The decision last month by The Longy School of Music to end the music lessons for children and non-professional adults it has offered for more than 90 years has reignited laments about the “crisis” in classical music. Concert attendance is declining, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Audiences are aging, orchestras are struggling, classical radio stations are abandoning the format. Frustrated parents and teachers ask where future audiences will come from for the professional musicians whom Longy is training now if a love of classical music isn’t nurtured in community programs like the very one the school is ditching. “It’s really self-defeating,” said Martin Burcharth, whose 12-year-old daughter takes piano lessons at Longy.
The Longy saga is ongoing, with hearings before the Cambridge City Council, a 1,500-name petition drive, and requests for a meeting with Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, which merged with Longy in 2011. At a minimum, the school ought to give its 900 amateur students and 54 abruptly terminated faculty a reprieve so the shaken community can reorganize, perhaps in other quarters. But some say the entire classical music infrastructure needs retooling — or even dismantling — if it is to have a future with a generation raised on Spotify and K-pop.
“It’s bureaucratic arthritis,” says Sam Bodkin, 23, a young man on a mission to save classical music from itself. “The bureaucracy is incompatible with what classical music needs to do in order to rekindle and reconnect, especially young people. If there is a solution to this problem it’s got to come from the generation it’s trying to engage.”
Bodkin isn’t a musician himself, but he heard Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue about four years ago and has been promoting classical music with all the zeal of a convert ever since. He says the reason his peers don’t attend classical concerts is not the repertoire or even the cost, but the whole social culture of the experience: the rigid rules, the enforced distance between musician and audience, the sense that the concert hall is a secret society only the cognoscenti can enter.
So Bodkin has taken the ethos of his generation — a mash-up of DIY business, couch-surfing, file-sharing, and beer — and created Groupmuse, a networking tool to create “organic social gatherings” around classical music in radically different settings. The “happenings” arranged by Groupmuse are low-cost (typically $5 or $10), often held in an apartment or church hall, and feature food, libation, and plenty of socializing.
Musicians come down from the stage to perform on the same level as the audience. The sound is alive, immediate. There’s lots of enthusiastic cheering for a great solo, spontaneous question-and-answer sessions, and simple connection. Bodkin insists it’s just as much fun as a typical night at a bar or the movies. “We have to break down this false binary that you do some things to enrich yourself and others things to enjoy yourself,” he says. “We have to give the audience a chance to find fun, enriching ways to engage with great art.”
Groupmuse has held seven happenings since it started in January. Interested performers or audiences can check the website and RSVP to attend a concert in a private home. Bodkin got the idea while couch-surfing around Europe after he graduated from Columbia. “I realized people are willing to be generous with their space if it is for some kind of social exchange,” he said.
The next happening is April 27 at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain, where the Love and Friendship Orchestra will perform. (On its Facebook page, the orchestra says that “in order for classical music to find its footing in the modern world, it needs to emphasize community and interpersonal connection as much as it does artistry.”) Bodkin wants hundreds of people to attend — especially if they never have been to a classical concert before.
Bodkin’s optimism is infectious. If his fellow millennials can just be exposed to great music in a welcoming atmosphere, he believes they’ll be hooked. “And gradually, where classical music sits in the public mind is going to move back from the margins.”
Classical music’s problem is not actually the music. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is 100 years old, but once you hear it, you know it rocks.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.