For many, classical music evokes the images of intricately ornated concert halls, finely pressed tuxedos, and a sense of rigidly fixed tradition. For classical artists, Vijay Gupta, Ted Hearne, and Paola Prestini, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Last week, the Music Academy of the West presented the 2nd annual Classical Evolution/Revolution Conference. One of the events in particular, “Art Sparks Action – Social Justice in the Eyes of the Artist,” shined a spotlight on the role music plays in bridging the gap between the elite and indigent populations. The afternoon panel consisted of three esteemed artists, each wielding music as their weapon of choice in the fight against social inequality.
Set in the impressive Hahn Hall, the discussion was led by Paola Prestini, founder of National Sawdust, a music incubator and performing arts venue in Brooklyn, New York. As the moderator, Prestini introduced the session, saying, “Music is the fastest way to capture the attention of the public because of art’s ability to galvanize the audience.” As a composer, Prestini experienced firsthand the struggles encountered by talented artists who lack the resources to make their ideas come to life. In response, National Sawdust was created with the vision of giving support and resources to emerging and established composers and musicians alike an environment where they are free to create and share their work. Much of her work centers on creating a creative environment where underrepresented artists are finally given the proper resources and exposure to translate their dreams into a reality.
As Prestini turned the stage over to composer and associate professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music, Ted Hearne, she provided him a focus question, asking, “Who is your audience?” In response, he addressed some of the prominent issues composers face. According to Hearne, one of the foremost difficulties composers encounter is the fleeting impact their art makes on the audience. As touched and inspired as an audience may feel during the performance, the feelings are quickly forgotten by the next day and the entire event simply becomes a fading memory in the eyes of the beholder. As though this wasn’t discouraging enough, Hearne also faces the problem of conveying powerful messages without the use of words, relying solely on the authority of instrumental music. However, Hearne embraces the challenge, saying, “I strongly believe that the history of music can be harnessed since music speaks louder than words.” Listen to a sample of his works here.
The final speaker was Vijay Gupta, a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. Street Symphony was born out of the vision to give individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to live a creative and expressive life by providing free performances to the homeless on the streets and the incarcerated at various L.A. County jails. The project was inspired by Gupta’s desire to make classical music accessible to all. According to Gupta, “We as artists have an obligation to heal and inspire while also provoking and unsettling.” Not only does he hope to uplift the homeless and incarcerated through classical music, he also hopes to bring about awareness of these overlooked groups through public performances.
Among the audience were this year’s newly selected fellows. The Music Academy of the West is one of the nation’s foremost summer programs for young and gifted classically-trained musicians throughout the world. After a rigorous audition process, the foremost musicians are selected as fellows who are given the opportunity for advanced study and performance under the guidance of internationally renowned faculty artists, guest conductors, and soloists. Fellows, Nina Pitts and Francis LaPorte, both lauded the panelists, saying that the talk gives them something to new to think about. LaPorte says, “As fellows, we spend a great deal of time practicing and so we don’t spend time thinking about these issues. I think that this talk really taught me to be intentional about the time I spend.”