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The Meyerson at 50? Only If Classical Music Survives.

by Jerome Weeks 9 Sep 2014 8:20 AM

As it passes its 25th anniversary, the Meyerson’s future is tied to the future of classical music.


The Meyerson was built to last – its acoustics and its modernist style have not aged. But what will the next 25 years hold? As the Meyerson marks its anniversary, KERA’s Art&Seek is exploring the history and future of the building in a series called Secrets of the Meyerson. Today, Jerome Weeks reports the Meyerson’s future is tied to the future of classical music.

Diana Sofia Zavala

Diana Sofia Zavala, a Young Strings student. Photo credit: Dallas Symphony

  • Read an expanded version of this piece and see more video predictions in the Five Key Questions chapter of “Secrets of the Meyerson.”
  • Want to check out music at the Meyerson? Events are going on all week. Here’s a list.
  • Listen to Jerome’s report that aired on KERA FM

Dallas Symphony music director Jaap van Zweden has been working on his plan for the future.

“If we are going on as we do now,” he says, “I predict that this orchestra will be seen as – you know, we were talking of the top five in America. And I think that they will have to add a number. And that’s Dallas.”

The list of the top five American orchestras was drawn up 60 years ago. Whether it’s even relevant anymore is an open question. Still, van Zweden’s point remains. He’s determined to make the DSO one of the country’s best.

But what does that even mean – when many orchestras are in a crisis? Several have faced bankruptcy. Classical CD releases are dwindling. The DSO itself has suffered million-dollar deficits. In 2011, it nearly maxed out its line of credit –that’s the money it draws on to pay its bills. So in 25 years, will there even be an audience coming to hear classical music in the Meyerson?
scale~500x5000~meyersonlogo-1409772134-47“If we’re lucky, it’ll be a broader audience, a more diverse audience,” says DSO president Jonathan Martin. “Gone are the days where orchestras could be funded by the one percent. And so if we’re going to be around 25 years from now, it’ll be because we’ve elevated the value that we’re delivering back to the community. You know, 40 percent of Dallas identifies as Latino. How does that shape our programming? How does that shape our community engagement?”

Right now, any of those future concertgoers are young students. And they are being bombarded by more music through more outlets than any previous generation. Classical music is just one, tiny choice in a global world of sound.

Yet it’s a choice many young people never hear. They’re not exposed to classical music in their schools. Carlos Vargas thinks that’s a shame. The 20-year-old cellist is sitting the lobby of the Meyerson – where he first learned he’d been admitted to a DSO program called Young Strings. When Vargas was at Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School, he was one of the few Latinos studying classical music. Then Young Strings, he says, changed his life.

“Once you get your Young Strings teacher,” he says, “you make this bond with them. They keep you grounded and keep you from making bad choices. Being exposed to this was the best thing that ever happened to me. So I think, the earlier the better.”

Young Strings is one part of the DSO’s educational programs. But it offers more than just music classes to qualified Latino and African-American students. The classes turn into personal mentoring. If students can’t afford an instrument, they’re loaned one. All this is free.

Other efforts from the DSO include the new ReMix series, which presents more contemporary music. And next May, the orchestra will launch its Arts-District wide Soluna Festival – like ReMix, an attempt to present a fresher take on classical music.

“If classical music remains a museum piece, then we really will lose people,” says Nathan Myers, director of opera for Booker T. Much of his effort, he says, is convincing students, who have no experience with classical music, just to give it a chance. He recalls taking students from another DISD school to a concert.

“They had never even really been in there. As a matter of fact, because my last name is Myers, they thought I was joking when I said we were going to the Meyerson. They’re like, ‘Yeah, right, Mr. Myers.’ But we got there, and they read it, and they say, ‘Wait a minute. Oh, so it’s a real place.’”

Students like these can easily find the entire classical music experience intimidating — because it is daunting and unusual, especially today, to pay top-dollar to sit silently for an extended period time in a huge room. It’s like going to church or school, automatically a solemn, serious occasion, yet this room is designed solely to resonate with the live sound of a large group of artists, artists playing music often composed in a different language following forms and conventions long-since obscure.

That’s why Myers works to counter his students’ apprehensions. And those students of his who’d never heard of the Meyerson?

“They were just so overwhelmed by the experience,” he says, “and I think that whether or not they decided to go into classical music afterwards, they have a personal relationship with it,” he says. “They have an experience that they can recall that’s a positive one.”

Whatever else the Meyerson Symphony Center may be, it remains the biggest musical instrument the Dallas Symphony has. If, in 25 years, the DSO no longer can find an audience to fill it, then Dallas will have built — and lost — a Stradivarius.