There’s been much backlash in musical circles in the wake of the Super Bowl halftime show. For most of America, that means people have been arguing about Beyoncé’s performance, and her daring at making an actual political statement in the midst of the feel-good flowers and rainbows and dancing of Coldplay, the band everyone loves to hate. But in the classical music world, the arguments focus on the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA). Members of that orchestra took part in the halftime show as well — did you see those dancing violinists on stage with Chris Martin? For some in the field, that was a really great thing; for others, a big disappointment.
YOLA is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s outreach program for kids aged 6 to 17, based in underprivileged Los Angeles neighborhoods, and modeled on the El Sistema program in Venezuela that spawned the LA Philharmonic’s music director, Gustavo Dudamel. Chris Martin met Dudamel, invited the kids to perform, and gave them a jolt of starry exhilaration — a big bonus payoff for their involvement in classical music.
Surely this is a feel-good story. Except that the classical music press, given the advance information that YOLA would be performing at the Super Bowl, got a little giddy with the idea of it representing a great leap forward for classical music. So when the cameras panned across the screaming crowd of young people at the start of the halftime show and took in not an orchestra per se, but a bunch of teens with colorful violins, dancing on the stage and playing backup, without any identification or mention of where they came from, it was, for some people, a let-down, and a missed opportunity. (That the band they were backing up was Coldplay may only have added insult to injury.)
There were other less-known musicians at the Super Bowl who were happy to make high-profile but uncredited appearances – like the marching band from UC Berkeley, or the pianist Alex Smith, whose day job is teaching music at a private school in New York’s Westchester County, and who accompanied Lady Gaga in her (fantastic) rendition of the National Anthem. But some in the classical music field, with a strong sense of their own artistic importance, and perhaps primed to see an orchestra in concert dress launching into Beethoven or Bernstein, were crushed at the lack of acknowledgement – though realistically these days, when even the Grammy Awards don’t give prime-time space to classical music, it’s delusional to think that a youth orchestra is important enough to get to dictate its own terms, and choose its own repertoire, in the prime real estate of the Super Bowl halftime show.
At a time when classical music is hungry for a younger audience, it’s a shame that, when something actually does happen that has the potential to excite young people about the field – to make orchestra playing cool to a wider audience, to show that playing the violin can land you, too, right next to Beyonce – people purse their lips and wring their hands because it wasn’t done the “right” way, on their terms, the way they imagine it. Sure, we’d all love to see Beethoven performed to a cheering audience of millions – except that if it was, we’d probably all complain about how bad it sounded through the stadium’s sound system.
If this field wants to grow and flourish in the 21st century, it needs to take part in the real world around it, rather than taking refuge in its shrinking ivory tower, with the same exuberance that those young string players showed on stage on Sunday night — making the most of the opportunity they were given, rather than focusing on what it was not.
UPDATE: And, if you’re still wondering what good this appearance was, here’s one concrete result: the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute will partner with one of the organizations involved to expand it nationwide.