Martine St-Victor: Let’s talk about it to support classical music

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The loss of local ambassadors like the McGill Conservatory of Music and Place à l’Opéra host Sylvia L’Écuyer deserves a collective lament.

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For years, I had a Sunday night ritual with Sylvia L’Écuyer, host and producer of Place à l’opéra, a radio show on ICI Première. L’Écuyer presents artists from the world of opera and also presents live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She sets the table beautifully, taking the listener on a sort of master class with palpable passion, preparing us for the orchestral overtures we are about to hear.

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But alas, this treat will soon come to an end as L’Écuyer announced last week that she was retiring after 15 years at the helm of the show and more than 30 at Radio-Canada.

This week, the McGill Conservatory of Music announced it would be closing. The dean explained that the financial non-viability of the establishment, precipitated in particular by the drop in face-to-face registrations, painfully justified its closure. And just like that, another champion of classical music in our city will be silenced.

I hope we will see collective lamentations over these untimely ends. Will Montrealers show their support for these guardians of classical music like we do for the restaurants and grocery stores that have closed? I do not have the answer so that the same fate does not await other local ambassadors of classical music, but certain things reassure me.

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Just over a decade ago, the UK recorded music industry trade association published data showing that 70% of classical music listeners were aged 50 and over. But two years ago, data from streaming service Deezer revealed a new portrait of the classical music listener. In Europe, classical music streaming by listeners under 35 increased by 17%, and worldwide, classical music streaming increased by 11% among the 18-25 age group.

Around this time, Apple bought the popular classical music streaming service Primephonic. Since then, it has been rumored that Apple music, its streaming service – the most popular in the world after Spotify – will soon launch Apple Classical, a streaming service exclusively for the genre.

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Apple is more than a technology company; he’s a cultural leader whose influence transcends gadgets and apps. So seeing him get involved in classical music can only be good news for art. Branding is one of Apple’s strengths, and it’s important. For classical music to have the place it deserves in our popular culture and daily lives, it needs to be packaged and sold like sports drinks and soft drinks.

The exercise does not alter Mozart, Bologna or Verdi. This makes them more accessible. This is a principle that the Opéra de Montréal seems to fully understand, with its captivating advertising campaigns and its rich and accessible programming, some of which is webcast. Its commercialization is to be welcomed.

The Orchester symphonique de Montréal also gets it, from its Pop Series — featuring symphonic versions of pop classics — to its advertising. The OSM posters across the city managed to stop me dead. And with conductor Rafael Payare as its last musical director — young, vibrant, passionate and a perfect reflection of the city — the OSM could not find a better emissary of classical music.

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Yet if classical music is to not only survive, but also thrive, the responsibility cannot rest solely with cultural institutions. It’s up to us, the fans, to spread the love by continuing to support local organizations that have classical music at the heart of their respective missions, and by mobilizing when shows like Place à l’Opéra end or when Prestigious and historic conservatories are closing.

And if we needed more reasons to fight for classical music – besides its beauty and obvious cultural value – it turns out it’s good for us, too. A 2018 study highlighted its benefits, ranging from boosting brain power to lowering blood pressure and alleviating anxiety and depression. As we emerge from the pandemic, with long-term effects we don’t yet fully understand, we need this healing power more than ever — and not just on Sunday nights.

Martine St-Victor is general manager of Edelman Montreal and media commentator. Instagram and Twitter: martinemontreal

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