There was a major musical event that happened in Los Angeles this past weekend, a concert that featured the music of Beethoven and Kanye West performed by the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. I have had a few days to reflect on the night and also see some of the feedback that has been happening all over the internet (both good and bad), and I thought I would take a moment to share some of my thoughts and my experience of the concert and aftermath.
I would say that my initial reaction to the idea was skepticism, from the time I first heard about it up until we were halfway through reading the first chart for the first time. I think it isn't too far fetched to assume that many classical musicians (and Kanye haters) probably had a similar reaction, and also maybe a (healthy) dose of antipathy towards the fact that they were even thinking of insulting the great Beethoven by including the music of the polarizing Kanye West on the same billing and even, horror, mashing up revered and sacred Beethoven repertoire with Yeezus. I get it. In the age of youtube with the overly saturated amount of covers and mashups along with the internet clickbait culture, it is easy to see why some classical fans (and others) didn't really buy it. An accepted sentiment in the classical bubble is that what we do is high art - and it takes talent, obsessive dedication, sacrifice and upholding the highest standards to study and perform classical music. Why should we "dumb" it down? Do whatever you can to promote classical music to the masses and get people in the seats, but don't insult our art. Or Beethoven. With Kanye.
Aside from some of my reservations, I was really excited about this program because I am a huge hip hop fan. It is what I am listening to 90% of the time. I am kind of embarrassed admitting this but ANYWAY the point is that I am also very familiar with Kanye's music and I wasn't sure if this could be pulled off convincingly but I really wanted it to be. For hip hop and Beethoven. And I am now convinced. Totally and completely.
The masterminds behind this and all the credit goes to the concept creator/conductor, Yuga Cohler, and co-creator/arranger, Stephen Feigenbaum. Their mission succeeded, and the music was there. My expectations were that the arrangements might be a little cheesy, wouldn't maintain the integrity of Beethoven's music and the Kanye arrangements would be too literal and well... bad. But it wasn't. It was great. Yuga and Stephen proved their mission and message with great music and an inspiring program. It wasn't dumbed down. They presented the music in a way that was creative, inspiring and educational and the audience responded. And they got a group of proud classical musician nerds excited to perform the music of Kanye West and made most of us believers in the week leading up to the concert.
If we had a decent sized audience and made a few classical music fans, that alone would have been a success. But the insane turnout and unequivocal response was what made the night truly significant and a cause for celebration and reflection. I wholeheartedly believe that if there are those still in doubt, the success of the concert and the quality of the arranged music should turn those minds. I play music for a living simply because I love music and I want to share it with others - but in my opinion, Los Angeles as a city has always had a bit of a depressing vibe when it comes to classical music. Apathy and superficiality comes to mind. Maybe it's the way the city is spread out or the culture in general, but there is a serious amount of lacking in terms of appreciation for classical music. Maybe that's too harsh? I don't know. But I do know that this is an issue that is commonly discussed amongst musicians not only in LA but all over the country, as many orchestras are struggling as a result of a waning audience. And after years of freelancing in LA, the apathy from the audience has definitely had an impact on me and my drive. Even as an audience member, there have been so many times when I have attended a classical concert that had exceptional musicians, exceptional programming and only a handful of audience members, most of them seemingly over the age of 70. But how can we expect an audience to come if they have never been exposed to it or experienced an emotional connection to it as we musicians have? The opportunities are there, but how can we get them to seek it out? This is a question that many are trying to answer. There are wonderful movements going on within the classical world to try to draw a new audience in (Groupmuse, Classical Revolution, etc.), and why shouldn't this one be welcomed as well?
It should be - because the music was held to the highest standard and it was a success. A legit success. Hundreds showed up and waited for hours. The majority had to be turned away because of the hall capacity (900). The line filled the plaza, spilled out onto the street and went down the block causing the entire neighborhood to stop and ask what was going on. And when they heard they too got in line in hopes of experiencing it for themselves. They showed up to this concert because of Kanye, but they loved it because of the music. You could definitely tell that it was the first time at an orchestra concert for many (if not most) of them, and they loved it. All of it. We opened with the Egmont Overture, and I was worried as we were playing thinking that they waited for hours in line and are they disappointed? Is this boring? Are they bored? And the response was electric. They were cheering and applauding just as fanatically for the Beethoven as they were for Kanye. I am pretty sure that most of them had never heard the first movement of Beethoven 5 in its entirety, let alone the other Beethoven pieces performed. We were performing in a dry hall with a small orchestra, and yet it was so refreshing and exhilarating to have an audience that couldn't hold back their excitement, bursting out in spontaneous applause throughout whenever the music moved them. Their energy was infectious, and it made us want to play our best to give them the greatest show possible because they were so enthusiastic and appreciative of what we were doing on stage. It wasn't about how many mistakes we made, if the ensemble should have been tighter or how many notes were out of tune - it was about performing for them a unique program of incredible music that they otherwise, without Kanye, would have never experienced. And we had so much fun. Achieving the goal of giving the audience an emotional connection to classical music in any capacity is the most rewarding thing, and they not only connected with it but they couldn't get enough of it.
And I, as a huge hip hop fan and classical music nerd, FREAKIN' LOVED IT!!!
Some instagram photos from audience members:
Check out YMF on twitter for more updates about #yeethoven.