From the Virginian-Pilot, February 15, 2009
I am a musician. I have known that simple fact since my seventh birthday, when I wrapped my arms around the little guitar that had been a gift from my father, when I breathed the dusky fragrance of wood and varnish, when I touched the grainy fingerboard that would become my personal road to enchantment. Despite challenges, I have never had one moment of regret about that calling, nor a second of doubt about the vital role that music plays in the world around us. As a conductor, I have witnessed thousands of audiences—literally millions of listeners—come to the concert hall and leave, two hours later, in a place they would never have been able to imagine when they arrived, frazzled and distracted, earlier that evening.
I feel a certain conflict of emotions as I write this essay—gratitude certainly, for being given this opportunity to talk about the importance of the art form, but also a profound sorrow that classical music somehow finds itself desperately in need of advocates. Why should that be especially so in troubled economic times? We feel betrayed perhaps by Wall Street greed, by ineffectual governance, by political leadership. But music has never betrayed us, never let us down. It constantly gives back to us, as a boundlessly beautiful repository of the past or a vibrant mirror of our current society. The need for music is not learned—it is “hard-wired” into our being. Even infants respond to it and understand it. As we grow, our exposure to music sharpens our brains, awakens a heightened sense of individual awareness, helps us develop an appreciation for beauty and value.
The ancient Greeks in their extraordinarily sophisticated society understood the tremendous power of music. Plato himself espoused careful planning of the number of hours young people should listen to music in certain keys—so powerful was the influence of each key that it would have strong effects on the long-term personality and character of the young listeners! In my many visits to schools, I have observed that the musicians in the orchestra, band, or chorus are most often the students on the dean’s list, on the student council, in clubs and after-school activities and are often involved in community service as well. A strange coincidence? I don’t think so—I am convinced that the making of music teaches them the skills— discipline, patience, respect and dedication—that enable them to succeed in all their endeavors.
We remain for all of our lives extremely sensitive to that power of music, whether or not we choose to (or even can) articulate that power. I have always been fond of Garrison Keillor’s words: “An orchestra concert is where people go to find their souls. Having worked so hard to lose them, people come and sit in the dark under the spell of music and are reminded of their humanity.” What happens? That room full of people—all with different issues on their minds—experiences a force that we can never fully explain. Listening, our sense of time changes, our focus sharpens, our problems fade, our priorities shift.
We all know that the “music business” has a strong positive effect on our economy. Facts and figures will bear out the statement that concerts bring many times their cost back to the community. But that is truly beside the point. Music has a profound effect on our psyche, our understanding of ourselves, our view of a world grown astonishingly small. In a global community where solutions will be found through creativity, ingenuity and imagination, music holds the key to nurturing the values that will help us find answers to seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Why do we need music as a nation, as citizens of the United States? Some Americans might claim that we are not an artistic people. I could not disagree more strongly. Americans invented film, jazz, modern dance, musical theater, country music, abstract impressionism. We are expressive, innovative and imaginative. Our art echoes our essential American-ness—our willingness to experiment and to take risks, our desire to share and borrow and change, our egalitarianism, our inclusiveness, our endless curiosity and humor. This American art echoes every culture in the world, and has spread to the furthest reaches of the globe. The arts are how we explain ourselves and come to know ourselves. They are woven into the very fabric of our complicated democracy and into the lives of our people. They are, in a very real way, the sum of our collective soul. American orchestras—and the Virginia Symphony and Buffalo Philharmonic are shining examples of this—are at the center of the arts in our country, and the cornerstone of our cultural society. Orchestras preserve our heritage, foster diversity, encourage creativity, and stand as a shining paradigm for excellence.
What do we remember and value from great civilizations of the past? Certainly it is not their business plans, their economic challenges, their financial success; not their wars, their fleeting conquests, their eventual collapse. We remember the beautiful and telling legacy of their artistic life – the paintings, poetry, architecture, music, gleaming brightly centuries after their creation, still able to move and touch us. Through their art, we realize that these long-dead creatures were really not so very different from us, filling their small parcel of life with as much beauty as they could. What will our great-grandchildren inherit from us? What will they remember? Will the economic recession of the early 21st century color their world? Or will the next century—most probably more complex and more intense than ours—still look to the nobility in the arts as a touchstone for what is truly valuable?
In times of economic difficulty, the arts, rather than languishing as a discretionary luxury, becomes more vital to the human condition. Through the arts, we honor our past, celebrate our present and dream our future. The very best of who we are is inherent in the arts, and the arts are at the core of the continual reinvigoration of our human spirit.
JoAnn Falletta has served as the music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra since 1991 and of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999. In 2008 she was appointed to be a member of the National Council on the Arts.