Vermont’s classical musical scene is a busy and diverse one, but musicians, music organizations and even audiences continue to ask one question: How do you attract new audiences to classical music? This past week introduced a newcomer with new answers. Well, not exactly newcomer, as the members of the ensemble are mostly familiar. But the ensemble is new — and so are its answers. TURNmusic (, the creation of Waterbury Center conductor Anne Decker, debuted Wednesday at ArtsRiot, an alternative Burlington nightclub, performing largely contemporary classical music. (The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday at the Green Mountain Club in Waterbury Center.) What was new was the large number of young people who showed up — perhaps 75, ages 18 to 35 — and their response. It was no surprise that these folks responded comfortably to a traditional song by singer-songwriter Colin McCaffrey, with an extra spicy accompaniment. But the remainder of the program was strictly contemporary classical music. Even more unexpectedly, the audience responded enthusiastically to the two most difficult works on the program: a solo violin piece by Missy Mazzoli that brought J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin music into the 21st century, and the decidedly avant-garde but operatic storytelling of “Drones, Variations Ornaments” by Nico Muhly. It didn’t hurt — in fact, it was essential — that the performances were first-rate and convincing musically. Violinist Mary Rowell, a Vermont native well known in New York’s new music scene, performed the solo work; Decker, also an expert at new music, led all 10 members of her ensemble, all excellent professional musicians in the Muhly. But, good performances of new music are not uncommon, even in Vermont. What was different? First, there was the location. By placing the concert in a hip Burlington nightspot, it achieved visibility in a crowd that might never otherwise have given it a thought. Indeed, there were folks who just wandered in from the bar. Perhaps it helped that no traditional classical composers — like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven — were on the menu to scare away young hipsters. Anyway, those that showed up clearly enjoyed themselves. Part of finding new audiences for classical music is defining the problem. Conventional thought is that the classical audience is aging itself out of existence. But most of the classical music attendance has always been by middle-aged and older folk, as the younger ones are busy making babies, raising them and paying for them. One organization has made headway into that problem. Offering reduced prices, the Opéra de Montréal managed to sell more than a thousand subscriptions in one year to 18 to 35 year olds. Visibly, the opera has become a “date night” — with young ladies dressed to shine. Conventional wisdom also has it that attendance dropped off when music stopped being taught in the public schools. There is certainly truth in this. But, myriad music organizations have added education programs, including the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, as well as community orchestras. However, that doesn’t help the Boomers to the Millenials, the generations to miss music education. One Vermont organization has set a marvelous example by offering educational concerts — explained, but not dumbed down. Warren’s Scrag Mountain Music wins more friends with each program that offers good music in unusual settings. They’re interactive, informational — and well played. One ploy has not worked: “dumbing down” concerts. Throughout the country, symphony orchestras have initiated “hip” and pops concerts, even our own VSO, but they never translate to people attending serious music concerts. What makes you come to a classical music concert? What makes you not? Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and the Rutland Herald, and can be reached at

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