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Hear Me Out: Orchestras aren’t just for old people anymore 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SEUNG ROK BAEK

WORDS BY EMMA ANVARI

Too hot to Handel.

Music: the most international and well-spoken language in the world. It knows no barriers and the genres are seemingly limitless. It’s the literal soundtrack to our lives.

Yet many young people don’t seem to stray too far from the archetypal tracks you’d find on the charts, be it music festival-type tunes, smooth jazz, R&B or your noughties’ throwbacks. But what about orchestras?

When you hear the word ‘orchestra’, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first thought that pops into your head consists of wealthy retirees and fancy beige clothes – an entirely snooze-inducing affair. You wouldn’t be alone in that assumption. 

But when I think of orchestras, my heart rate increases and my hands get clammy. I kid you not, I start jumping up and down in the presence of an orchestra.

I love them and my love is an embarrassing kind of love. I’m talking the full shebang: adrenaline in my system, not knowing where to look or what to do with my hands as giant love heart emojis pop out of the place where my eyes should be.

I do have to admit though, there is definitely a type of unattainable elitism associated with orchestras and operas that has continued throughout history.

Even though I know better, the first thing I think of when I hear ‘opera’ is still a wealthy person in a gold-plated private balcony seat looking down with their bejewelled binoculars-on-a-stick at a busty soprano under a spotlight. But this is so not what it’s like.

How do I know this?

I’ve always been passionate about music. I’ve been singing since I was seven and playing tenor saxophone for 12 years, but I didn’t really grow up around classical music. My only memory of classical music is listening to some in Dad’s car as a kid but I’ve grown to love it on my own.

Since starting university, I actually auditioned and started singing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus (MSO), which is where I’ve blissfully been performing for over a year now. As a result, most of my friends are composers, classically-trained singers, theatre people and just generally involved in the arts. We all adore orchestras. But once I leave our lovely Southbank choir room, I seldom find a fellow orchestra-lover my age (cue the tiny sympathy violin). 

Why are orchestras so under-appreciated by anyone under 50? I just don’t understand it! If anything, they’re practically designed for youth. They’re loud, they’re dramatic, they’re cheeky, they’re romantic and they can whisk you away to another world. One of my favourite things is feeling the low bass notes literally rumble through my body. To me, these all sound like things young people would enjoy.

What so many people don’t realise is that classical and orchestral music is all around us

I bet when I write “da da da dummmmm, da da da dummmmm” you hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony without actually knowing it’s by Beethoven. I bet you’ve heard Mozart’s Lacrimosa or Verdi’s Dies Irae from their respective requiems several hundred times, just in advertisements alone, let alone movies and radio. 

Orchestras are genuinely everywhere, from movies like Love Actually, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lord of the Rings, 2001: Space Odyssey and even video games. I’m sure if you heard the fourth movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony No 9 you’d think of the Jaws theme (except, news flash: Dvorak did it first). 

Of course, I’m not saying that young people don’t like classical or orchestral music. Everyone has a diverse taste that extends beyond just a handful of genres. No, I think the problem is that young people don’t think they can go to see live orchestras.

Be it because it’s ‘uncool’, too expensive, they don’t know the pieces being performed or perhaps even feel unwelcome at these types of concerts, I believe there are barriers between the younger generations and classical music.

But the world of classical music has changed

These days, not only are there student offers and deals for people under 35 for tickets as cheap as $19 for most concerts, but so many of the anachronistic customs of the past are being thrown out the window.

For one thing, the industry is trying to stay relevant by catering specifically to young people and the next generation. They’re doing this through collaborations with people such as Studio Ghibli’s Joe Hisaishi, ‘007 film concerts, major movie franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter, as well as collaborations with artists like Kate Miller Heidke and Birds of Tokyo. 

I spoke with someone in the MSO’s marketing team last year and they said their most successful concerts each year are the movie concert series and as someone who has attended three of them, I highly recommend the experience. For films like  Harry Potter, the live orchestra brings the movie’s magic back to life. 

Ball gowns and fancy hair for a night of live music are also a thing of the past. I probably performed to 200,000 people last year, if not more, and the only people dressed to the nines were the soloists on stage! I personally like to dress nice when I’m in the audience but that still ends up being ‘jeans and a nice top’ (cue the eye rolls). Just be comfortable.

Maybe you’re worried about being shamed for not knowing the rules for things like applause. I know I’ve personally fallen victim to the awkward silence of uncertainty at concerts where I’ve just had no idea whether the piece has ended or if it’s just the end of a movement.

Good news. Modern orchestras are moving away from that rigidity and unless they tell you otherwise, you’re welcome to clap and show your appreciation whenever you feel it’s appropriate. That being said: mid-solo or mid-movement is absolutely not where it’s appropriate.

If you’re not brave enough to clap in unconventional locations, just keep your eye on the conductor. They will make it obvious when it’s time to applaud by bringing down their hands and relaxing. And if you’re still not convinced it’s time for that standing ovation, wait for the orchestra to rest their instruments. Vibe it out.

If you’re in Melbourne like me, it’ll be a couple more months before we can expect to see live orchestras in any size. But if you’re anywhere else, I encourage you to find out what concerts are happening in your area and drag a friend along.

If you’re not willing to pay the typical $100, look for those student deals or under 35 offers. Seating location in a concert hall does not impact your concert experience, so if the price is your biggest deterrent, bite the bullet and get a cheap ticket.

I promise you it’ll be an experience like no other and you won’t regret it. Orchestras truly aren’t just for the old and rich anymore. (And you definitely don’t need fancy binoculars.)

Okay, but where do I begin? 

I’d recommend the following composers or concert types if you’re dipping your toe in for the first time:

  • Movie concerts are an excellent first experience. The music brings the film to life and you spend most of your time actually watching the film, so there’s no chance of getting bored. With certain franchises like Star Wars, people even dress up and take photos with paid costumed actors in photo booths. It’s a whole thing. Basically, you can’t go wrong if there’s a screen involved. 
  • Verdi or Mozart’s requiems are stunning. I made my older brother (who had never seen an orchestra or shown an interest in music) come to my Mozart Requiem concert and he fell in love. 
  • Any collaboration with an artist you like.
  • Weird one-off concerts with the circus and acrobats or any kind of live performance. Sometimes comedians even link up with orchestras.
  • Free outdoor summer concerts.
  • The typically famous composers such as Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are safe bets. I would steer clear of Stravinsky unless you like weird and alienating music (although I’d recommend his ‘Rite of Spring’).
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