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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Engagement

Recently, we watched an original series based on the best-selling book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music. Don’t let the title dissuade you from watching this show or lead you to believe it is trifling stuff. The cast, which includes cameos by several well-known musicians, is wonderful, the story line which flits between realism and fantasy, is compelling and the music shines as the true star. Sadly, it lasted only four short seasons, and we were sad when it came to an end.


Interested to see how others reacted to the relatively early demise of this otherwise successful series, I sussed out a forum on the subject and was both surprised and delighted to see how many comments there were to the effect that the program had ignited an interest in classical music. Remarkably, a disproportionate number of those comments came from men and women in their teens and early twenties who, self-professed, had previously shown little or no interest in classical music.


As some of you will know, I am no stranger to the genre and was pleased to have spent six years helping to manage one of the remaining classical radio stations in the US. Most of the stations dotted around the country serve large metropolitan areas or communities with a major University and a thriving cultural life. Typically, classical stations have an intensely loyal though smaller audience than one might find for mainstream music, news or public affairs. The audience is also decidedly older, the same folks who attend the symphony, opera, ballet and theater.


As with many other media undergoing a sea change due to the advent of the Internet, streaming content, and shifting demographics, classical stations have been thinking about how they might re-invent themselves or at least cultivate a new and younger audience that will help them sustain their service as their current crop of listeners age out. I had this in mind as I delved into the comments about Mozart in the Jungle and the more I read, the clearer it became that the point of engagement began with the characters. That came as no surprise. As I said earlier, they are complex, textured, and beautifully played.


I don’t want to ruin the story for you if you have a mind to watch the series but will synopsize a bit for the purpose of explaining why I believe so many younger viewers were attracted. The story, based on the experiences of author and screenwriter, Blair Tindall, is about a young, struggling musician who aspires to find her place as a member of a major symphony and whose career is advanced by an infantiles terribles maestro, newly recruited to breathe fresh life into an aging institution. Supporting characters throughout the narrative arc, whether youthful or not share one thing in common—an energy and enthusiasm for the music, and their lives quite literally revolve around it. Music is the star of the show and of their lives.


What started as a connection with the characters and their story became over the course of 36 episodes more than a passing enthusiasm for the music and the composers. Commenters in the forum I read talked about seeking out and learning more about the music and the composers and becoming regular listeners to classical stations and attendees at concerts in their communities. I have no idea how many people were introduced to classical music by this show, hundreds or thousands perhaps, but it does serve to illustrate an important lesson about engagement.


In the same way that readers, viewers, and listeners need to be engaged and brought along, audiences for classical music are not simply waiting to be found. Audiences must be met where they are regardless of how slight their initial interest might be. While some find their way to art, music, literature or other cultural and intellectual pursuits through familial influence or exposure in school, it is hardly a given and at that a diminishing one.


I credit my own interest in art and music to my maternal Grandmother who would periodically kidnap me and take me to galleries, museums and concerts from a very early age. I admit I neither understood much nor had very sophisticated taste, but certain works captured my imagination for one reason or another and kindled a life-long interest. My grandmother’s genius was in allowing me to find my own way, rather than in dictating what I should like or want to learn about. She had the wisdom to understand that exposure was important, and the patience to allow me to figure out for myself what was appealing. In time my juvenile tastes changed and the regular exposure led me to embrace the arts generously.


I applaud programs like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in the late 50’s, and so many other efforts over the years to ignite a passion for classical music and the arts in general but think it is time we address the prospective audiences of today. They are not us. They consume entirely different media, in entirely different ways, and I’ll wager that fewer of them have grandmothers, or other family members that are taking them by the hand to expose them and letting them find their way. Engagement begins when we find ourselves in the company of others like us, others who have a story to tell—and a passion of their own that we can try on for size.


Mozart in the Jungle did not set out to convert young people to a love of classical music. The ambition was quite different, to tell a story about a young artist’s struggle to enter a world of like-minded professionals. It is a story we’ve heard, read about and seen many times, a story about our dreams and our efforts to find ourselves and our way in the world. If along the way it introduced viewers to something extraordinary and magical, credit the music itself. Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Puccini, Bach and so many others are timeless for good reason. They arouse in us emotions that transcend time. All we need is a good story to engage us, they’ll do the rest.

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