Can Asians Save Classical Music?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 2 2012 7:00 AM

Can Asians Save Classical Music?

Orchestras (and audiences) get more Asian-American every year. Will it be enough?

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Gilbert, son of Japanese and American violinists, conducts the New York Philharmonic.

Photograph by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Swatch Group

What do symphony orchestras and cigarette companies have in common? It’s the age problem. How do you stay in business when your customers keep dying?

For orchestras, at least it’s not their product that’s lethal, though it might as well be. With the median age of concertgoers rising, fewer than one in 10 adults reported attending a classical concert in 2008, according to a periodic survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, a 28  percent drop since 1982. The financial state of orchestras today is roughly comparable to that of Blockbuster Video post-Netflix. Ticket sales are dropping; layoffs and bankruptcies abound. In the past two years, the Honolulu, Syracuse, and New Mexico orchestras closed up shop entirely; the Philadelphia Orchestra, long revered as one of the five best in the country, filed for Chapter 11 protection in April.

But there is one group that still likes classical music and, what’s more, pays to hear it performed: Asians. Of Asian-Americans ages 18-24 responding to the same survey, 14  percent reported attending a classical concert in the past year, more than any other demographic in that age group. Despite classical’s deserved reputation as the whitest of genres, Asian attendance rates match or surpass the national average up through the 45- 54 age range. To put it one way, the younger the classical audience gets, the more Asian it becomes. To put it another, the only population that is disproportionately filling seats being vacated by old people dying off is Asians.

Advertisement

This reflects what can be observed at most American concert halls today: a sea of white hair, broken only by the black, unflattering bowl cut given to all Asian kids by their parents, who have dragged them to the symphony for their cultural enrichment. I know because I was one of those kids. I’m a hapa (mixed-race) Korean-American, with an American father and Korean mother. At age 5, I was given a quarter-size violin. Private lessons followed, with regular trips to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra. By 12, I was concertmaster of my school orchestra and performing solo recitals. For a time, it was fun. At no point did I feel I had much of a choice in the matter.

“Music is a huge part of life for most Asian families,” says violinist Sarah Chang. “Most Asian children I know start taking violin, piano, or cello lessons from an early age.” If this sets them apart socially from their non-Asian classmates, Asian parents largely do not care. Their determination to raise musical kids can be single-minded and severe. One memorable passage in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has Amy Chua threatening her daughter during piano practice: “If the next time’s not perfect, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!” In Musicians From a Different Shore, University of Hawaii professor and pianist Mari Yoshihara describes her upbringing in postwar Japan. At the time, a confluence of mass production, rising incomes, and shrinking apartment sizes brought millions of upright pianos into urban households, where they became an emblem of middle-class status.  Through her years of practice, she writes, “I never asked myself why I was learning music or whether I even liked playing the piano. Such questions never even occurred to me. Music was not something I had the option of liking or not liking; it was just there for me to do.”

“There was a time when practically every major soloist was Jewish,” says violinist Joshua Bell. “Every Jewish kid grew up wanting to play the violin. Now it’s true among Asians.” (Or at least among Asian parents.) This shift became apparent within conservatories and orchestras in the 1970s, when the ranks of Eastern European and Jewish musicians, who had long dominated the field, began to decline, while those of Asians started to swell. Asians make up just over 4 percent of the U.S. population, but 7 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are Asian, and the figure rises to 20 percent for top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. At the elite Julliard School for music, one in five undergraduates—and one in three Ph.D. students—is Asian.

A word of caution: “Asian” in the American context encompasses a broad geography spanning Pakistan to Indonesia and including everyone ranging from fresh-off-the-boat immigrants to third-generation Asian-Americans and adoptees. In reality, the Asian classical phenomenon does not extend much beyond China, Japan, and Korea. Yet for East Asians at least, classical music is a genuine common thread, albeit a relatively young one. Its presence in the region goes back little more than a century, to the military bands brought to Japan by Commodore Perry’s opening. The early association of Western music with military discipline and modernization set a precedent. Classical music became an aspirational totem for both newly industrializing Asian countries, whose governments subsidized music schools and orchestras, and parents, for whom having a musician in the family was marker of success.

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.