Arts Organizations Invest in Conferences to Support Music Communities and Encourage Young Talent

Events like Classical:NEXT, Audio Classique, Classeek, SphinxConnect, Chamber Music America, and The League of American Orchestras help connect and empower musicians

By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Conferences and trade fairs for networking, jobs, and bookings have long been the lifeblood of the record, management, publishing, performance, and broader music industries—including classical music. Organizations like Chamber Music America and the League of American Orchestras have for years been supporting their communities through grants, professional development opportunities, advocacy efforts, and conferences. They are part of a larger universe of organizations that includes the International Society for Contemporary Music, which promotes contemporary music worldwide through its annual World New Music Days festival (held this June in the Faroe Islands), and the Association of European Conservatoires, which connects music conservatories across Europe, fostering collaboration and innovation in music education and performance. Their annual congress is scheduled for November at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan.

In 2012, a new event entered the scene: Classical:NEXT, which bills itself as the “Global Gathering for All Art Music Professionals.” The annual conference in Berlin this past May offered presentations, exhibitions, seminars, discussions, and one-to-one and roundtable mentoring to help delegates tackle burning issues and keep up with changes, trends, and innovations around the world. Project pitches provided a “seek-and-find” opportunity for collaboration and inspiration. Classical:NEXT describes its community members as “cultural multipliers ranging from grassroots DIY-ers to the most established companies and institutions, including Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Spotify, Universal, China National Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Amsterdam Concertgebouw.”

Classical:NEXT mixer event
Courtesy of Classical:NEXT

Pentatone’s managing director, Sean Hickey, tells me that he’s been a supporter of Classical:NEXT from the beginning. “It allows labels, distributors, artists, composers, publishers, managers, PR agencies, and numerous people from the cultural sectors of countries that support the creation and dissemination of classical music globally to find themselves in a single location. Ideally,” he goes on, “Classical:NEXT will grow to encompass more people from emerging markets who can truly assist labels and artists in bringing about their vision in each respective region. Some established labels have little or no distribution in some markets with notable populations and a growing middle class, something that we at Pentatone aim to address.”

According to Katherine Alder, founder of WildKat PR, conferences are “always beneficial if you are really in the mood for them, if you have identified the right conference for your needs. At Classical:NEXT, there’s a strong focus on continental Europe and the UK, and it’s a real mix of industry. A lot of decision makers hang out there, but also orchestra managers and agents. So it feels like a good temperature read.”


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For artists establishing a career and looking to draw wider attention to their work, events like Classical:NEXT present irresistible opportunities. For example, in Melbourne, Australia, contemporary violinist, composer, and singer-songwriter Xani Kolac, who describes her career as “being on a scenic route to a destination that I don’t even know,” was definitely in the mood. Kolac has attended Americana Fest in Nashville and showcased her music at the Americana Country Bluegrass Trade Fair in Nashville and at Folk Alliance International. “But it was during Covid,” she says in an interview before Classical:NEXT’s Berlin conference, “so they were virtual showcases. This will be my first time showcasing at Classical:NEXT. I’ve got 30 minutes to go in and do my thing. I’ve been applying every year for years, and I’m glad it’s in Berlin because I’m really interested in Kraftwerk and Krautrock and stuff.” When she was selected, she thought, “It’s a huge investment, but it was a no-brainer. I’m so excited to go. It’s going to be amazing.”

Classical:NEXT speaker onstage at event
Courtesy of Classical:NEXT

Classical:NEXT is not the only recent entrant into the classical-music-trade-fairs game. Audio Classique is a new part of the International Artist Managers’ Association (IAMA) conference designed specifically for the recording industry and those associated with this community. Its second event, held in Bruges at the end of April, provided what Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS and the event’s curator, calls “a canvas for us to discuss many themes, such as sustainability, opera, mixing art forms, and artist management, to name a few. For the final dinner party, our ice-breaker will be in the city’s old brewery, making our time together both business and social. We aim to make this one of the best networking events for the broadcasting, media, and recording industry in classical music in 2024. Spread the word!”

