The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.
Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:
• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)
• Juilliard also offers two programs, one from its pre-college orchestra and one from its pre-college symphony, played by high-school students and a smattering of gifted pre-teens. Among the Juilliard pre-college division’s wonders is the pianist and composer Conrad Tao, born in 1994, whose works and pianism, available on CD on his own website, are expressive and preternaturally accomplished.
• Juilliard is not the only place to experience music at a high level for free. The New School’s Mannes School of Music is presenting on May 19 a concert by the Mannes Philharmonic and Senior Chorus of music by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
• The Manhattan School of Music is especially generous to its audience, presenting from May 17 to 19 free performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods by the school’s musical theatre ensemble, while on May 31, the CUNY Graduate Center will offer the soprano Brooke Bryant—a student of early music—in recital of the music of Baroque women composers.
If you like what you hear at these and other free concerts, and have the means, why not make a voluntary contribution to the particular school’s scholarship fund? That would be the best way to give thanks for these student performers and their generosity, which has become all-too-unexpected in the heavily commercialized climate of classical music.