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What is the future of symphony music?

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My wife and I had the privilege last Saturday to attend the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's Valentine's concert titled "Romance." It was excellent, with pianist Jade Simmons leaving us in awe of her talent.

The entire orchestra did, as well, as I found myself keeping the rhythm with my hands as conductor George Stelluto guided the musicians through Gershwin masterpieces and finishing with Ravel's "Bolero," which is incredibly different when one hears it performed live.

But this is not a review of the orchestra. Other than to say I really enjoyed it and thought it was excellent, I do not feel qualified to critique such a performance.

This column, rather, focuses on Natalie and Tom, a young couple from Peoria who attend Eureka College. They sat behind us and during the first half of the performance, when I would glance back, appeared to be enjoying it.

At intermission I looked around the Civic Center Theatre and from the best I could tell, Natalie and Tom were among the youngest in attendance. There were some younger, probably teens attending with their parents, but not many. So I asked Natalie and Tom why they were there.

"We were wanting to do something this weekend for a nice Valentine's date. When we heard about this, we thought it would be a nice date," replied Tom.

What really helped, added Natalie, was that they were able to get the tickets for $5 because they got them through Eureka College. Those tickets, where they were seated, are normally $26.

Apparently a Eureka College benefactor and fan of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra is responsible for the inexpensive orchestra tickets. He purchased them and made them available to the students who otherwise probably could not afford them, being college students and all. You know, like Natalie and Tom.

"We couldn't afford a nice concert like this, probably, without the discounted tickets," Natalie said.

I asked them if they enjoyed the music and they said they did. Tom, it turns out, plays piano. How well depends on which one you ask; he was humble but Natalie said he plays very well.

I then asked a question that has concerned me before and did again Saturday after I looked around and saw so few people their age or younger. "Can the symphony survive beyond the generations that are older than you?"

In essence I was asking if the low attendance by people of their generation was indicative of what they thought about symphony concerts and music. If so, that is bothersome. This is a very important piece of culture that is perhaps being missed by younger generations for one reason or another.

My guess is the biggest reason is lack of exposure to classical music growing up, being inundated instead by hip-hop, rock and alternative and believing those genres to be real music. Put music lovers in front of a professional orchestra such as the Peoria Symphony and let them get lost in what is a musician's music and most, I believe, would get hooked.

Ah, therein is the problem. How do we get them there? I wish I had the answer. Shoot, I wish I had the money to be the type of benefactor that enabled Natalie and Tom to attend Saturday's concert so inexpensively.

The outreach programs the Peoria Symphony Orchestra has in place, whereby more than 5,000 students get to hear the orchestra for free at least once a year and the Young Artist competition, should be applauded. It's a great start and it could well be what not only creates symphony audiences of the future but also what prompts some of those students to get into learning the violin, the cello, the French horn or what have you. Perhaps if enough want that, more school districts would offer orchestra programs than do now. Or, such as the case with District 150 this year, fewer districts would have to eliminate orchestra programs, leaving students such as my 8th-grade granddaughter without a place to continue learning the violin.

The recognition of how important such culture is now and to future generations often gets shoved aside by the realization of fiscal responsibility. That is why orchestra is no longer offered at her school or at most other districts. It is why, I fear, the wonderful outreach programs offered now will lose their effectiveness.  

I get it; I do. I just wish I didn't have to.

I will get off my soapbox now. But I worry that organizations like the Peoria Symphony Orchestra won't be able to survive without turning younger generations on to the romantic nature and pure tones of classical music, but how best to do that?

Anyone?  

But while I'm at it...

If you are reading this you've seen how The Peorian has revamped its website and is adding content. We want more.

I mentioned above that I am not qualified to critique the Peoria Symphony Orchestra or other similar groups, such as the Heartland Festival Orchestra. Nonetheless, we would like to add reviews of these types of concerts to our content.

We're looking for somebody to do reviews who has a knowledge of music as well as a good ear and at least some ability to write reviews. They would not have to be long. I wish we could pay for such reviews, but we cannot.  

If you or somebody you know is interested and qualified to do so, drop me a line at editor@thepeorian.com.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).

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