Commentary: The year (classical) music died | Nvdaily


Once upon a time, the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival was about mentorship: conveying musical tastes, knowledge and skills across a wide spectrum of generations and cultural backgrounds.

At Orkney Springs from 1960 to 1978, the American Symphony Orchestra League sponsored summer workshops for conductors and students of conducting, mentored by artistic directors Richard Lert and, for one season, his friend Hans Swarowsky.

Even those with little or no interest in classical music might appreciate the vital role mentoring has traditionally played in the evolution of the musical genres they enjoy. For example, filmmaker Ken Burns, in his remarkable documentary, “Country Music,” demonstrated how mentoring helped achieve generational and cultural crossovers between hillbilly, folk, rhythm and blues, rock, gospel and pop music.

Each year at Orkney, orchestral players and conductors gave up part of their summer to work with Richard Lert, a native of Vienna, who had known Brahms, as well as many of the most renowned musicians of the 20th century. After a serious fall in 1967, Dr. Lert asked Hans Swarowsky to replace him as artistic director for the summer. Swarowsky’s American engagements had been rare, yet he cancelled his prestigious European appearances and came to Orkney Springs. Dr. Swarowsky not only averaged one or two concerts a week during a 50-year conducting career, but also headed a Vienna-based school for conductors, where for decades he mentored hundreds and hundreds of students, many of whom went on to lead some of the world’s great orchestras.

Though vehemently opposed to the Nazi regime, Swarowsky remained in Europe during World War II. As a conductor in Nazi-dominated Poland, his actions paralleled those of Oskar Schindler (highlighted in the film, “Schindler’s List”). Swarowsky saved many concentration camp detainees (drawing them from the same camp from which Schindler took his “employees”), arranging for them to join his orchestra and chorus although some only posed as musicians and could neither play nor sing.

The musicians who journeyed to Orkney each summer are, of course, long gone. Gone, too, is the mentorship they provided. The 2022 Festival program included a lovely short piece by the late African-American composer, pianist and organist George Walker (1922-2018), along with the Symphony # 9 in D minor (the “Choral” symphony) by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Classical music was excluded from the 2023 program.

Much has changed in the classical music world in the past 63 years, not only with respect to the face of orchestras but also to what is being played. Today, one hears more and more compositions by African-American and female composers. This is only natural, as music is music and all real musicians are a fraternity. Distinctions of race or gender are simply irrelevant to the art of music making. There is, unfortunately, a drift away from classical music programming, a trend to which Festival management appears to be offering only faint resistance.

John Clem is a Shenandoah County resident

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