Classical music. It is a centuries old Western art form that boasts names like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (recognized regularly as among the 30 most influential people of the past millennium). In the United States, we can hear it on the radio, buy CDs and MP3s, buy sheet music, take lessons, and attend concerts. Yet despite the availability of classical music, many best-selling books, major media outlets, and symphony orchestras with multi-million dollar budgets are questioning the relevance and future of classical music. Will classical music be part of our future or is it dying out? Does the great art music of the past having meaning for our 21st-Century lives?
A unique and unexpected answer to these questions was provided to me by Titus Oladimeji, a 27 year old engineering student living in Lagos, Nigeria (pictured below). In October 2005, Titus contacted me to request assistance from the Rachel Barton Pine (RBP) Foundation in obtaining basic supplies not available in his country, such as strings, shoulder bars, and rosin. He explained that classical musicians in Nigeria also have no access to sheet music and recordings. Titus, it turns out, performs as a violist with small and large ensembles in his area. In the face of many challenges, he and his colleagues are passionate about classical music and committed to expanding their knowledge and sharing it with others. Titus recently formed the Nigerian chapter of the International Viola Society, and he and his peers now teach violin to children in their community as young as three years old. Yet he and his colleagues play on worn-out strings on instruments held together with tape. They are often forced to gather at their church in the middle of the night to practice, rehearse, and learn from each other because of busy work schedules and thin walls at their homes.
Amazed by the sacrifices that Titus and his friends are making because of their burning desire to play classical music, I enlisted the help of instrument supply companies and put together a box of materials.
On receiving the package, Titus wrote: “Thanks for those wonderful materials…You have already put a big smile on the faces of so many classical instrumentalists here in Nigeria.”
Later, Titus mentioned that he and his friends yearned to play Mozart. We promptly sent some sheet music. A few months afterwards, Titus joyfully reported that his chamber group, the Golden String Quartet (also pictured below), had given its first public performance of Mozart. It’s hard to image more disparate environments than 1770s Austria and modern day Nigeria, yet Mozart’s music clearly speaks deeply to these young Africans who struggle against great odds just to have the chance to play it. What does this say about the relevance and future of classical music?
In August 2007, I will spend two weeks in Ghana where I have been invited to teach and perform. While there, I look forward to meeting Titus and his colleagues and to sharing our love of string instruments and their music.