Stephanie Shonekan vividly remembers the moment she unwittingly violated an unspoken social norm of the art form she loved.
It was 1996, and Shonekan, who grew up in Nigeria, had just attended her first classical music concert at Indiana University, where she was a graduate student.
“The first piece was so amazing that I stood up and started clapping,” Shonekan told an audience last month at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, where she is dean of the College of Arts & Humanities.
But it didn’t take long for Shonekan to realize that she was the only patron on her feet, or to become mortified by icy glares from other audience members. It wasn’t until later that she learned that it’s considered a faux pas in the U.S. and Europe to applaud between the movements of classical pieces (which function like chapters in a book) instead of waiting for the entire symphony to end.
“People were appalled,” Shonekan said, and then repeated it for emphasis: “They were appalled.
“I think we in classical music need to figure out how to close the distance a little between the audience and the stage. There are a lot of kids outside the Clarice who would come in, but they don’t know how to receive the music.”
Shonekan made those comments as part of an experimental program featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Jonathon Heyward that was all about building bridges.
It was a program that combined music with a conversation about that music. It melded together a masterpiece of the Western canon – Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 4 in B flat major” — with a tribute created in 2020 by a South Korean composer. Unsuk Chin’s “subito con forza” takes its name from Beethoven’s musical instruction to play the next passage “immediately, with force.”
And the program celebrated the beginning of a new partnership between two powerhouse state institutions: the University of Maryland and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The BSO performed the debut concert when the new center opened in 2001. But in the past two decades, the orchestra has returned only rarely, though the concert halls are located just 30 miles apart.
“This is a landmark moment,” the university’s president, Darryll Pines, told the crowd. “It marks the beginning of a new era for the arts at the University of Maryland.”
The BSO’s long absence and Shonekan’s anecdote go a long way toward explaining why arts groups nationwide occasionally battle to prove their relevance to today’s world.
As audiences for U.S. cultural groups have steadily declined since their peak at the turn of the 21st century, theaters, museums and symphonies have been scrambling to undo the mistakes of the past.
For too long, experts say, cornerstone cultural institutions clung to their elitist origins, holding themselves aloof from the rapidly changing world and the public that inhabits it.
The music director and the dean are trying to change that.
“For me, music equals a sense of unity,” Heyward said. “I think of any place we play — these buildings, these performance spaces — as community centers.
“The beauty of classical music, particularly when you’re talking about symphony orchestras, is that you are forced to think and to be collaborators. Together, we are stronger than each of us is apart.”
Shonekan was born with a deep love for music, so she persevered. Now, she is an ethnomusicologist, equally at home in musical genres as varied as classical music, hip-hop, country and soul.
But not everyone is as tolerant of hidebound cultural attitudes as she has been.
“In the musicology field we’ve been talking for the past five to seven years about what to do with the canon,” she said.
“Young people would like us to blow it up. I don’t agree. I’ve been thinking we should be expanding the canon, because there are geniuses in other parts of the world who weren’t born in Vienna.”
As if to emphasize Shonekan’s point, the evening began with the musical mash-up. Chin wrote her five-minute “subito” in honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The piece contains not only quotations from Beethoven’s Symphony Nos. 4 and 5, but also explores the Romantic composer’s trademark shifts in volume and mood.
By pairing Chin’s piece with the beginning of Beethoven’s fourth symphony Heyward was attempting to draw a line not only between the 19th century German composer and the 21st century South Korean, but also to the 18th century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, with whom the young Beethoven studied.
“It was not a match made in heaven,” Heyward said. “Haydn and Beethoven didn’t hit it off very well.
“But I still think Beethoven took quite a number of interesting tidbits from Haydn. The humor, the sense of lightness, the jokes in the 4th Symphony — it all reminds me of late Haydn.”
That dialogue across the centuries fascinates Heyward, who thinks it’s important for audiences to realize that the conversation is continuing today and will likely extend into the future. Every new iteration deepens and enriches everything that came before it.
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“There’s a through line,” Heyward said. “There is an influence. You can connect the dots.”
Equally important, he said, is providing a platform for contemporary voices and modern musical ideas. As he put it: “I never want people to attend a program I’ve put together and say, ‘Oh, we have to get through that new music before we get to the good piece.’
“I want them to listen to the new music and think, ‘Oh, that made sense. I see why he chose that. It enhances the canon.”
As the music director of a big-city orchestra, Heyward feels responsible — not just to the musicians and audiences, but also to a society full of people who may never step inside the Clarice or any other traditional concert hall.
“It all comes back to the idea that we can all be from different backgrounds, religions, races, creeds, and have this one unified experience,” Heyward said.
“As a music leader, one has the power to create a unified presence within a community through a symphony orchestra.
“Now, more than ever, we need to find common ground.”