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Martine St-Victor: Let’s get vocal about supporting classical music

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

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

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But alas, this treat will soon end as L’Écuyer announced last week she is retiring after 15 years at the show’s helm and over 30 at Radio-Canada.

This week, the McGill Conservatory of Music announced it would close its doors. The dean explained the institution’s financial unviability, notably precipitated by decreased in-person enrollment, painfully justified its closure. And just like that, another champion of classical music in our city will be silenced.

I hope we’ll see collective regret over these premature ends. Will Montrealers show support for these guardians of classical music like we have for restaurants and grocery stores that have shut? I don’t have the answer on how to ensure the same fate doesn’t await other local ambassadors of classical music, but some things do reassure me.

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Just over a decade ago, the trade association for Britain’s recorded music industry released data showing 70 per cent of classical music listeners were 50 years and older. But two years ago, data from streaming service Deezer revealed a new portrait of the classical music listener. In Europe, classical streams by listeners under 35 rose by 17 per cent, and across the globe streaming of classical music increased by 11 per cent among the 18- to 25-year-old bracket.

Around that time, Apple bought famed classical music streaming service Primephonic. Since then, it’s been rumored that Apple music, its streaming service — the world’s most popular after Spotify — would soon be releasing Apple Classical, a streaming service exclusively for the genre.

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Apple is more than a tech company; it’s a cultural leader with influence that transcends gadgets and apps. So to see it invest in classical music can only be good news for the art form. One of Apple’s strengths is branding, and that matters. To ensure classical music carves its deserved place in our popular culture and daily lives, it has to be packaged and sold like sports and soft drinks.

The exercise doesn’t adulterate Mozart, Bologne or Verdi. It makes them more accessible. It’s a principle Opéra de Montréal seems to understand perfectly, with its captivating advertising campaigns and rich and accessible programming — some through webcasts. Its marketing is to be applauded.

Orchester symphonique de Montréal also gets it, from its Pop Series — featuring symphonic versions of pop classics — to its advertising. OSM posters around town have succeeded in stopping me in my tracks. And with conductor Rafael Payare as its latest music director — young, vibrant, passionate and a perfect reflection of the city — the OSM couldn’t have found a better emissary of classical music.

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Still, if classical music is to not only survive, but also thrive, the onus can’t be only on cultural institutions. It’s on 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 mobilizing when shows like Place à l’opéra cease or when prestigious and historic conservatories shut.

And if we needed more reason to fight for classical music — besides its beauty and obvious cultural value — it turns out it is also good for us. A 2018 study highlighted its benefits, from boosting brain power to lowering blood pressure and easing anxiety and depression. As we come out of the pandemic, with long-term effects we do not yet fully understand, we need that healing power more than ever — and not only on Sunday nights.

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

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