Hardly a week goes by where I do not see an article proclaiming the impending death of classical music, or offering ways to revive the art. I must admit that I am quite young and perhaps not the best expert on the state of classical music in today’s world. I am, however, a music educator who dabbles in the art of composing for a type of ensemble that is thriving. Many of those who claim art music is dying simply ignore the fact that wind band music is an exciting and growing medium, and composers are taking notice.
Perhaps the idea of classical music conjures up the great orchestras of the world. While many of these ensembles are facing financial trouble, which is tragic and should be reversed, if possible, the wind ensemble is thriving. Thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students participate in wind bands both in and out of school. Many adults participate in community wind bands. Colleges often have one or more wind bands as well. Respected composers have started to notice the artistic possibilities of these great young musicians. Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Corigliano had this to say:
“Attending a band concert, in contrast, I find exhilarating. For starters, the repertoire of band music is largely contemporary. As a result the audiences expect and look forward to new works. Listening in an environment largely ignored by the press, they learn to trust their own ears and respond directly to what they hear. Most important of all, concert bands devote large amounts of rehearsal time over a period of weeks – not days – to learning thoroughly the most challenging of scores. With its combination of new notations and spatial challenges demanding an intricate coordination of a large work, Circus Maximus could only have been attempted under such special circumstances.”
His symphony “Circus Maximus” is just one of many works being commissioned by great wind ensembles. John Mackey recently wrote a band symphony. University wind bands have commissioned numerous works, including a concerto for saxophone and band by Steven Bryant, a trumpet concerto by John Mackey, and a song cycle for winds and voice by John Mackey. Joe Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, recently commissioned a trombone concerto from John Mackey and another from Stephen Bryant. Wind bands are commissioning new and exciting music from great composers and great performers are also enjoying these fruits.
School bands are also commissioning a great number of works. Whether to celebrate some event, have a new piece of music for an honor ensemble, or to mourn a tragedy, bands around the country and around the world are interested in playing new music. Some bands commission works from composers simply because they like their music. Even Philip Glass, early in his career, wrote for school bands.
Is classical music dying? Well, I guess it depends on your definition of classical music. But from where I stand, art music is alive and well.