Do you need a prerequisite to enjoy classical music?


A while back I posted on Facebook that I felt the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto needed a time out. One of the commenters on that post said, “Yes, but it’s such a great first time listener’s work. After they listen to that then they can go on and enjoy other works.”

A few others chimed in saying similar things, and the discussion revealed the viewpoint of many veteran classical music listeners. They were actively prejudging how newcomers should start into the art of orchestral music.

I completely object to this! Since when do we need to follow a prescribed order of works to get on the moving train that Classical music is? Can one not fully understand or enjoy the Barber Violin Concerto without first taking in Mendelssohn? And if that is the case, should people take in some Mozart concertos before they can understand or appreciate Mendelssohn? By that logic, we should go back to the beginning! Forget Bach, let’s force some Palestrina!

Last year when I performed the Higdon Violin Concerto, there was suggestion that it might not be a great concerto to play for first time concert goers. But it turns out the feedback that my orchestra received was nothing but positive, especially by the newcomers.

For one family, this was their first orchestral concert, and their kids’ favorite part of the concert was the violin concerto. That was their entry into the orchestra world. They didn’t even have to wait for a specific concerto to “properly” acclimate themselves!

Are seasoned classical music concert goers unwittingly segregating concerts they deem appropriate for their newcomer friends? It doesn’t help when orchestras themselves regurgitate the same statement that “We have to program Tchaikovsky or Beethoven because our audiences don’t know Britten, Rouse, Schoenberg.”

Really? Already prejudging, already apologizing for symphonic music. Here, try this concert, you will recognize this!….Just stop.

One of the reasons I like getting newer works out into the concert realm is because living composers (or recently living composers) are hearing the same noises society is experiencing. CNN blaring, email and text alerts, political noises, and fast paced global issues, are just examples.

While a walk in the woods by a 19th century composer is fantastic, sometimes it’s relevant and therapeutic for us to hear our modern sounds and noises put into an artistic fashion. Take John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine or Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral, for example. Arguably, both are relevant and don’t need a prerequisite. Best of all, they keep the curiosity and conversation going.

I believe people’s intents are good. Those who love classical music try to set newbs up with a best case scenario, almost apologetically: “This is going to be a great concert. We have Rossini (you may recognize him from Bugs Bunny cartoons), then we have the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto (remember that movie I made you watch last night, that’s this piece), and then it ends with Dvorak New World Symphony (you totally will recognize this, I promise!) Please love what I love! Please hear it exactly the same way I hear it!

I’ve cajoled people into concerts like this in years past, but seriously, do we need to sell it that hard? A few years ago, I would have said absolutely! I would have advocated for getting everyone into the art that way. But now, I think it’s more about the experiences and the curiosity that makes orchestral music relevant and interesting.

Can we please invite our newbie friends to enjoy a symphonic concert experience by saying something like: Hey, let’s go grab a bite and hit the symphony! Maybe we can talk about the experience over a beer or cocktail afterward. There are no pretenses….

Meanwhile, I think I will head over to the art museum and take in some Michelangelo. Then eventually move to Renoir and Monet. Because that’s recognizable and safe. Maybe one day I’ll make it to the wing with the Picassos, and if I’m good, perhaps the Lictenstein or Warhol wings. Don’t know if I’ll ever make it to the Chihuly exhibit. Gotta stay in the proper order!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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4 thoughts on “Do you need a prerequisite to enjoy classical music?”

  1. Quality speaks volumes. My then-girlfriend/now-wife never really listened to instrumental music of any sort before we started dating. I took her to see Joshua Bell play The Four Seasons. I took her to hear The Bad Plus. No point of reference, but she loved it. As long as it’s good stuff, no explanation is needed.

  2. Good point, Holly. As a 10 year old growing up in St. Louis, MO, my mother would take me to hear the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I enjoyed going because I was able to stay up late on a school night and ride the bus and street car. I cannot tell you what I heard on those nights. What I can tell you is that it gave me an appreciation for classical music. For some reason, I do not see her taking me to “begining classical concerts.” I am grateful that she wanted me to gain an appreciation for the symphony and the music. To this day I enjoy classical music though I do not make to as many symphonies as I would like to. However, I have some CD’s which I play quite often. And, yes, many are those with which I am familiar. Thank you for your post. On a different note,{play on words} would you let me know when you will be returning to Walker State? Would love to join you.

  3. The Rite of Spring isn’t “challenging” to listen to unless someone tells you it is. Kids who listened to the piece use the same adjectives to describe it as they might for any other classical piece or work of art.


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