Campus Concerts Rebuff Notion Of Classical Decline

Vassar College's Mahagonny Ensemble has performed at Modfest, the college's celebration of 20t-h and 21st-century arts.
At Vassar College, classmates are attracted to concerts by their peers, such as the student-run Mahagonny Ensemble.
By Raymond Sokolov

Reports of the death of classical music ring out with the regularity of noon on a grandfather clock. I should know. I wrote such a dirge in Newsweek almost 50 years ago. But if you are worried by symphony orchestra bankruptcies, declining ticket sales at the Metropolitan Opera, and the ever grayer, mostly white audiences who still show up at concerts, you need to go back to college. Because the safest haven for serious music in America is on campus.

Bard's Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center.
Classical music’s year-round at Bard’s Gehry-designed Fisher Center.
(Photo by Peter Aaron/Esto)

This is no ivory-towered phenomenon limited to academic music departments or professional conservatories attached to universities. I mean regular concerts sponsored by institutions of higher learning and open to the public, as well as students. You’ve almost certainly got one of these concert series taking place at a campus near you. I live in the mid-Hudson Valley, 85 miles north of New York City, next to a cow pasture, and I have three of these venues within a 40-minute drive. One is five miles away at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where the Russian émigré piano virtuoso Vladimir Feltsman runs an institute for professional pianists who perform in the college auditorium.

Across the river in Annandale-on-Hudson, Bard College offers us a panoply of events all year in its billowing, titanium, Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center. Bard’s president Leon Botstein, a controversial but brainy conductor celebrated for ferreting out neglected bijoux of the musical past, runs America’s most intellectually brilliant summer festival, devoted for the past 25 years to a different major composer and his “world.”

This year, Franz Schubert is the master on whose coattails lesser musical contemporaries – such as Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg  – will cling. And shortly before the festival begins its packed two weekends in August, there will be a fully staged opera: Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe (1823), a romantic proto-Wagnerian relic last performed, according to Bard, in the U.S. at the Met in 1915.

Bard recently saluted composer and faculty member Joan Tower.
Bard recently saluted composer and faculty member Joan Tower.

But why wait? Botstein brandishes his baton in all seasons as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, a creation of Leopold Stokowski that plays an eclectic menu of the established, the obscure, and the new. In February,  I attended a jammed event featuring Schumann’s Second Symphony flanked by Joan Tower’s “Stroke” (2010) and a violin concerto by the prolific Finn, Erkki Melartin (1875-1937).

Tower (born 1938) is on the Bard faculty  and was on hand to hear a bracing 17-minute rendition of her record in sound of the emotional crests and troughs of her younger brother’s recovery from a stroke not long ago. This is an often violent piece, relieved in its intensity by periods of calm and resignation.

Violinist Dongfang Ouyang, Bard College (
When Ouyang won a concerto contest, a cohort of classmates came.

The audience stood in tribute to their 75-year-old neighbor, a coeval of many in the hall, if more chipper than many of us. There was also a large cohort of young people present – no doubt students from the Bard Conservatory – who had come out to hear their classmate, violinist Dongfang Ouyang, a Chinese-born winner of the school’s annual concerto contest. Ouyang, who came to Bard after studying in Kiev and Moscow, is a prodigious technician with a traditional vibrato. In the Melartin concerto (written in 1913 but not published until it was rediscovered in the late ’90s), he had plenty of opportunities to show off his instrumental control, but even his best efforts did not make a case for a revival of the forgotten Finn. It appeared, moreover, that the never-forgotten Schumann held no attraction for many of Ouyang’s conservatory pals, who vanished during intermission, perhaps to toast him with some obscure Finnish potation.

Violinist Sabrina Tabby, '14, was soloist in Chausson's 'Poeme.'
Bard violinist Sabrina Tabby, ’14, was soloist in Chausson’s ‘Poeme.’

