Foundational Ideas of FiddleQuest

Keeping classical music alive

I grew up in a classical music community that had tremendous faith in the tradition and artistry of its music. But it also sensed that its dominance was slipping.

The community felt under siege. Funding cuts in the arts, declining enrollment in school orchestras, declining symphony ticket sales, rock music popularity were all signs that our community was threatened.

Paradoxically, the more threatened the classical music community felt, the more exclusionary we became. When a student left classical music lessons to play other styles of music, the loss was described by the adults around me in ways that sounded similar to when someone stopped going to church. Sadness, pity, irritation.

That community-wide fear and suspicion made the origin story for the band, Time for Three, so interesting to me.

Back in the early 2000s, 3 musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra would get together to jam and play folk music. One night at an orchestra concert, a thunderstorm knocked the power out.

The orchestra was unable to perform in the dark, so these 3 friends — 2 violinists and a bass player — came to the front of the stage. They began to play the very non-classical music they had been exploring in the privacy of their homes.

The audience loved it. The 3 orchestra players were so well-received that they decided to turn their informal jam group into a performance group that became Time for Three.

I’ve thought about that scene many times since hearing this story on NPR. I can picture the stand lights on stage going off simultaneously and the Orchestra coming to a tapered silence. Murmurs on and off-stage turn into conversations expressing concern and uncertainty. Then someone steps forward.

I’ve played out different scenarios in my mind about that moment. One alternative story is that the Performance Hall manager comes out and says, “Ladies and Gentleman, in lieu of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing, we are going to have this folk band play some songs for you tonight.” And from off-stage walk 3 non-orchestra members, dressed casually, who play the same set of music.

I imagine the reception would have been different. I think these hypothetical visiting musicians would have been given a polite reception, at best.

What made the audience so receptive to the music from these 3 players, I suspect, is that they were from the orchestra. The audience felt surprised and excited that their own people were able to come forward and make music in this unusual situation. The music was not only enjoyable, it was a symbol of resilience and strength and creativity.

I now wonder if musical communities are not as much about ‘the music’ as I previously thought. Perhaps communities — classical music, churches, rotary clubs and others — are, first and foremost, interested in staying alive and relevant.