Charlottesville is a music town, no doubt. What other small city can boast that it’s seen the likes of The Rolling Stones, U2 and Lady Gaga come through, not to mention hosts a healthy local scene that’s launched a couple of groups into straight-up rock stardom and keeps a slew of smaller venues booked almost nightly. But that’s rock.
The classical scene, while it may not generate the same press (unfairly, many would say), is equally rockin’. Virtuosos including violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang have thrilled local audiences in recent years, and national caliber opera, chamber music and choral performances run year-round. And while it’s certainly true that classical music organizations are struggling around the country due to a so-called “graying of the audience,” Charlottesville seems to be an anomaly, according to the heads of various organizations who are dedicated to making sure classical music sticks around.
“We have a constant influx of new patrons and individual ticket buyers. So far it’s still working,” said Karen Pellón, executive director of the legendary Tuesday Evening Concert Series, which has brought some of the world’s finest musicians to UVA’s Old Cabell Hall since 1948. Those musicians may not have household name recognition when they play Charlottesville, but that often changes, said Pellón.
“People will say, ‘We don’t know this artist.’ We say, ‘You will after you come,’” she said, citing past series performers including violinist Joshua Bell, the Canadian chamber ensemble Les Violons du Roy and famed Russian violinist and violist Yuri Bashmet. And bringing them in before they’re famous generates loyalty from the artists, Pellón said, which has helped the series bring them back after stardom has struck, such as when Les Violons du Roy returned in 2013 with acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.
Pellón acknowledged there’s been a slight slip in demand for the historically sold-out series—in recent years it’s been selling about 90 percent of season tickets for the 850 seat venue, but that means there’s room for new audience members, many of whom don’t (yet) have gray hair.
“I am noticing more young people than before, and particularly for specific concerts of interest,” said Pellón, who coordinates with UVA and area schools to bring students to the shows.
The Tuesday Evening Concert Series isn’t the only classical event that sells well at Old Cabell Hall. It’s often a full house for the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary season. Last weekend’s Shakespeare-themed concerts were nearly sold out, said Janet Kaltenbach, executive director of the Charlottesville Symphony Society, the nonprofit that supports the symphony.
Kaltenbach describes Charlottesville as a “robust community for classical music,” and notes that the symphony does extensive outreach in schools in five surrounding counties, hoping to help build the next generation of classical music performers and audiences.
Outreach and education also play a big role for another Charlottesville classical music tradition, Ash Lawn Opera, which for many years performed outdoors in the summer at Ash Lawn-Highland but now calls the Paramount home.
“It is true that kids are not being exposed to classical music in the same way they were a couple of generations ago, and a big part is cuts to arts programs in schools,” said Kevin O’Halloran, Ash Lawn Opera’s executive director. “Organizations like ours have stepped into the breach. We have a strong education program run by volunteers from our guild who do programs in schools that reach 1,100 kids in Charlottesville and Albemarle.
Some evidence for opera’s survival can be seen locally through the Met Live performances at the Paramount, where ticket sales are healthy, according to Matthew Simon, the theater’s booking and programming manager.
But there is also evidence that the showings primarily appeal to an older crowd: Of the approximately 216 season passes sold for Met Live performances, 190 were sold to senior citizens. And at any given screening, the theater expects 500-700 people to turn out; not a sell-out for the 1,040-seat venue, but still enough to make Charlottesville one of the Met’s top sellers in the state.
Will there be an audience for opera in 10 or 20 years?
“I hope so,” said Simon, who sees the Met as leading the way forward. “The fact that they have these high def broadcasts makes it accessible to anyone who wants to see it.”
O’Halloran said ticket sales for the Ash Lawn Opera’s summer season—this year will be Madame Butterfly and My Fair Lady—are still strong, and the Opera has expanded to include a spring show as well as an annual Christmas performance of Amal and the Night Visitor. He cites a statistic from Opera America, the 140-member trade organization of which Ash Lawn is a member, showing that 50 million people experienced opera last year, either in an opera house, a stadium, on radio or TV or in cinemas.
“Opera is not dead, not by a long shot, but it is changing,” said O’Halloran. “That is a good sign, a sign of a healthy art form, one that is trying to reach new audiences.”