Why Classical Music Still Thrives in Seattle
What Seattle is doing to keep classical music resonating with young adult audiences
By Jonathan Shipley January 21, 2016
A classically trained pianist, Christopher O’Riley takes the stage at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus and begins playing some elegant Shostakovich. The young audience listens quietly. Then, O’Riley hammers out a tune by famed alternative-rock band Radiohead—and the crowd roars in approval. Just as suddenly, O’Riley returns to the graceful classical music canon. The audience is hooked.
On another night, at Benaroya Hall, Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot conducts Waking the Horizon, a piece conceived by Pearl Jam’s lead guitarist, Mike McCready. The symphony, as part of its Sonic Evolution programming, is giving Pearl Jam fans in the audience a taste of what the Seattle Symphony can do. “This is taking a first step in exposing people to classical music that isn’t ‘stuffy’ or ‘formal,’” says Maggie Stapleton, assistant program director at Seattle radio station Classical KING-FM.
Seattle’s classical music arts community is scrambling to meet the needs of today’s performing arts audience. Arts groups, from the UW World Series to the Pacific Northwest Ballet to KING-FM, are seeking young audiences for their concerts, events and performances, and are trying to provide them access to the classical music world—one that isn’t intimidating. Can these arts groups provide a taste of classical music to those unfamiliar with it? More importantly, can they inspire these audiences to come back for more? There is a “cycle of significant change” in today’s classical music climate, says Michelle Witt, executive director of Meany Hall and artistic director of the UW World Series. “We need to understand that and make the appropriate connections.”
Nationally, interest in classical music is declining, particularly among young adults. According to a National Endowment for the Arts study, the percentage of adults who attended a classical music concert dipped from 13 percent in 1982 to 8.8 percent in 2012. During those same years, the number of concert attendees between ages 25 and 35 also decreased.
And yet, Seattle’s arts groups seem to be bucking those trends. In 2014, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their patrons in the Puget Sound area contributed $2.4 billion in business activity to the area, reports a recent ArtsFund economic impact study. More than 314,000 people attended Seattle Symphony concerts during the 2013–14 season, according to the organization’s annual report. The symphony also reached more than 65,000 children and adults through community programming, and launched its own record label. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra is the largest in the nation, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet, according to founding artistic director Kent Stowell, boasts one of the highest per capita ballet attendances in the country. Seattle’s participation in the arts is actually 70 percent higher than the rest of the nation, according to an Americans for the Arts study. “Classical music isn’t rusty and old,” says Witt. In fact, the art form is “constantly evolving,” says Stapleton. “Classical music, new music, avant-garde music is music, and it should be shared.”
The challenge is to find innovative ways to expose new, young audiences to classical music. Groupmuse, a Boston-based startup that connects young classical musicians to local audiences through house-concert parties, is doing just that. “People have been saying for 100 years that classical music is dying,” says Emma Rose Lynn, who helped bring Groupmuse to Seattle. “It isn’t.” With regular events in Seattle, New York, Boston and San Francisco, Groupmuse might offer a string quartet in someone’s living room or a brass ensemble in another’s cleared-out garage. One of Lynn’s favorite memories was when “people started hooting and hollering in the middle of a classical cello duet.” More than that, she remembers “all the times when I asked a crowd, ‘Who has never been to a classical concert before?’” Fewer than half of them, says Lynn, had ever been in the same room with a classical music instrument.
Tom baker, seattle’s cornish College of the Arts interim music department chair, says he’s noticed a decline among incoming students’ musical training in areas such as note reading, music theory and history. “Yet, I think the hunger for creative outlets for these students has never been greater,” Baker says. “They come to school with an enormous desire for new ways of thinking, performing, creating.”
It’s that lack of music exposure and training for young people that local arts groups find daunting. Arts education as a whole is constantly under siege as school, city and state budgets get increasingly tighter. If a youngster has no idea what a harpsichord is, why would that person consider attending a Baroque concert at the symphony hall years later?
