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There are very few professions in the world where, from a very young age and for the rest of your career, you’re high-velocity entertainment for people mostly over the age of 55 or 60. I remember attending and performing concerts as a kid in Canberra; compared with school and home life, this social environment was alien territory. From a child’s perspective, anyone older than your parents is “pretty old”, and it was The Pretty Old who were almost exclusively the attendees at my pre-teen lunchtime recitals. These experiences as a budding young violinist gave rise to an awareness – by no means a negative one – of the age gulf between myself and my listeners.
Meeting and talking with enthusiasts in the audience has become second nature. At an age when I was mostly interested in Jurassic Park and Nintendo, I was surprised to find all sorts of non-dinosaur-related common ground between spotted youths (it was a long time ago!) and septua/octogenerian strangers, whether it was non-musical (cricket, Marx Bros films, how irritating the weatherman on the local news was), or musical: a shared admiration for the Great Violinists of Yesteryear – Kriesler, Heifetz and Grappelli. They told me about violinists and music I’d not yet heard of. They told me what music they liked and didn’t like, and why. They encouraged my fledgling career and lamented children and grandchildren that had given up their instrument to do something boring.
I learned that music meant something very different to them than it did to me, even if it was hard to put that difference into words. Getting to know my audience in these formative early concerts – these Pretty Old, encouraging, smiling music-lovers – gave me perspective and an odd new set of social skills that my school friends did not have.
I liked these people. So it was odd when I started playing “professionally” in the real world of orchestras, recitals, concerti and chamber music, and discovered that classical music’s “ageing audience” was an issue for some musicians and businesses, particularly the media. It’s something I’ve never understood. “Our audience is going to die out” is the Millennium Bug of classical music. It’s been a topic for speculation since the seventies, and yet our current audience is not made up primarily of embalmed 110-year-olds, so it’s reasonably safe to say we’ve found new listeners since then. Some people complain of a conservative streak in older listeners, compared to younger whippersnappers with an experimental bent. I found, however, that during the Australian National Academy of Music’s Ligeti and Kurtág concert series, non- musicians audience members both young and old were equally flummoxed and disturbed by the music to begin with, but had come to embrace it by year’s end.
It’s true that it would be nice to have a broader and more balanced spread of age groups represented at our concerts. But just as you couldn’t pay me to attend a Justin Bieber concert, a “Belieber” wouldn’t be caught dead at a concert of boring old Elgar and Bruckner. Call me elitist, but I’d like to imagine that as people get older and the limitations of their default decade of popular music become glaringly obvious, they look for something else, and some find string quartets and symphony orchestras. This doesn’t often happen with twentysomethings – or even most thirtysomethings – so it’s only natural that a large chunk of our audience is made up of over-fifties who are relishing the discovery of it all. And classical music is a universe unto itself that rewards curiosity as much as it rewards experience.
My jazz muso friends sometimes ask me what it’s like to perform looking out into a sea of people twice or thrice my age; to live a life surrounded by the elderly. I tell them it’s incredibly rewarding to play music that is 200 years old, on a 200-year-old instrument for 50-year-olds who are finding something completely new to them that enriches their lives, or for 70-plus-year-olds who’ve seen it all yet who, in these twilight years, still can’t get enough of Beethoven and Mozart. When performer and audience share the experience of a Brahms slow movement in a concert hall, we’re all older and wiser for it, just as a Mendelssohn scherzo makes us all giddy children again, whether we’re Boomers, Beliebers or Gen-Y. When we play and listen to classical music, age is no boundary.
The Australian String Quartet tour nationally playing Haydn, Bartók and Schubert from May 27–June 5