Old Guard, Young Guns, and $$$

My name is Justin. I play the cello. You knew this already, after all, as you're reading this blog. You probably also know that I'm a big fan of new music, chamber music, and young performers who are awesome, but may be struggling to build careers in the 2013 marketplace. This will be the point of this blog.

You might wonder - or maybe you wouldn't - why I would write a blog about performers and money (or "making it") at a time like this. I, for one, have the luxury of living in a town - Athens, GA - where the cost of living is low; where I work for a huge university - the University of Georgia - and make a modest living; and where I spend my days practicing for the next gig that takes me to wherever said gig is located. Why would I be worried about struggling during a time when I most surely am not?

This is the Age of Obama! Hope! Change! Yes we can! And while that's all well and good, I worry about the future of things for the arts and music performance. In the Age of Obama we focus on education, where STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are not only emphasized, but given priority over the more "creative" fields, such as art, music, even shop classes. I'd like to spout off about how studying music helps students with their critical thinking skills, or how students who study music score higher on the SATs and other standardized tests, or even the organizational benefits that come from studying in a high quality music program.

But I think that it's all garbage when the actual music comes in to play. Sure, it's fantastic that I scored decently on the SATs (if you wanna know the number, ask Meredith Mecum), and I'm pretty organized and think critically about some things, here and there, but to be frank, these things have had little or no effect on my life. I think - in the Age of Obama - we should teach/study music because music is awesome. We should go to classical music concerts because THEY ARE AWESOME. We should support classical musicians because (…they are awesome…) if we don't, music and musicians will be gone, and then who is going to write the score to your video game or teach Beyonce how to lip synch to the National Anthem?! (another aside: the United States National Anthem is in 3/4, not 4/4, time. Let's try to sing it as it was written. Also, don't breathe in the midst of a word. Learn how to phrase, people.)

This brings me to my point: awesome classical music is going away and it is our fault (EDIT: I am refering specifically to presenters and consumers of classical music). It really is. Major symphony orchestras are dying or are on life support (see: Philly bankruptcyChicago musicians strikeLouisville…catastrophe, etc.) and younger musicians are having a harder and harder time just getting started. The best music schools and conservatories (shout out to my alma mater, The Boston Conservatory…holla!) are graduating immensely talented performers who, while incredible, have no place to perform. Those who want to play in orchestras are finding that jobs don't exist and those who'd like to be recitalists (like me) or chamber musicians (like me) can't find many places to play that are financially viable.

I have a beef with performing arts centers and concert series who blatantly program "old guard" performers with profit in mind, instead of encouraging the proliferation of amazing "young gun" performers. At the University of Georgia, the past year has seen the Emerson and Tokyo String Quartets, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman on the stage in the UGA Performing Arts Center. Also presented are the Blue Man GroupBela Fleck and Igudesman & Joo. While I don't begrudge these groups or performers - and to be sure, the Emersons, Tokyos, Ma, and Perlman are at the top of their games - I would much rather see groups like the CalderEscher, and Jupiter String Quartets, ETHELBenjamin BeilmanJosh Roman, hear composers like Nico Muhly and other fresh and exciting performers in Hodgson and Ramsey Halls (to be fair to UGA, and I should be since they pay me the moneys, the PAC did present the amazing violinist Bella Hristova in 2012, a choice that should not go unnoticed or unappreciated here).

The problem with Ma, Perlman, and the Emersons is not their lack of excitement or virtuosity, no one could accuse them of either. My problem is their status as performers who bring sure sell out crowds. They line the pockets of the venues that present them, and are GUARANTEED to do so. They also have the luxury of 'phoning it in' on stage (be serious, they totally do it. You KNOW I'm right.) and nothing negative comes of it. The seats are still full and the reviews are always rave. Additionally, they aren't hurting. No one assumes that Yo-Yo is cutting it close on the rent or that Perlman is rationing his Ramen (not that either one should be -- NONE of us SHOULD be.). Benjamin Beilman, or his CMS Two colleague Sean Lee, are outstanding and certainly on their way to the top. I, for one, want to see them play. Josh Roman is a hotshot young cellist based in New York City. If it comes down to it, I - personally, no offense to anyone, of course - would rather hear Mr. Roman play Bach than Mr. Ma.

Certainly there are others that I haven't heard of! That's the point, though, right? I understand that by scheduling Mr. Perlman on the calendar, the UGA PAC is guaranteed a sell out crowd in the largest hall with three figure ticket prices. It's a windfall for the Center. At the same time, if the blue hairs of Athens perused their Performing Arts Center calendar and saw Eighth Blackbird, I'm not sure they'd be hustling to buy the ticket. It's a shame. (Especially shameful that the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center enjoys the backing of a major university whose role is to nurture and educate, and should probably be promoting the young guns, right? Just sayin'.)

I made my San Francisco debut in 2009 or 2010. I don't remember the name of the venue. I do remember the audience size. I won't mention it here so as to save face (hint: it was small). I currently enjoy a moderately decent performing side career and pay some of my bills by traveling and playing the cello, but basically, I am a nobody. I am not Yo-Yo Ma. I'm not even the best cellist in graduate school at UGA. But I hope to make a living some day. There are plenty of musicians just like me - the majority much better - who deserve top billing all across the country and the world! If a performing career requires that I play the Dvorak Cello Concerto at 4 years old with the New York Philharmonic, and a cell phone video is posted on YouTube for all to see, then I'm never going to be successful. It also means that many of the awesome young guns I mentioned above aren't going to ascend to the ranks of old guard for another thirty years. That's just too long to wait. I WANT TO HEAR THEM NOW! And you should too.

So, finally, I urge performing arts centers, concert venues, and performance series to become a little less conservative in their programming, ESPECIALLY if the need to bring home the bacon isn't so urgent (I'm looking at you, academic institutions). And I absolutely encourage audiences to start going to any and all concerts, whether or not the performer is someone you saw on Sesame Street twenty years ago. You'll thank yourself. Trust me. I'm almost a doctor (of musical arts).