Matt Aucoin

Even a Radiohead fan can appreciate Mozart

By Matt Aucoin
September 13, 2009

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IT HAS BECOME a ritual: I scan the buzzing black, white, and gold sea that is pre-concert Symphony Hall - as usual, mine is one of maybe five youthful faces in sight. Then I turn to my septuagenarian neighbor and ask, “How long have you been a BSO fan?’’ The answer is almost invariably, “Since I was young!’’ I look around again and wince.

I am 19, a musician, and one of Boston’s 250,000 college students. I absorb great music indiscriminately: on my iPod, Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro’’ cheerfully mingles its radiance with Animal Collective’s “Feels’’ and Radiohead’s “Kid A’’ somberly holds forth with Messiaen’s “Quatuor.’’

I know I’m not the only young musical omnivore around, but something odd is happening here. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, certainly one of the world’s most exciting orchestras, also offers one of the world’s greatest student discounts. The $25 College Card guarantees access to 15 BSO concerts - plus, cardholders receive a text message whenever extra tickets are available. By the end of the season, it covers almost 30 concerts - less than a dollar a night to sit in seats that normally cost $80. A season’s pass to the BSO costs college kids about one-third the price of a decent seat at a DMB show. So why isn’t Symphony Hall overflowing with 18-to-22-year-olds every night?

The answer isn’t “These kids are off with their Twitter and their ‘NYC Prep.’ ’’ Many of my peers are sensitive, passionate listeners (just stop by a Grizzly Bear or St. Vincent concert), and many of us listen to music that demands the same spiritual engagement and intellectual openness that Brahms and Adams do. The leap from Deerhoof to Stravinsky is miniscule when classical music is presented the right way; one indie-rock-expert friend of mine became a bona fide opera nut after I insisted he experience Verdi’s Otello’’ - and I didn’t present it as an exotic excursion into high culture. I presented it as one of the richest manifestations of love and torment we have as humans. Just like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’’

But most of my peers have never been forcefully urged to treat classical music (whatever that term means) as an intimate, vital experience. I never see, say, a group of college-age friends at Boston Lyric Opera on a Friday night - only the occasional loner, the occasional family with a bored teen in tow.

Hmm. I thought live music was a social activity. On this front, the BSO and other major organizations are not blameless. The College Card should be aggressively advertised at every area school: now, it’s hard to find even on the BSO website. Also, the atmosphere at Boston concerts might strike a first-timer as stuffy: We do not have a venue like New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, which blends the best of classical, indie, and jazz with appropriate ease.

But ultimately, fellow students, it’s up to us. Time to invade the concert hall. Classical concerts need not be exercises in cough-stifling. I regularly wear a T-shirt and jeans to the BSO - it’s fun to give the lingering Koussevitzky-ites a mild shock, since I know Mahler’s just as sublime sans tux - and respond to the music with a vocal passion. I cheered myself hoarse for Barenboim, Levine, and Carter last year, and I booed Teatro Lirico’s apathetic Aida’’ with equal fervor. Audience participation didn’t start in 1962 - a knowledgeable, demanding audience has been the sustaining force of every culture with music at its heart, from fin-de-siecle Vienna to New Orleans in the 1920s.

So don’t treat classical music as a once-a-year excuse to dress up and get a nice dinner. It is music. It’s meant to be loved by the young, hormone-crazed masses, loved the very same way we love Radiohead and the Arcade Fire. It should lie at the center of everyday life, spark our wildest conversations and profoundest thoughts, be the soundtrack to falling in love. There’s a galaxy of music in our city that needs our love, and I know we’ve got it in us.

Matt Aucoin is a sophomore at Harvard University. His band, Elephantom, is releasing its debut album online this weekend at

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