It has become fashionable to regurgitate that old trope about how calcified classical music has become and aged its audiences, a claim that raises questions about classical music’s future. Who will fill the seats and stage of the future concert hall? Who will find the music of Haydn and Verdi and Debussy worth listening to?
Well, here’s the thing: Music conservatories these days are chock full of incredibly talented young people honing their skills. And many of them picked up an instrument for the first time shortly after they were out of diapers.
Go to any classical music festival — Aspen, Brevard, Santa Fe, Interlochen, Tanglewood — and you’ll find them brimming over with enthusiastic young musicians and enthusiastic audiences that include the parents, friends and relatives of the players. What you won’t see are the thousands more young singers and instrumentalists who couldn’t get in.
Listen to public radio’s “From the Top” and you’ll get a taste of the zeal with which young players pursue their craft and audiences respond. Last week, an episode aired featuring Charleston’s own Caleb Borick, a 13-year-old piano prodigy.
When the Charleston Symphony Orchestra recently held auditions for an oboist, bassoonist and trumpet player, it received more than 100 applicants for each position, according to Tom Joyce, a trombonist in the symphony and its personnel manager. And when the symphony advertised for more freelance musicians to add to its rosters, more than 350 responded with video auditions. Competition is fierce for spots in professional ensembles across the country.
Now the CSO is in the midst of its third annual National Young Artist Competition, sponsored by PepsiCo. About 90 young musicians from 31 states responded, and the orchestra’s competition team whittled that number down to 11 semifinalists: four wind players, three string players, two vocalists, a pianist and a harpist.
The final round will feature four musicians vying for a grand prize of $2,500 and an appearance with the CSO. The runners-up each receive $1,000, and all four competitors get tuition waivers for the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival in North Carolina.
The youngest of the competitors are 15; the oldest are the two singers, each 23. The musicians hail from cities across the U.S. (This year, none are from South Carolina.)
The final round of the competition is judged by Angela Jones-Reus, a flute player and teacher at the University of Georgia; Robert Cart, a singer and administrator at Montclair University’s music school; Benjamin Carp, principal cellist of the Lexington Philharmonic and teacher at the University of Kentucky; and Marina Lomazov, a piano teacher at the University of South Carolina.
The final round concert is 7:30 p.m. April 14 at the Gaillard Center. Tickets are $25.
Each finalist will perform for up to 18 minutes, accompanied by the orchestra led by Music Director Ken Lam. “Overall, the level of kids applying this year ... was higher,” said Janice Crews, director of education and community engagement. Crews is the lead organizer of the competition.
Lam said the technical proficiency of young musicians today is impressive. Competition judges can expect to hear all manners of wizardry; the challenge is to identify young players who imbue their performances with emotional and musical significance, he said.
The Charleston area has no shortage of such musicians. Among young players who grew up here are pianist Micah McLaurin and harpist Abigail Kent, who are now are enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Violinist-composer Nick Bentz and violinist Shannon Fitzhenry, both of whom grew up in West Ashley, study at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
Several singers at Charleston Southern University recently learned they were advancing to the national level of the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) competition, which is no small feat.
Cane Bay High School’s Cobra Chorale performed in March at the Southern Division of the American Choral Director’s Association Bi-Annual Conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., just one of Cane Bay’s recent choral successes.
The Charleston County School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra in March was named best overall public school orchestra at the 2016 National Orchestra Festival, part of the American String Teachers Association National Conference in Tampa, Fla.
Some of these local singers and instrumentalists will continue their musical educations, apply to conservatories and eventually audition for positions in professional ensembles such as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
The CSO partnered with the Peabody Conservatory on a concert version of Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutte.” Performances on Friday and Saturday featured student singers who recently completed fully staged performances in Baltimore. Already, Peabody and the Charleston Symphony are in discussions about future collaborations.
Spoleto Festival USA also depends on young musicians enrolled in, or just graduated from, prestigious conservatories. The festival auditions young players each spring for positions in the orchestra, an ensemble with many responsibilities: It performs concerts of its own and plays for the operas. Some of its members participate in the Music in Time series, which features contemporary works. And occasionally, its players break free to perform chamber music.
The numbers of students enrolled in music schools and conservatories hasn’t declined, and these schools remain as competitive as ever. Juilliard and Curtis, for example, admit only about 10 percent of all applicants.
Classical music is not dying. It’s constantly being reborn, in the form of new generations of performers, composers and fans. And this week at the Gaillard Center, a Charleston audience will bear witness to this fact.
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902.