Seattle Public Schools, well aware of this dilemma, hopes to boost arts education for Seattle students through The Creative Advantage, an arts plan that began with 13 schools in 2013-14. The program’s objective is to address—and eliminate—inequities in access to the arts, and to deliver an arts education to every Seattle student by 2020. The Creative Advantage is a public-private partnership with the district, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, the Seattle Foundation and community arts organizations.
Seattle brims with arts organizations that provide programs to foster kids’ appreciation of classical music. The Seattle Symphony gives free community concerts in underserved neighborhoods, presents family-friendly shows at Benaroya Hall, and hosts activities for families and schools through Soundbridge, a music discovery center for youths. The Ladies Musical Club, a nonprofit, brings concerts to underserved communities and to schools without organized musical programs. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra provides music education to more than 1,670 students a year, and the newly formed Emerald City Chamber Music Organization offers chamber music education to young people. A Seattle Symphony program for elementary students, Link Up, will get a big boost, thanks to a recent $50,000 donation from Taylor Swift. The pop star was inspired by the Symphony’s recording of John Luther Adams’ piece, Become Ocean.
Why try to reach youths at all? It is about more than keeping ticket sales up; it’s about sustaining and growing an art form. “People don’t realize just how much humans are capable of until they see someone like them who has dedicated thousands of hours to perfecting their craft,” says Lynn of Groupmuse. “It is inspiring to witness.”
When we deny young people exposure to classical music, we deny them the connection to our cultural history, says Virginia Wright, managing director of the Emerald City Chamber Music Organization. “They miss out on experiencing the beauty and continuity of an incredibly rich form of art.” Stephen Radcliffe, music director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, agrees. “Classical music is the foundation of all Western music…virtually all music consumed here and abroad (rock, pop, Broadway, bluegrass) is based on a tonal language created as far back as the 15th century.” In other words, Lady Gaga is a descendant of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Many local arts groups offer creative programing that shines a spotlight on popular music. When rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot guest-starred with the Seattle Symphony in 2014, Rolling Stone wrote about it; the symphony’s orchestral arrangement of “Baby Got Back” got more than 3.3 million YouTube hits. “The boundaries between classical, popular and world music are blurring,” Witt says. “Arts groups are grappling with it—and trying to get ahead of it.”
Radio station KING-FM recently started Second Inversion, a streaming music channel that includes cross-genre, indie-classical, avant-garde music, as well as introductions to new performers and composers. “Mixing classical music with other genres and presenting it in a casual setting are tactics that we’ve instituted—and many other organizations are doing very well,” says Stapleton. Organizations such as Opera on Tap, a national network of operatic performing artists, brings opera to local bars. The UW World Series offers concerts in dorms and libraries for students while they study.
Young adult music clubs, developed through many of Seattle’s cultural institutions, are growing. Pacific Northwest Ballet launched The Pointe last August for fans ages 20–40—the organization features special events and discounts for performances—and has 1,260 members so far. Seattle Opera’s Bravo! group, for 21- to 39-year-olds, has grown 25 percent since last season. Seattle Symphony’s WolfGang, for patrons in their 20s and 30s, offers pre-concert receptions and meet-and-greets with musicians.
In the meantime, the music keeps on coming. Composers are composing. Performers are performing. Joshua Roman, a young cellist, plays regularly at Town Hall. Become Ocean won a Pulitzer Prize recently and a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. That’s good news for the arts, and even better news for arts groups trying to attract a younger demographic: Younger performers and composers, Witt notes, help bring in younger audiences.
“The music of the great composers is a bequest given to each generation,” says Seattle Youth Symphony’s Radcliffe. “The only way we have to say ‘thank you’ to them is to create, nurture and support the institutions and organizations that are committed to ensuring their vitality in perpetuity.” Virginia Wright echoes Radcliffe’s thoughts. “The future needs a culturally literate citizenry,” she says. “The arts need audience members and patrons. We need citizens who appreciate our shared cultural heritage.”
Additional reporting by Linda Morgan