Can Asians Save Classical Music?
Orchestras (and audiences) get more Asian-American every year. Will it be enough?
But not just any musician. Asian and Asian-American performers gravitate almost exclusively to strings and piano: Those instruments which, within a genre that symbolizes class mobility in Asia, are at the top of the heap. Rarely does one encounter an Asian conservatory student playing the bassoon or trombone, or any instrument that does not afford the possibility of soloist superstardom.
The prestige Asians ascribe to classical music is, it should be noted, completely disproportionate to the actual salaries earned by professional musicians. And the Asian juggernaut has yet to move much beyond the orchestra pit. One area in which Asians do not dominate, Yoshihara notes, is orchestra management, which remains overwhelmingly white. The boards of most performing arts organizations are made up of wealthy corporate donors, who tend to recruit managers and other board members from within their own social circles. And in contrast to celebrity musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang, Asians haven’t made much headway into conducting or composing. Asian music education is not famous for its music theory. The Suzuki method, Asia’s most successful classical music export, is a highly mechanical training regimen based on drills and rote memorization, with no emphasis on “feeling” the music. It lends itself best to the equally mechanical works of the Baroque period, less to the Romantic era and not at all to contemporary classical.
However circumscribed the music may be, Asia is one place where classical artists can be genuine pop stars in ways long forgotten in Europe and North America. “Whenever I play in Korea, I feel like I’m at a rock concert,” says Bell. If there’s any irony to the most quintessentially Western music tradition being kept alive by the East, by now it’s a moot point. Classical music is as Asian as tempura and Spam. Even if it eventually dies in the West, it will have an Asian afterlife, much in the way washed-up American rock bands can still pack stadiums in Manila.
Classical music probably won’t ever disappear completely from our shores. If it survives, it will be thanks in large part to continued Asian immigration and an audience that is increasingly imported. Faced with the unenviable task of trying to make the most hidebound of music traditions hip and relevant to kids, the survival strategy of orchestras has mostly been to throw up their hands and pray that their remaining season ticket-holders cling to life another year. Instead, they might prepare for a future in which their subscribers look a lot different than they do today, and cultivate leadership, outreach and programming which reflect that.
As for me, I eventually grew tired of the violin and stopped playing. But I never lost my love for Mozart and Mahler. It's said that playing an instrument as a child is the greatest predictor of concert attendance as an adult. So I still go to those same concert halls I went to as a kid. Only now, I no longer have the bowl cut, and I attend by choice.
Michael Ahn Paarlberg is classical music critic for the Washington City Paper. He also writes for the Guardian.