2. Cambridge, MA
If Austin is the college town capital of independent rock music, Cambridge may just be the classical music college town capital. Cambridge is an easy walk away to Boston, where one can find one some of the world’s most illustrious classical music institutions, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as the New England Conservatory of Music. These two organizations have an intricate link, with many of the faculty at NEC also performing in BSO. Many alumni of the New England Conservatory are also members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Cambridge is also home to one of America’s longest standing conservatories, the Longy School of Music, which is now owned by Bard College. Longy is notable for training the likes of composer Elliott Carter as well as harpsichordist Daniel Pinkham.
Throughout Cambridge and Boston are a number of other historic classical music offerings, including the Handel & Haydn Society, the 2nd oldest musical organization in the entire country (1st is the U.S. Marine Band). Also housed in Boston is the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a fiery orchestra dedicated to the performance of new classical music. Many performances by these organizations can be heard on the local radio stations 99.5 and 95.3.
Of course, Cambridge has a rich and lively music scene outside of classical styles. Resident attractions include the Middle East, a favorite for electronic and independent rock musicians, Club Passim, a legendary Harvard Square venue featuring acoustic music and poetry, and the Nameless Coffeehouse, which regularly features local singer-songwriters. In fact, Nameless Coffeehouse is often considered responsible for launching the careers of a numbers of significant folk music artists, including Tracy Chapman and Patty Larkin; even comedian Jay Leno had his early beginnings at the Nameless Coffeehouse.
Boston also regularly turns out exceptionally popular musicians thanks to the city’s immensely well-known Berklee College of Music. Pop musician John Mayer, heavy metal group Dream Theater, jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, electronic-indie sensation Passion Pit, fusion bassist Jeff Berlin, and legendary electric guitarist Steve Vai all started in Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Clearly, the popular music scene in Berklee and Boston is nothing short of both historic and spectacular.
As a music student, one will have limitless opportunities to network not only with professional musicians, but also with aspiring professional ones at any of the five major music colleges in Boston, all listed below.
Notable Music Schools In Cambridge/Boston:
Longy School of Music of Bard College
New England Conservatory
Boston University School of Music
Berklee College of Music
1. Madison, WI
The college town with the very best music scene in the entire country, Madison offers an unparallelled selection of musical offerings presented by an incredibly diverse range of artists thriving in multifarious genres. Professional classical music ensembles, opera companies, summer music festivals, a famous jazz festival, theatres, professional ballet, lively popular music artists, and even the exceptionally distinct University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music all call Madison, Wisconsin their home.
In the realm of classical music, we see Madison being home to the Madison Symphony Orchestra, one of Wisconsin’s pre-eminent classical music orchestras. Although it is not a full-time orchestra, it is a professional ensemble attracting many of the most illuminating musicians of our time. In the 2014-2015 season alone, violinists Sarah Chang and Daniel hope will be making appearances with the orchestra, as well as pianist Christopher Taylor. In the past, Emanuel Ax has performed with the orchestra as well.
Other classical music establishments include the fully professional Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which stages approximately 29 performances every year, a number comparable to any major professional classical music organization. For opera lovers, there are three regional opera companies in Madison, one known as the Madison Opera, which is associated with the Madison Symphony, as well as Opera For the Young, a program series aimed at making opera accessible to children and families in Wisconsin, and the Fresco Opera Theatre.
Outside of the classical music scene, Madison is home to a number of exciting genre-diverse festivals in the summertime, including the Isthmus Jazz Festival, who in 2014 had artists as widely known as Frank Catalano perform. Other festivals include the Folk Ball, which is a world and folk music festival held every single January.
The city of Madison, Wisconsin is also home to an exceptionally diverse range of independent and popular genre artists and companies. Several prominent music labels, including indie rock powerhouse Crustacean Records and pop/punk label Kind Turkey Records, started and continue to flourish in Madison, Wisconsin. Indie rock sensation Zola Jesus, New Orleans jazz group Mama Digtown’s Brass Band, and Steve Miller Band collaborator Ben Sidran also consider Madison their home. Whether you are looking to network with classical or popular musicians, Madison seems to have a dense population of serious artists that regularly engage with the Madison public at large.
Finally, as this is a website focused on college music programs, it would be a serious oversight to not mention the contribution the University of Madison, Wisconsin’s School of Music has on the city itself. A leading music school in the midwest, some of the ensembles that regularly perform for members of the Madison community include the school’s two symphony orchestras, four concert bands, seven choirs, six jazz ensembles, and an opera program that stages two full-scale productions every school year. Student musicians will never face a shortage of performance opportunities in and out of the university in this exceptionally musical college town.
UW-Madison’s School of Music was actually the very first music college in America to have an academic “artist-in-residence” program, which they started in 1939. Thank goodness, since this has become a heralded and longstanding benefit for aspiring student musicians at nearly every music college in the entire nation.
Notable Music Programs: University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music
So there you have it, the top 10 college towns that offer the best music scenes in America. As a music student, musician, or just general lover of the arts, living in a place with a high density of varied musical offerings can contribute a great deal to your experience as a cultured person and professional musician. Let me know in the comments if you have any more ideas on which college towns offer the best music scenes in America.