By Ricky O’Bannon

The future of classical music is as bright as it is unpredictable, but the musicians and institutions must be brave and entrepreneurial.

That was one of the main messages to come out of a panel discussion at the Peabody Institute titled What’s Next for Classical Music?

The symposium featured Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop, rock musician and John Hopkins professor Thomas Dolby, renown flutist Marina Piccinini, League of American Orchestras CEO Jesse Rosen and Ben Cameron who is the program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

“If asked what the future of classical music is, I'm incredibly optimistic,” said Cameron.

Cameron said the American public still shows great affection for music like Carmina Burana or Rhapsody in Blue whenever the music finds them in pop culture or advertising. But he was not as bullish on the future of traditional institutions like the symphony orchestra if they continue to behave as they have for the last few decades.

Symposium 1
Symposium 2

Top: Ben Cameron (right) with Thomas Dolby (left) speaking at
the "What's Next for Classical Music?" Symposium at Peabody
Institute. Bottom: (From left) Fred Bronstein, Marin Alsop and
Thomas Dolby discussing the past and future of classical music.

Photo CreditWill Kirk/

Cameron grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and said his generation saw an explosion of arts institutions as the U.S. went from 20 professional theaters to 2,000 and a handful of orchestras to more than 400.

“We thought we were creating institutions that would allow artists to do what they did best and focus on elevating the quality of their craft,” he said. “Inadvertently, I think what we've created is a generation of institutions [that] are fundamentally insulated from the world in which they exist.”

The need to connect classical music with its surrounding community and also with a changing modern culture was a theme on which the panelists agreed.

“I think a frustration I have with the classical music world is it tends to pigeonhole itself as this precious, elevated form of entertainment,” Dolby said.

Dolby might be best known as an early MTV pioneer with songs like “She Blinded Me With Science.” As a regular experimenter with music and new technology, he said that classical music should be thinking about a culture where artists are increasingly involved with their audiences.

“It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy where if you view classical music as something removed from what's really going on in popular culture on a day-to-day basis, then you're going to exclude exactly the kind of new, young audiences that you need to keep classical music thriving,” Dolby said.

Within the classical music world, there is a concern among the more traditional practitioners and fans that if the collective focus becomes experimentation for the sake of it and making the music as approachable as possible, the result could be a watered down product. Moderator and Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein asked the panel if it was possible to strike that balance.

Alsop responded by pointing out that she was once criticized as a young conductor for speaking directly to the audience, and she pointed to her mentor Leonard Bernstein as someone who married approachability with music excellence.

“We had a lot of discussions about this highbrow versus lowbrow, and the thing about Leonard Bernstein is he was fundamentally lowbrow,” Alsop said.

Classical musicians, she said, need to be entrepreneurial and “citizens of the world” who look for ways to benefit and become better involved with their community. Alsop said those qualities are just as important as technical proficiency. She pointed to Brazil where she directs the São Paulo Orchestra as a country, which is one of several South American where classical music is rapidly expanding.

“Brazil is all about enthusiasm and possibility. It's not about perfection,” she said. “Music is not about perfection. Music is about emotional experience and connection.”