By Ryan Thomas
Classical music is a mom-and-pop business. Not just because mom and pop are the only ones listening, but because they inevitably hand that business down to their offspring.
This explains the survival of the genre, said Ira Pedlikin, director of artistic planning and education at Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. He said much of the group’s support base are “people who grow up with their parents listening to the radio station on all day.” He added, “I know we have had board members who started coming to [Handel’s] “Messiah” when they were ages 5 to 12, and they’ve been coming ever since.”
Pedlikin said the annual “Messiah” performance is the biggest, and perhaps most vital show H&H puts on. “There are people who come as just part of their holiday tradition every year. We count on that, and I think once we get people in the first time, they are eager to come back.”
Pedlikin said that roughly 30 percent of the turnout is under the age of 45. He attributes some of those numbers to the various outreach and educational programs by Handel and Haydn. “It gives us access into areas we wouldn’t normally, whether it’s schools where we perform, or schools that we visit, or youth that come to sing in our choruses. We do think that the kids might become H&H attendees. We can can get some of the parents to attend. We can do a little educating as well.”
He also credits music programs in higher education with the genre’s maintained interest. “I think that based on what I’m seeing in other groups around and the programs in places like Juilliard are becoming more and more popular, and specific Early music programs, and I think that bodes well.”
In fact, music students seem to account for much of what keeps the Early music industry solvent. More than performing, they are consuming.
Bert Christmas, who works as the in-house classical music expert at Newbury Comics on Newbury Street, a block shy of the Berklee School of Music, said, “It’s just our location, the music school situation, that’s why we’re able to sell what we have.” He added, “The music students are very knowledgeable. They know what has been recorded and what hasn’t.”
Who would go out their way to acquire antiquitous music formats of an even more antiquitous music genre?
Christmas said that the generally lower prices of pre-owned CDs, as well as the diverse samplings, also encourage sales of the Early music by generations who’d just as easily download a copy much less expensively. He also said a lot of classical newcomers are jazz enthusiasts. “And that’s usually the best thing to get introduced to: baroque music, Bach, early Mozart… and then they just pick it up from there.”
But numbers are slow to grow. “The fact that what we do is still a small priority in America, that’s an obstacle,” Pedlikin said.
What ultimate keeps the flame burning, he indicated, are the young and inspired who take up violin lessons as children and aspire to the acoustic grandeur of symphony halls. “They get their friends to come, and it leads to word-of-mouth,” he said, adding, “especially where there’s things like Facebook, where someone can say, ‘I’m performing this concert’ and it reaches such a broad audience, that it’s hard to reach any other way. And I think that helps us.”
Tessa Sacramone, a Boston University student studying violin performance, admitted there are some challenges to approaching the genre. “I feel like playing classical music is a constant struggle with one’s self,” she said.
Sacramone says that sometimes the genre can feel tedious, even laborious, “but then it can feel the complete opposite, because playing music is also one of the least monotonous career paths.”