What do you think of when you hear the words "classical music"? Many people have been exposed to it in some form: cartoons, grade school or perhaps the dentist's office. Some associate it with relaxation and others with boredom. Many acknowledge its roots but think 'this music isn't for me.' Indeed, the European aristocracy that created it isolated itself from the masses; but innovative minds are working to bring classical music back to life for everyone.
The term 'classical' is used to describe an enormous body of music that was produced between 1600 to the present day. It's not so much a period of music as it is a style, although we usually associate it with composers from the years 1600 to 1900. Beethoven, Mozart and Bach come to mind; but the genre itself is far more diverse.
With its roots in early Western secular music, classical music was shared only among the elite for hundreds of years. A common thread among 'classical' music is the way it's played and how it's written, with Western staff notation. This particular method of documentation specifies every aspect of the piece, including rhythm, tempo (speed) and pitch. In other words, it is a guide to the exact execution of the music. Contemporary composers still make music this way, though it hasn't been commercially successful.
Brian Haas, mastermind behind the local jazz group Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, is a classically trained pianist; and though his exposure to the genre was ultimately positive, Haas felt removed from it for some time, especially while playing. He believes that because contemporary mainstream music is structured so differently from classical, listening to it is almost like trying to understand a completely foreign language.
"I think it's the dialect," said Haas. "In some ways, this younger generation obviously has a shorter attention span. Also, the palate of sounds that our generation wants to hear is really different from the palate of sounds offered by an entire symphonic orchestra. Our generation really wants to dance, to sort of feel like they're dancing inside."
Orchestral music from the days of yore doesn't resonate with young people. Resurrecting the genre is possible; but in order to draw young people to hear a live orchestra, they need convenient exposure.
The latest in technology allows classical music enthusiasts to share it with people from all walks of life, young and old. Web sites like kickassclassical.com invite visitors to search through well-known works by famous composers or find familiar melodies they've heard from Looney Tunes or on a television commercial...and download the ringtone onto their cell phones. To a more sophisticated crowd, this may seem a travesty.
To preserve the genre, though, listeners need to embrace it in all its forms. Classical music is best when heard live; but if one isn't aware of the potential fondness for it, one might never seek it out.
Going online is the easiest way to access music without spending a dime.
But interest must also be maintained through the efforts of local organizations in concrete ways. For instance, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St., recently launched its new site, tulsapac.mobi. It allows anyone interested in the goings-on at the theater to access pertinent information from a mobile phone.
"All critical event information is there at your fingertips through this new channel," PAC Director John Scott explained in a press release. "Event dates and times, short descriptions of the shows, directions to the theater and contact information are all available. Since it is text-based, tulsapac.mobi downloads instantly, and the site is organized for the on-the-go person who wants instant information."
Initiatives like this keep Tulsans informed of fine arts events, which strengthens the market. This helps, but symphonic music itself must be reinvented for a younger audience if it is to survive. But in order to understand how the genre is evolving in Tulsa as a whole, a brief history lesson is in order.
Tulsans' interest in classical music has remained steady during the years; and those who make orchestral performances possible are intent upon spreading the passion.
Our city's first organization, the Tulsa Philharmonic, was established in 1948. While it proved itself an operational failure on many fronts, the Phil gave Tulsa the symphony and provided an outlet for hundreds of talented musicians.
The downfall of Tulsa Philharmonic in 2002 yielded an opportunity for other groups to bring classical music to Tulsans, namely the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College.
While it's inaccurate to say that the two orchestras compete, they've never collaborated. The current classical music scene has been defined by a convoluted history that resulted in a stark divide long ago. Ironically, both programs harbor similar, powerful visions.
It began when the conductor of the Signature Symphony, Dr. Barry Epperley, returned to Oklahoma after conducting the National Symphony in Washington D.C. in the late 1970s. Epperley recognized the need for an orchestra that worked closely with schools. He boasted a long history of involvement in music education, his raison d'etre. (Read about Epperley's experiences in the UTW article, "His Signature on a Symphony," found online at urbantulsa.com).
At the time, the only orchestras in the state were the Tulsa Philharmonic and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. Epperley decided to establish a third professional group that could travel around the state in a school setting. The result was a 26-piece regional chamber orchestra, which was originally intended to be a part of the Tulsa Phil. Instead, the Tulsa Little Symphony Orchestra was established in 1978 as its own 501(c)(3). Although an independent entity, TLSO initially hired musicians from the Phil, who participated freely in both organizations.
Relations were peaceful for a couple of years; but then in 1981, the Phil decided that TLSO was encroaching upon its audience. To prevent its musicians from playing with Epperley's orchestra, the Phil began to schedule rehearsals that conflicted with TLSO's calendar, effectively severing ties between the two. Although unfortunate, TLSO continued to evolve.
