By Chereese Cross
With a cello tall enough to reach her collarbone, Kumhee Lee walked to the front of a small room in the Emma S. Clark Library and sat on a chair to play her instrument for the small crowd before her. An elderly lady very eager not to miss anything, stood up to capture the musical moment.
The cellist was one of three featured performers at “Classical Musical in a Beautiful Historic Setting,” a small musical event held at the Emma S. Clark Library in Setauket, on Sunday April 23. Violinists Anne Sophie Andersen and Chelsea Wimmer were also featured performers. The event was coordinated by the Three Village Chamber Players, a small Long Island-based organization that provides free musical performances and music education outreaches.
“Our goal is to engage as many people as possible, and our focus is on people who wouldn’t normally get access to high-quality classical concerts,” Natalie Kress, co-director of the Three Village Chamber Players, said. “Because we’re so far away from New York City you know a typical person would not spend the time or money to go into New York City to see a Mozart Symphony so we try to bring things that introduce people [and] educate.”
“We always talk about classical music losing audiences,” Arthur Haas, a professor of harpsichord at Stony Brook University, said. “The term they use is the graying of the audiences, the audience gets older.” Between years 2008 to 2012, classical music attendance was higher among adults 65 and older, but lower between ages 18-34, according to WQXR.
Classical music came about in the 17th century. It is “music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized,” according to The Oxford Dictionary. “The main difference between what we call classical art music and other styles of music, is that other styles of music like rhythmic music usually has a steady beat and in classical music the beat is more flexible,” Andersen said.
Since then multiple genres of music have emerged, and have surpassed classical music in ratings. A 2015 Nielsen Music report shows that classical music had one of the lowest “percent of total consumption,” for that year. Classical music at a percent of 1.3 percent had the second lowest percent on the list. Genres like Rock at 24.5 percent; R&B/Hip-Hop at 18.2 percent; and Pop at 15.7 percent, had the highest “percent of total consumption” on the list.
“Classical music has really really lost its following, whereas classical music back in Beethoven’s day it was the only thing around pretty much,” Greg Knowles, professor of Classical Music Theory at Juilliard School, said. “Now there’s thousands of concerts that go on every day in the U.S [like] rock or pop or funk and hip hop now, so it’s literally taking over and classical music is dying everywhere it goes.
Because classical music attracts a much smaller audience than other genres, the money made in classical music is just as small.“If you take a classical artist now– someone who’s really known like violinist Itzhak Perlman–if they sell 20,000 copies on an album that’s a very huge success. If you have a pop artist, if you have a Beyonce or somebody like that who sells 20,000 copies she’ll never record again [because] they expect her to sell somewhere in the neighborhood of five million copies in the first week,” Knowles said.
Another factor contributing to the small audience base is the lack of exposure it receives within schools. It’s no news that school music programs have received budget cuts; at least 31 states have had cuts made to their school’s music and arts programs from levels k-12 up through college. “I think there are always people paying attention but I think there’s probably less exposure to it [classical music],” Carolyn Emerson, Emma Clark librarian, said. “So I think one of the reasons I like doing this is the fact that we can expose children to it.”
A violinist since the age of eight, Wimmer says her awareness of classical music has changed greatly. “I mean when I was in middle school and in high school, I really mostly only played classical or baroque music,” Wimmer said. “But as I started college and got more advanced I was able to start playing more 20th century now 21st century.”
Some may think classical music is at its breaking point, but some remain hopeful that there is still much in store for this genre. “Because I’m someone who believes that all forms of music has incredible power and are life altering, I think the future of classical music is really vivid,” Barli Nugent, assistant dean and director of chamber music at Juilliard School, said.
For the past 21 years, Kumhee has played the cello and has no plans to depart from it anytime soon. “I love classical music, as it has a value that doesn’t change or disappear over time,” Lee said. “Even though it’s written in the past, it becomes alive by performing it.”