Classeek was founded in 2017 in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the aim of discovering, supporting, and promoting promising young classical musicians. Marketing and communications manager Amita RajGuru tells me that Classeek “is dedicated to continuously innovating and refreshing the image of classical music, enabling audiences to discover emerging talent while supporting and providing both physical and digital platforms for artists.” Classeek’s main initiatives include the Ambassador Program, a one-year career development program for young artists; ClasseekLink, an online community platform for the arts industry; and Insights by Classeek, a premium video platform featuring close-up interviews with classical music industry leaders. “Each of these projects is tailored to develop and nurture the skills, portfolios, networks, and general industry knowledge of artists, facilitating their individual career growth.”

In Detroit, Sphinx Organization president and artistic director Afa Dworkin describes SphinxConnect as “the largest and longest-standing convention dedicated to representation in classical music and the broader arts. It is an epicenter for all of our programs for leaders and artists who are interested in the intersection of excellence, diversity, and representation. This year, in January, saw our largest numbers—more than 1,200 people with us in Detroit. They were practicing musicians, members of the academic community, folks who work in orchestras, opera companies, presenting houses, and all the places in between. 


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“The cool thing about SphinxConnect is that it is co-curated in partnership with our community. It’s not that things come together, and we decide what the sessions, the round tables, and topics are. For our field to be excellent, it has to be representative of all of the voices in our community. We are trying to envision what classical music might look like in the future, and might sound like in the future, if it is to become truly representative.”

Classical:NEXT mixer event
Courtesy of Classical:NEXT

Mariesther and Marielisa Alvarez, the two directors of the Boston String Academy, which provides “rigorous string instrument instruction to children in underserved communities,” have attended SphinxConnect as Fellows for three years in a row. “It’s one of our favorite conferences. One of the most special qualities is its environment, gathering a wide range of professionals and students from diverse backgrounds and races, and encouraging a freedom of expression and networking. The level of artistry of the young musicians participating is incredible, raising the level year after year!”

The sisters were finalists in the 2020 SphinxTank for emerging arts & cultural entrepreneurs—a chance to win a $25,000 grant. “We had to present in front of a panel of distinguished personalities from different professional backgrounds and a large audience of attendees. The feedback we received was informative and inspiring, we gained knowledge and support from a wide community that continues to this day. The relationship with Sphinx continues to be strong. Some of our students have participated in the Sphinx Performance Academy, and most recently, the Sphinx organization helped sponsor our youth ensemble debut in Carnegie Hall.”


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Chamber Music America is also eager to engage with students. CEO Kevin Kwan Loucks tells me that, at their annual conference, “we offer student rates to make our gathering accessible and inclusive. To ensure a smooth and enriching experience for all attendees, we provide orientation sessions tailored specifically for first-time conference attendees. These sessions offer insights into navigating the conference schedule, making meaningful connections, and maximizing the conference experience.”

The League of American Orchestras is prioritizing the amplification of young voices, as outlined in its recent strategic plan. “Your call is very timely,” president and CEO Simon Woods tells me, “because we had a session on it with our full board earlier today.” Recognizing the vitality of youth perspectives, the League aims to provide platforms for their inclusion within orchestras and the wider field. While acknowledging existing efforts by youth orchestra organizations and educational departments nationwide, Woods emphasizes the need for a more concerted effort in elevating young voices. The League’s commitment is reflected in its increased investment in developing a student constituency. “We’ll have at least 30 students in a breakout session at the conference this year; last year, we had a panel of students in our closing session.”

The League has also formed a student council, “a fantastic group of six young people, from high-school age through to students pursuing DMAs, to give us thought leadership about what the future of orchestras should look like and what the future of our work with young people should look like. The conferences, in a sense,” Woods continues, “are just the tip of the iceberg to a much bigger commitment for us to figure out how to bring out fully the voices of young people.”