"We were still a fairly small ensemble, but we had to find the quality players, because we were playing good music. Basically, we were a chamber orchestra playing classics," Epperley recalled. A chamber orchestra is a miniature version of a full orchestra, which can have anywhere between 75-100 members.
TLSO then joined the Brady Theater as the resident orchestra in 1984 and changed its name to the Tulsa Sinfonia, which didn't conflict with the Phil until 1990, when TS began to play with the Tulsa Ballet. It continued to do so for more than a decade. While an exciting development for Epperley's orchestra, the rift between the Phil and its offspring widened considerably.
"There has, from the beginning, been a little bit of angst about our orchestra...there were some folks who were very upset that we played 15 years with the ballet," said Epperley.
When the orchestra partnered with Tulsa Community College in 1999, it played pops (popular, contemporary orchestral music) in an effort to carve its own niche and to avoid stepping on the Phil's toes.
However, despite the geographic and the sub-genre divide, the Phil purported that the Tulsa Sinfonia had overstepped its boundaries in a sense. It alleged that the public confused the two organizations and Epperley was asked to change its name. So, in 2000, the Tulsa Signature Symphony at TCC was born.
When the Phil folded in 2002, mostly due to financial mismanagement, Epperley added classical performances to the regular season in order to fill the void. He cautiously started with only a few concerts. "What I decided was that we can't just jump in. We would shoot ourselves in the foot. We did four concerts and did them around the Classical Period (1750-1820): Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven." This period is one of the more familiar and therefore more popular within the genre.
A slow beginning in 2003 quickly turned into steady attendance. "We did the first year and we sold something like 60 season tickets; that was all. But we drew around 250 average for the first year."
Today, the orchestra hosts two series: Pops, which consists of five concerts performed for two nights; and Classical, five concerts with one performance apiece. The Pops series consistently sells out both nights; and Classical shows draw a nearly full house.
The deterioration of the Phil in '02 gave way to a new model, which manifested as the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Many people involved in the Phil brought TSO to fruition.
Though the 'society' is still intact, its cessation as a performing entity dealt a painful blow to the arts world. "It really hit everybody in the community- not only the musicians; it hit the ticket holders, it hit the private and corporate donors really hard; it really affected the entire community, and because of that, Frank (Dr. Letcher) hired me in October of 2005 to get [TSO] started," said Tim McFadden, orchestra manager and principal trumpet player of TSO. "We can't even say we started at ground zero because there was so much animosity, anger and resentment over the Philharmonic that we really started below ground trying to rebuild."
TSO is fundamentally different from the Phil in that it is a musician-led orchestra. The old model essentially kept musicians at arm's length, and as a result, their involvement was limited to showing up, playing, receiving a paycheck and then going home. In turn, those running the Phil found themselves at odds with the musicians.
"It was brought about to remove the sense of 'us vs. them' or 'we-they.' With typical symphonic institutions, we have the musicians who have to sit down with the board and the management every two or three years and hammer out a contract. And in the process, things often get heated and everybody walks away feeling like they didn't get the best deal," said McFadden.
With musicians involved in every phase, the TSO operates more efficiently because everyone is on the same team. "It sounds really Kumbaya, but it's not; it's hard work," added Ron Predl, Executive Director of Tulsa Symphony Orchestra.
Certainly, there is a portion of Tulsans who do not attend the symphony. No one can cite just one reason for this, though lack of public exposure rests upon the shoulders of symphonic organizations themselves.
"That takes time," said Predl. "We want to gradually absorb their influence, and their suggestions, their advice and work towards that. There are some parts of the community that feel- I don't think they feel they aren't welcome- I think they feel it's not appropriate for them. I think that goes for young people, too." TSO aspires to permeate the whole city and include everyone, which doesn't happen overnight.
TSO played a free springtime concert at the Tulsa Zoo last year. It has also partnered with the Tulsa Air and Space Museum to play in the planetarium, adding another dimension to the art form. Last week, TASM welcomed a TSO string quartet on January 26 to play a noontime show. Part of the reason for this performance was to shed classical music's reputation for rigidity. Attendees were invited to pack a lunch and, of course, dress casually.
To revitalize the genre, blending orchestral music with other forms of media is a popular approach. TSO put on the "Magical World of Disney" in November 2008 to garner interest in a younger crowd. Video clips were played alongside familiar tunes from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the Lion King and other films. McFadden estimated that the sold-out show brought just over one thousand new people to Chapman Music Hall at the Tulsa PAC.
TSO also collaborates with the Jazz Hall of Fame. On January 16 of this year, the Jazz Depot saw the Jambalaya Jass Band share the stage with the TSO string quartet, among others.
Perhaps the most exciting development for TSO, though, is the promotion of modern orchestral music with the classical. To set the stage for the rebirth of great composers long forgotten, audience members must first feel a connection to the symphony. TSO has seen great success in its 'hybrid concerts.'
