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Do Duke students care about Bach?

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Duke University Chapel houses one of the finest pipe organs in the United States. Built by the legendary Flentrop Orgelbouw of Zaandam, The Netherlands, the mammoth instrument dominates the great arch separating the narthex and the nave of the neo-gothic building. The Flentrop is a tracker-action instrument that contains 5,033 speaking pipes controlled by four manual keyboards and pedal. It has a flat-head V8, two four-barrel carburators, solid valve-lifters, short-stack headers, and a toploader four-in-the-floor transmission. 

I jest, of course, but it is all to say that the Duke Flentrop is a high-fallutin' piece of work and a most proper instrument for presenting the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer for the pipe organ. Ever. 

To that effect, the Duke Chapel Organist, Mr. Christopher Jacobson, recently undertook a series of concerts entitled, The Complete Organ Works of J. S. Bach

My wife and I went over for the first concert in the series. As we walked from the parking lot to the Chapel, we could hear the voices of two students who were strolling along behind us and discussing the late start to their day. The male spoke loudly enough to be heard across the quad. “I slept until 12:30,” he said, “but after I got up and started in, I dominated my work—my writing was beautiful, if I do say so myself.” 

The encounter brought to mind the statistics on every freshman class admitted to Duke over the past thirty years. Each class has surpassed its predecessor in terms of standardized scores, grade point averages, and achievements outside the classroom. And the percentage of applicants who are not admitted has grown steadily over the years. Still, the admissions office has always found plenty of entitled credential builders with high opinions of themselves to go around nicely. 

I snapped out of my reverie in time to look for the line of students I expected to see waiting to get into the Chapel for the organ concert. Since there was always a line for the basketball games, I assumed there would be plenty of students wanting the best seats for the concert. After all, Bach's compositions for the organ are among the greatest works in the history of music. Opportunities like this are one of the reasons students want to come to Duke in the first place—or at least that's what they say in their application essays. 

But the entrance area to the Chapel was uncrowded, and there were no students in sight. Perhaps they were inside, I thought, already occupying seats in the acoustical bosom of the sanctuary. 

Wrong again! Entering the Chapel was like walking into a rest home. Wheel chairs and walkers were everywhere, and as we settled into our seats we couldn't help but notice that the young people in attendance could be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

I don't know what the students were doing that Sunday evening. Maybe they were studying for a test; perhaps they were recovering from a Saturday debauch; or it could have been that they were just dominating the hell out of a paper. Whatever the case, they missed a fine performance of some of the most magnificent music ever composed, played by a member of their community on a great instrument of their university. 

You may say that one sample doesn't prove anything, and you will be right. But go to any classical music concert on campus and count the students there. It won't take you but a few seconds, and the number will include those who are there as part of a course requirement. 

You may also tell me that all students are not necessarily interested in classical music, or classical art, or poetry, or even basketball. And you would be right again. However, in a great university that rightly prizes diversity and that purportedly has its pick over a broad and crowded spectrum of qualified students, shouldn't there be a decent showing at events such as the Bach concert?

One would surely tend to think so. 

Bob Williams graduated with the Class of 1970.


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