Arts Voices: Conductor Kelly Corcoran On Why Classical Music Is For Everyone

Mar 31, 2016

These days my musical life has been filled with many wonderful sources of inspiration: Discovering and presenting contemporary classical music with Intersection, advocating for music education with Music Makes Us, guest conducting all around the world with the Legend of Zelda tour, and working with the Nashville Symphony Chorus preparing the masterpieces of classical repertoire. These experiences have afforded me the opportunity to have a foot in many parts of the classical world - larger cultural institutions, new small risky ventures, the talent pipeline and the sold-out productions with mass appeal. As an arts leader, I’ve been rumbling with my thoughts on the future of classical music, how it relates to the larger music industry, and its place in our lives.  

Here’s what I believe:  

Classical music is for everyone. When we refer to classical music, we’re roughly speaking of over one thousand years of art music with roots in Western traditions. With diversity as extreme as Hildegard von Bingen, George Gershwin, Johannes Brahms, Pierre Boulez, David Baker, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Antonio Vivaldi we must agree that the range of sound exploration and human experience present in classical music is infinite and there is something in this rich repertoire that can speak to all of us.   

Classical music is an essential piece of our culture: reflecting our world, our voices and our lives. Music provides us with many things as listeners beyond entertainment. It is through music that we are able to experience deep emotional states. We can feel loss, joy, exuberance, isolation, emptiness, love and resolution. We can explore the boundaries of our psyche while still being relatively safe and recognize the common threads of the human experience. Yes, this emotional exploration is true in all genres of music, but in classical music we experience it as told from many generations of the past right up until today with a musical vocabulary that is vast. I always believe that in order to know where we are going we must understand from where we have come. In classical music, we can dig into the deepest crevices of human experience and truly have a shared experience.  

We need to be encouraging our youth to compose and create. We are fortunate to call “Music City” our home. Many in this city value the creation of music - the miraculous moment where an idea is born, followed and explored before being shared. As humans, we have a need to create. I don’t differentiate creators based on genre. A songwriter is a composer working with a particular toolbox; a film scorer is a composer working to support and enhance the intention of a story; an arranger is a composer exploring the varying potential in a piece. Composers are creators that use sound as their palate. While the Western classical tradition tends to depict composers such as Beethoven and Mozart as these singular inspired beings that are untouchable, we live in a town where the craft of writing music is often a more communal activity. The classical image of a composer alone by candlelight writing frantically is balanced with our contemporary Nashville image of a bunch of songwriters in a room crafting a song.  Both are valid and have their place. Both are different methods of creation. The consistency is that both are capturing the human experience into musical expression - deciding what to say, how to say it and when to be done - to allow the music to have a life of its own outside of the hands of the creators.    

I believe that if we want future generations to value the incredible power of music as a means to experience human emotion and potential; to recognize that music can help us to heal, to understand, to empathize, to celebrate, to center; then we must encourage our youth to become the creators of music. It is not enough to just play the music of others.   We must synthesize our own voices and put them forward. We must recognize that our voices have a place in the thread of history.    

We know that creativity is a form of problem-solving offering adaptability and flexibility of thought as well as the opportunity to find one's unique voice. I hope that the craft of creating and composing takes an even more robust place in music education.   

Composers today have all of musical history at their fingertips. We’ve lived through romanticism, post-romanticism, minimalism, neo-classicism, modernism, polystylism and many other categories ending in “ism”.  Our musical world today reflects great diversity of voice, culture and experience. Classical composers are simply creators that consider themselves a part of the canon of art music. They are composers that have listened to the past in some way and processed it into their voices today. They are creators that write music that is put into the hands of others to interpret and breathe life into. The future is bright. Contemporary composers have embraced the world in which they live - integrating technology and voicing the issues of our time. Classical music is alive and well and the best is yet to come.   

The 2015/16 season marks Kelly Corcoran's ninth and final season with the Nashville Symphony. During this time, she has conducted the Nashville Symphony in hundreds of performances, including the Symphony's Classical and Pops Series. As Associate Conductor for seven seasons, she served as primary conductor for the orchestra's education and community engagement concerts. Director of the Nashville Symphony Chorus since 2013, Corcoran is a passionate advocate for music education and is a member of the Advisory Council for Nashville’s 'Music Makes Us' initiative. Corcoran is also the founder of Intersection, a professional ensemble focused on performing contemporary classical music.

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