Education matters

American orchestras have done a lot more educational outreach than European orchestras, although Europe is fast catching up. When I was growing up in America, Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concerts gave children the opportunity to see a hugely charismatic musician and a great orchestra explain masterpieces of the repertoire. This sort of concert became an important part of every major orchestra’s schedule. My first job at the National Symphony was to conduct dozens of young people’s concerts every season. We turned them out with American efficiency –- two concerts a day, five days a week. We would play for 20,000 school children in a week, busing them from their schools to the Kennedy Center concert hall.

Now that my children are young adults, I feel more personally the importance of reaching younger listeners. So after almost thirty years as a music director and guest conductor, I’ve accepted a teaching and conducting position at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. The school has a fantastic atmosphere, with extraordinary studio teachers attracting terrific musicians from all over the world. I am thoroughly enjoying it. I find the young generation very open -- with a healthy respect for tradition but keen to find new ways of doing things.

One thing I notice among both students and professionals is a lack of understanding of the historical context of the music we perform. When I was growing up, many performers (and teachers) disdained musicology. There was little emphasis on knowing the history of the repertoire we spent so many hours practicing. More and more strongly, I feel this was a mistake. It is vitally important to know as much as we can about a composer and his world before performing his music. Take Schumann’s Second Symphony, for example. What was it like for the generation after Beethoven to try to write an original symphony? How did Schumann’s interest in literature and the novels of Jean Paul Richter affect his music? What about his mental illness? What is new about the structure and shape of the piece? What was he trying to say? What did people think of it when it was new? Schumann wanted to shape the music of the future as both a composer and a critic. We should realize that it is exactly what we need to do in our own time.