As a youngster growing up in Boston, Scott Speck fell in love with classical music, where he discovered a seemingly endless array of visceral thrills and transcendent emotions. Now as a busy conductor, radio commentator and author, Speck has become an evangelist for the often marginalized music form. “Classical music is awesome,” he said, “and I really want to spread the good word about that. In fact, my whole life’s work so far has been to spread the good news about what classical music can do for people.”
Nothing Speck, 53, has done has gone further in fulfilling that mission than the three books he has co-authored in the popular “For Dummies” series: Classical Music for Dummies, Opera for Dummies and Ballet for Dummies. The first of those, which came out in 1997 (a new edition is in discussions), has been translated into 20 languages and is among the world’s best-selling books on classical music.
“Classical music is really in need of being demystified for a lot of people, and it has really had a bad rap,” said Speck, who will make his debut with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 22 leading a pair of family-matinee concerts titled “Downtown Sounds.” “It’s largely, if not completely, the fault of the classical-music world itself, which in the mid-20th century did everything it could to alienate all but the upper 10 percent from coming to its concerts. They created an air of exclusivity, the feeling of belonging to a private club, where you had to know the secret handshake.”
FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT ‘DOWNTOWN SOUNDS’
Many myths have cropped up around the classical idiom, he said, including the notions that it consists only of music by dead white composers for people of European descent and a certain economic level. “None of that is true, but that’s what was perpetuated in the 20th century, and it did a very good job of alienating 90 percent of the public,” Speck said. “In a typical city, you are lucky if 3 percent of the public goes regularly to any kind of classical-music event. In fact, 3 percent is considered very, very big.” (According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2012 survey of public participation in the arts, 8.8 percent of the American public attended at least one classical event in the previous 12 months. That level was nearly a one-third drop from a 13 percent participation in 1982.)
For many people, who did not grow up with classical music and are unfamiliar with Ludwig van Beethoven or Richard Strauss, the form can seem like a locked door. Speck, however, wants to provide the key to open it. “We take for granted in Classical Music for Dummies that our audience is intelligent,” he said. “They are just inexperienced in classical music.”
While some works in classical music can be easily enjoyed on first hearing, he said, others, like Stravinsky’s once-controversial ballet, The Rite of Spring, with its constant, discomfiting changes in rhythms requires a bit more understanding to be understood. He made the comparison between easy-to-drink wine and that with a “barnyard” taste or aroma that takes longer to appreciate. “There are elements to wine, music and any kind of art that might be initially inaccessible, and you do need someone to give you the key into it and to explain why it’s actually a good thing.”
Speck got involved with For Dummies series through one of his best friends, David Pogue, who is also the author of Macs for Dummies. Although Pogue is best known as the founder of Yahoo! Tech and a former personal-technology columnist for the New York Times, he studied music with Speck at Yale University and spent 10 years conducting and arranging Broadway musicals. The two had the idea to write a For Dummies book on classical music and that led to a second book on opera.
Speck went on to collaborate with Evelyn Cisneros, a former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, on Ballet for Dummies. Conducting ballet is one of Speck’s specialties. He was conductor of the San Francisco Ballet from 1998 through 2002 and served as music director of the Washington (D.C.) Ballet from 2003 through 2009. After leading two productions as a guest conductor in 2009-10, he was named music director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. (In late November, he is leading the pit orchestra for four performances of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.)
The Joffrey position came on top of two posts he already held: music director of the Mobile (Ala.) Symphony since 2000 and music director of the West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon since 2002. If all that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he took over as artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic about 1½ years ago. That ensemble, which was originally founded by musicians of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, serves as the pit orchestra for the Joffrey Ballet, performs as the Ravinia Festival Orchestra and presents its own annual season of concerts (five in 2014/15).
“I’m loving my life,” Speck said. “It’s a really good balance. There are a couple weeks a year that are very stressful, where I try to figure out which dates are going to be where next season. Once that is set and everyone has their expectations, then it’s relatively easy, because I feel like I’m going home in every direction.”
In each of his conducting positions, he tries to buck conventions so that people might find that key to unlocking classical music. One such effort is talking at least once from the podium during concerts. Although that might not sound like a big deal, it has only become a common practice in the last decade or two, and it is still frowned on by some conductors.
Some works, such as Tchaikovsky’s popular Violin Concerto, need no introduction. “That’s a piece that you don’t need anything in order to love,” he said. “It’s like someone says, ‘taste this,’ and it’s delicious from the first moment.” But Sibelius’ Second Symphony can be more challenging and a few words can serve as the key in the lock. When he presented the piece in Muskegon, for example, he explained that the climate there and in Finland, where Sibelius lived, was very similar, with cold, dreary and dark winters. Sibelius evokes such oppressive conditions in the symphony’s first three movements. “You get to the beginning of the fourth movement, and suddenly, there’s this glorious ray of D major sunshine that is all the more special because he made you wait for it. And it’s all that waiting that can be filled with anxiety, angst and drama that is not necessarily pleasant but you have to go through it to really experience the glory at the end.” He believes that making such connections greatly enhanced his audience’s appreciation of the sometimes elusive work.
Speck also has been heavily involved in educational concerts for young people and families. He estimates that he has led 800 or so such programs since he started as assistant conductor of the Honolulu Symphony in 1991. In addition, the West Michigan Symphony is one of the 10 original orchestras to take part in Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program. Through this nationwide initiative, musicians travel to New York City for regular training, and once back home, they work with educators to bring music to students in their region. In addition, the Mobile Symphony was one of two orchestras in the United States in 2008 to win a Bank of America Award for Excellence in Orchestra Education.
For his first family-matinee program with the CSO, Speck was asked to include an excerpt from one work on the program: Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with its distinctive sounds of vintage automobile horns. Working with Jon Weber, director of learning programs in the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, he designed a program that musically evokes a multifaceted trip to downtown Chicago and wrote an accompanying script. A section from Smetana’s The Moldau suggests a water taxi ride on the Chicago River, for example, and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome provides the musical backdrop for an imaginary stop to see the fountains in Millennium Park and Grant Park. The program will last about 50 minutes, with the longest excerpt lasting about 4.5 minutes and the shortest no more than 1 minute.
Speck’s efforts to shake up what he sees as a sometimes somnolent field have gained him national recognition. He was asked, for example, to write a five-page essay in the 2008 May-June issue of Symphony magazine about his ideals on the future of classical music. In June 2013, he took part in “From the Conductor’s Podium,” a panel discussion on how music directors can help solve challenges facing their communities. It was the culminating event in a symposium at the Aspen (Colo.) Ideas Festival, convened by festival artist-in-residence Yo-Yo Ma (who also serves as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant) on music and community mobilizing in the 21st century.
For Speck, classical music is not a museum artifact but a vital, dynamic form that can uplift and touch all listeners. But for that to happen, he believes conductors, musicians and other participants have to find creative ways to re-energize the field and unlock the doors that bar too many people from participating.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.