony orchestra stopped by her elementary school to organize and play a concert. The rest is history.

“I heard these instruments for the first time and the acoustics in real time and not through a record player or a phonograph and it just, yeah, got to me,” says Friedlander.

Friedlander, now executive director of the Carmel Bach Festival, is preparing for the 85th season of the classical music festival. Despite the event’s obvious longevity – Friedlander says it’s one of the longest-running summer festivals in the country – the question of longevity into the future remains a major concern for a festival centered to music hundreds of years old.

“I think the stamina and durability issues are real issues,” Friedlander says from his office in Carmel. “But rumors of classical music’s demise are greatly exaggerated.”

THE DEATH BLOW OF CLASSICAL MUSIC STRONG DURING THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES, especially through the advent and rise of genres such as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet cities around the world today claim their own well-funded classical music institutions and symphony orchestras. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that in 2015—the most recent figures available—nonprofit symphonies and chamber ensembles contributed $1.9 billion to the U.S. economy. The Monterey Peninsula alone is home to the Carmel Bach Festival, the Carmel Music Society, Chamber Music Monterey Bay and the Monterey Symphony, each a vibrant and established organization, the youngest of which is 56 years old.

Despite this, classical music faces existential questions. Although the art form has remained alive through the generations, it has largely survived the gravitational pull of the masterpieces of 17th, 18th and 19th century composers. This has apparently been true throughout the 20th century. The American music critic Virgil Thomson wrote of the symphonic repertoire in 1939: “From Tokyo to Lisbon, from Tel Aviv to Seattle, 90% of this repertoire is the same 50 pieces. According, a website dedicated to tracking trends and data in classical music, opera and dance, the 10 most popular concert composers in 2019 were all white men who died between 1750 and 1893 – the top three were Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Over 13% of the 34,648 concerts, operas and dance performances tracked by Bachtrack in 2019 featured a work by Beethoven; less than a quarter of classical music concerts in the United States in 2019 featured a piece by a living composer.

According to Billboard and Nielsen ratings, classical music accounted for 1% of the total music industry market share in 2021, the smallest of the 11 genres the data tracks. It’s a position the classical music genre has steadily held for the past decade at least. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that only 8.6% of the US population attended a classical music performance in 2017, according to the latest available data.

Classical music may be hanging by a thread, but it’s a thread strong enough to keep organizations like the Carmel Bach Festival, the Monterey Symphony and others like them across the country afloat.

Top: (left) Dinis Souza is one of three guest conductors at the 85th Carmel Bach Festival. He is currently the principal conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, a British chamber orchestra.| (center) Nicholas McGegan is a well-established Baroque conductor who has been called an “expert in 18th-century style” by the new yorker. | (right) Grete Pedersen is a conductor from Norway who will bring a Scandinavian touch to the concerts she will conduct at this year’s Bach Fest.

WHATEVER LOYALTY, NO MEMBER OF THE AUDIENCE WILL STAY FOREVER – Friedlander says the audience for the Bach Festival tends to be 65+ – and that new audiences are essential for the future of the classical music ecosystem. Friedlander knows from his own experience the potential impact of bringing classical music to where people are. Before the pandemic, the Bach Festival prioritized the performance of classical music in local schools and this is something that Friedlander, according to Friedlander, will take up eventually, as a means of capturing attention at one end of the spectrum. public.

The well of new potential adult listeners doesn’t necessarily require fresh new compositions to lure them in – sometimes they just need popular old-guard masterpieces performed with excellence. The Bach Festival saw record ticket sales in 2018 and 2019, which Friedlander attributes to “blockbuster” programming, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – a piece that is nearly 200 years old.

Often, however, new audiences need a new format, something that breaks the stuffy etiquette of chamber music halls, says Nicola Reilly, executive director of the Monterey Symphony. Bringing in new listeners is at the heart of the organization’s mission.

“There are certain perceptions of classical music that strike me as correct: that it’s elitist, expensive, and in some cases prohibitively expensive,” says Reilly. “We’re trying to break that down without sacrificing our business model. We try to bring classical music to places where it’s not that kind of respectful concert hall.

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The Monterey Symphony has tried to tailor some of its programming around this crowd with orchestras performing popular music at the Forest Theatre, and with pre-concert nights where audiences can meet the conductor and musicians .

“One thing that’s hurting classical music is that our collective attention span is getting so much smaller, and classical music wasn’t designed for short attention spans,” Reilly says.

Yet she remains unconvinced that classical music is existentially threatened. But that’s no license to stagnate creatively. After all, classical music is an art form, and art forms must stay alive and breathing lest they become cold procedures.

Cyril Yansouni, chairman of the Bach Festival board, understands the importance of bringing new music into the repertoire, but admits the walk between pushing the boundaries and relying on the old canon is like walking on tiptoe on a tightrope.

“We clearly have to meet the needs of our core customers because, frankly, they are the ones who are [older] and can sign the checks,” says Yansouni. “You also have to take risks and trust the musicians and the artistic director, but at the same time you have to tell them that you can’t innovate every night or you’ll go bankrupt. You have to balance finances with the more adventurous things.

The lineup for the 85th Carmel Bach Festival is a melodic mix of old and new.

A mix of old and new is very much in the DNA of this two-week summer festival.

THE MONTEREY SYMPHONY IN JUNE LET THE COMMUNITY KNOW he would lean more towards pushing the boundaries in the future after hiring Jayce Ogren as the new art director. Ogren has been called one of the most innovative and versatile in his profession, and is known for taking on large-scale and challenging projects. He tells the Weekly the projects he tends to pursue are “outside the normal symphonic repertoire”.

Ogren got the job through a live gig audition. It’s a strategy the Carmel Bach Festival is also pursuing with the three guest conductors invited to come and perform throughout this year’s festival (see story, right) and, potentially, take the reign of a new artistic director.

That role has been empty since Maestro Paul Goodwin’s 11-year reign unexpectedly ended after the abbreviated 2021 festival. Goodwin recounts Weekly a tension existed between the innovative and traditional factions of the festival – a frequent burden for artistic directors. He says that while innovation is key, the most important factor in sustainability is engagement with the community and the audience that the festival management wants to attract.

“It’s great to present innovative and interesting musical ideas, but it’s essential that you take your audience, donors and board members with you on this journey,” Goodwin says over email.

Yansouni says the board wants a leader who can inspire musicians and collaborate freely, as well as chat with patrons and donors.

Yansouni is also concerned about longevity. He says attracting this middle-aged demographic, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, is particularly critical for the future of the Carmel Bach Festival, and programming focused on this age group is something which the board will work on with the new artistic director. .

“The new conductor could be a good way to emphasize that,” says Yansouni. “We will have to use the ad as a vehicle to get attention.”


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