It must be said that they missed an unelectrifying if blemish-free read-through of the Schumann symphony, but their fickleness is apparently not unknown among music students elsewhere. Earlier in the season, they all remained onstage throughout their own conservatory’s public concert, which included a riveting performance by Bard faculty member Jeffrey Kahane  of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Kahane conducted that work con brio from the keyboard. He went on to direct the crisp student orchestra from the podium in Brahms’s First Symphony and Chausson’s challenging Poème (1896). The solo violinist in the Chausson was Sabrina Tabby, another concerto contest winner and the orchestra’s concertmaster. She took charge of Poème’s double stops and seemed destined for a career outside academe.

[An upcoming opera double bill, performed by Bard students,  includes the world premiere of “Payne Hollow” by Shawn Jaeger March 14-16.]

At Vassar College, down Route 9 from Annandale, students also don’t show up in serious numbers at the campus’s distinguished series of musical events unless their classmates are performing, I was told by Richard Wilson, a composer, pianist, and witty lecturer of long tenure at Vassar’s music department. The high level of student participation in Vassar’s pancultural midwinter Modfest, which included student performances of works by student and recently graduated composers, as well as Charles Ives and Arvo Pärt, met this problem head on.

Students in the Radcliffe Choral Society are from many fields of study.
Students in the Radcliffe Choral Society are from many fields of study.

Another way around such apathy, especially among non-music students, would be to integrate upcoming concerts with class work, and not necessarily just in music courses as such. But this is not a widespread ploy, even on campuses with rich classical music performance schedules.

Bard, according to a spokesman, does not tie its term-time concerts to its undergraduate curriculum, although individual instructors sometimes do connect the performances with classroom work and make attendance at a concert part of the course. For his part, Botstein brings the ASO into the freshman core seminar. During freshman orientation, which overlaps with the second weekend of the Bard Festival, $5 tickets for students are available an hour before performances. But by and large, even on this musically effervescent campus, undergraduates are mostly left to decide whether to attend term-time events without special preparation or prodding, which, by one rough estimate, leads to a 10 percent undergraduate presence at concerts.

The Chiara String Quartet had a residency at Harvard. (Roger Ressmeyer)
The Chiara String Quartet taught at Harvard. (Roger Ressmeyer)

It is rare to find schools that attempt to connect students not majoring in music with campus concert life. Each institution is of course different. Harvard supports four orchestras, at least one student opera, choruses, and other musical activity, almost all performed by student amateurs with occasional faculty presence at the helm. Audiences, in my time at least, were drawn primarily from the university community. There are currently for-credit courses for members of the student orchestra and the Radcliffe Choral Society and courses in performance with such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma dropping in. But for the non-major wanting academic enrichment for his experience with campus concerts, a few lucky freshmen could take Anne C. Shreffler’s seminar on Beethoven’s string quartets, which tied classroom work to the fall residency at Harvard of the Chiara Quartet.

Violinists from the English Concert meet with students at the University of North Carolina.
Members of the English Concert meet with non-music majors at UNC.

In an earlier era, when music instruction in elementary and high schools still touched most students, colleges and universities could assume some minimal level of music literacy in their non-specialist students. Today, this is clearly not the case, so treating the often-vibrant campus concert world as just another extracurricular choice, along with football, is an institutional mistake or, at the very least, a missed opportunity.

A shining example of how an enlightened school can combine on-campus public performance with musical education can be found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under UNC’s Carolina Performing Arts this semester, such big names as Joshua Bell and Lang Lang are selling out. In April, soprano Dawn Upshaw comes to town with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to perform works of Schoenberg and contemporary composers. Side by side, CPA runs a comprehensive program of music education related to its programming. Arts@TheCore brings together, faculty, students and the world of performing arts.

No doubt such collaborations occur elsewhere in higher education. There should be more.

Raymond Sokolov was for nearly 20 years the editor of the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal. He studied clarinet with Herman Kushner and much later received a Ph.D. in classics from Harvard.


  1. I heartily second Mr. Sokolov’s observations. I teach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where the musicians — both undergraduates and graduate students — routinely perform on campus to houses composed of local (older) patrons and other members of the university community, but primarily of their friends and contemporaries. The enthusiastic responses to the concerts, recitals, and fully staged operas suggest that young as well as old are grateful for the performances.

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