Bruce Brubaker on classical music’s emergent audiences

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/24/bruce-brubaker-on-classical-musics-emergent-audiences/

As an internationally acclaimed performer, recording artist, and conservatory piano chair, Bruce Brubaker is uniquely positioned to identify the challenges of promoting classical music, especially among young people. He posits that “the walls are coming down” in a positive way between different genres, with contemporary trends such as minimalist and alternative classical music reaching new and unlikely audiences. But Brubaker also insists that crucial reforms are necessary for the survival of classical music in the United States.

Brubaker is well-known for his ability to recognize and cultivate new talent, and has been the piano chair at the New England Conservatory since 2005. He started his teaching career at the Julliard School, where he received his B.M., M.M., and D.M.A degrees. A number of his students have won major international competitions and launched successful performing careers. Brubaker has also performed with major orchestras around the world. He is recognized as a premier interpreter of minimalist, or repetitively structured, composers such as Philip Glass, and has recorded a number of CDs.

As an educator and recording artist, Brubaker has witnessed firsthand the evolution in classical music, and its coalescence with contemporary genres. He points to the alternative classical trend that fuses different styles, with an approachable appeal that is popular with audiences. The result is an innovative plurality in modern compositions.

Bruce Brubaker (Wikipedia)

Bruce Brubaker (Wikipedia)

“Musicians now are crossing many borders,” Brubaker observes. “Not since Leonard Bernstein has anyone worked in so many genres and styles as a musician like Nico Muhly today. In Nico’s case, a remarkable range — opera, chamber music, symphonic music, collaborations with bands and pop singers, film scoring, religious choral music, and arrangements for hip-hop artists! It’s a bold sign for the future. Music is open to new possibilities and not subject to the segmentation which was a particular feature of the 20th century.”

The movement is facilitated by technological advances, which have redefined the old mechanisms of delivery. For instance, Brubaker notes that people no longer have to frequent the classical department of music stores to hear new recordings. He says that providers like Spotify can suggest selections through their algorithms which, though sometimes annoying, are often right. Prior to digitalization, music was strictly classified because sources such as radio, record stores, and even jukeboxes required separate sales categories.

While Brubaker is classically trained and still performs works by Mozart, Bach and other masters, he nevertheless sees an evolution in how canonical works are interpreted. For example, he notes how performers around the world, and especially in Asia, are presenting fresh approaches to western classical music.

“Music is open to new possibilities and not subject to the segmentation which was a particular feature of the 20th century.”

A unique development? Not quite. Brubaker describes the parallel between today’s performance permeability and the 19th century trend of Americans traveling to Europe to study music. They added a new dimension and energy to the pieces they interpreted. Now, he observes, the situation is reversed, with Asian students coming to America and adding their own distinctive touch. Brubaker suggests that non-westerners are rejuvenating the old music into something very powerful in this context.

Moreover, Chinese students are filling the gaps from the declining number of American students pursuing classical music. But Brubaker cautions that eventually China and other Asian countries will build their own schools, and the current bubble will burst. He cites Julliard’s plans for a new school in Tianjin City, which will be staffed by their Chinese alumnae.

The low-cost and often free programs in other countries also give them a competitive edge. “Since China and Europe have national systems of music education, they have an advantage over us,” Brubaker adds. “We have to do more to promote music education in the U.S. By ignoring it, we are making a major mistake.”

To recapture the popularity of classical music, Brubaker recommends that composers, producers, and artists become more attuned to the expressive and performance intimacy that contemporary audiences desire. He illustrates the point with the 19th century celebrity status of composers and artists, such as Liszt and Paganini. At a concert featuring famed pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski in New York, for example, several newspapers recorded that the standing ovation lasted for more than an hour. Brubaker quips that Paderewski was the Justin Bieber of his day.

“In some communities, classical music is disappearing. Public school music programs are being eliminated. There is a large disparity in the classical music experience of people in differing socio-economic circumstances … It’s time for elite institutions to be fully part of the community, to offer all that they can.”

He also makes a compelling argument that pop music writers and producers understand people’s tastes and reactions better than their classical counterparts. Brubaker argues that most of the public wants music that makes them feel something of the intransient quality of humanness.

“Pop music often has an emotional connection, which we can learn from,” he observed. “A pop recording producer will have a sense of how the listener will react to new music. I admire this. There’s often a precise crafting and refinement of the sound of the sound.”

Going forward, Brubaker emphasizes that promoting classical music is not just about survival, but also involves preserving a centuries-old cultural heritage.

“In some communities, classical music is disappearing,” Brubaker notes. “Public school music programs are being eliminated. There is a large disparity in the classical music experience of people in differing socio-economic circumstances. The contrast is stark. It’s time for elite institutions to be fully part of the community, to offer all that they can.”

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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