One such performance blended the music of John Williams, best known for the Star Wars theme, and The Planets, a seven movement orchestral suite by British composer Gustav Holst. Images gathered from NASA were projected above, giving the sold-out show a familiar visual component.
"The hope is that they're going to come in and hear the orchestra. Good music is good music, whether it's Disney or John Williams. And if it's well-played, then people will want to come back and hear more," said McFadden.
Another way to integrate the past and the present is to rearrange classical pieces. To stick with the metaphor of music as language, a modern rendition of a classical piece is like a translation that can be understood and appreciated more easily.
This is a relatively fresh concept; many orchestras play pops and classical music side by side, though few rearrange a piece entirely, resulting in a rendition that transcends typical genre boundaries.
JFJO's Haas is the one of the first to bring such an idea to Tulsa. A deal has just been made between TSO and JFJO to collaborate and perform Beethoven's Third and Sixth Symphonies together, but with a funky twist. "The whole concept is basically these incredible, genius melodies with big, fat beats behind them," Haas explained. "It has been totally rearranged for the Jacob Fred language." Younger ears will definitely value groovier rhythms and other interesting modifications.
Preparations for the concert are already underway, though Haas reported that it will occur next fall at the earliest.
TSO holds six main stage performances every season in Chapman Music Hall at the PAC and also works with the Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, Light Opera Oklahoma and other companies. According to Predl, John Scott, Director of the PAC, said it best: "The Tulsa Symphony is like the thumb on your hand; we touch all of the fingers. And that's really what we do."
A Romantic Era?
While Epperley's devotion to classical music is obvious, his true passion lies in music education. "I've found that I have a gift for opening up the classics to the people," he said.
Epperley was first inspired to blend popular orchestral music with classical pieces when the Tulsa Little Symphony became the resident ensemble for the Brady Theater in 1984, which then became Tulsa Sinfonia.
"Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Nights Dream would be in the same concert as Star Wars. Then we would bring in a classical artists who would play...Brandenburg's Second, then turn around and play a French jazz piece," he recalled with a twinkle in his eye. "Roberta Peters came in and would sing opera arias, then turn around and sing 'When you Wish Upon a Star." Peters is one of America's most famous operatic singers.
Epperley focused mainly on bridging the gap between pops and classical; and though he keeps the two series separate for the most part, the distinction does not always apply. "The lines that we have drawn as a society that say 'I like this, I don't like that,' I don't buy it. I try to put it all together," he said.
In an effort to incite more interest in classical music, Epperley began a program that he calls 'Performance Plus,' which consists of six presentations that focus on composers' lives. He spent the first year teaching about Mozart; and the lectures proved to be incredibly popular.
"One of the things I love as a musician is to find out what the composer is really like," he said. Epperley especially enjoys debunking popular myths that the media has created about the composer; in Mozart's case, it was Amadeus, the popular biographical film. Performance Plus adds an extraordinary humanitarian element to the music and puts it into context. The lectures conclude with an orchestral performance; and this year's featured composers are Franz Joseph Haydn and Antonin Dvorak.
Epperley's favorite so far was teaching Johann Brahms; "I really loved Brahms because he would fit in with today's musicians...he was a free thinker," he said.
In terms of community outreach, the Signature Symphony has partnered with Tulsa Public Schools to employ a string quartet to work with area schools, which allows hundreds of young students to play with professionals.
Additionally, Epperley has been working closely with Mayor Taylor to develop a musical mentoring program that will be launched in 18 area schools this spring. "We've hit our stride as far as performances go with the 10 pops and five classics; then we do a patriotic night; we do a summer camp for high school and middle school, both band and orchestra," he said.
The success of the Signature Symphony's initiatives indicates that Epperley's audience is hungry for more. "We're nearly full for almost everything we do," Epperley said.
The same goes for the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra. "As long as what we do is high quality, it's going to sell; people are going to want to come here. If you try to do something really just to sell a ticket, that's probably not the right motivation to be doing the program in the first place," McFadden said.
Whether or not Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College reconcile and decide to work together, they remain united in vision. Epperley mentioned that the divide between North and South Tulsa may also contribute to the schism. According to Epperley, the two groups "draw different people."
Tulsa has seen more growth out south; and the need for a fine arts venue in the area was obvious. The VanTrease Performing Arts Center for Education, 10300 E. 81st St., was constructed in 1996. The entire city has a need for it; and with both organizations having evolved successfully over time, there's reason to believe that neither Tulsa Symphony Orchestra nor the Signature Symphony will trump the other. Both continually, albeit separately brainstorm in an effort to connect Tulsans with beautiful music.
Overall, Tulsa's classical music scene is greater than the sum of its parts; but no one can argue that a little cooperation goes a long way. "I believe it would enhance the music and the city," Epperley admitted. "There are some things we could do that we're not doing."
Share this article: