Apr 8, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Alternative universes can make for fun day dreams.

Take for an example the world comedians Key and Peele explored where school teachers are the subjects of the same adoring media coverage, demand and generous compensation as pro athletes.

In that Teacher Center skit, which borrowed more than a few tropes from ESPN’s Sports Center, painted a world where Mike Yoast (“The Yoast with the Most”) out of Tulsa Teacher’s College overcame a humble upbringing as the son of a professional football player to become the first overall pick in the teaching draft where he will be paid millions of dollars to teach calculus.

The sketch is wonderful in that absurd “man bites dog” kind of way, but there is probably a little bit of wistfulness for many wishing this alternative universe was reality.

Violinists are the humble sort that might be too proud to admit it, but they’ve likely wondered once or twice what life would be like if they commanded the same raucous popularity and adoring mobs as their guitar-playing peers. In fact part of the western fascination with pianist Lang Lang might stem from looking into an alternative cultural universe where he enjoys a rockstar status in his native China where you could catch a bus with his likeness on the side.

Hungarian TV might offer a similar alternate reality. In 2014, Hungarian state television launched a talent competition in the vein of American Idol or The Voice for young classical musicians called Virtuosos. The show has been something of a hit, and producers are looking to export the show model globally.

Skepticism about the prospects of seeing talent show competitors performing hits from Beethoven instead of Michael Jackson on American TV is understandable. Some shows work in certain countries but not others based on those cultures. For example, Saudi Arabia has had an American Idol-model show called Million’s Poet for more than two decades where competitors compete by reciting original Arabic poetry. The top poet earns a prize worth more than a million dollar, and the show has outperformed soccer in ratings.

It’s hard to imagine poetry in prime time working here. However in the case of Virtuosos, there wasn’t exactly an insatiable Hungarian thirst for classical music on broadcast television that the program was responding to. Show creator Mariann Peller said she founded the show because she didn’t believe enough young Hungarians were listening to or playing classical music.

Mihály Boros (age 11) won the first Virtuosos competition and went onto play 82 concerts the following year, including stops in both Tokyo and New York

Dick Clark Productions — known for producing the seminal American Bandstand, numerous awards shows and So You Think You Can Dance — has said there is interest in Virtuosos in China and Japan, and the company is reportedly working on a licensing deal with U.S. Networks.

Classical music soloist competitions are nothing new. Prestigious high-end competitions have traditionally launched soloists to go on to play with top orchestras. There have even been efforts to open those contests up with an American Idol-like twist, such as the 2010 “Next Star” competition by Orchestra Nova in San Diego, which used a mix of expert judges and online voting.

Because of format limitations, it’s hard to imagine a Virtuosos spin-off filling the same function as say the Van Cliburn competition. What this kind of show could accomplish is providing a kind of visibility and accessibility that might just cause a few more children to pick up an instrument or listen to classical music.

And that’s not just the naive optimism that so often accompanies articles about bringing classical music to a broader audience — though there might be some of that, too. According to EuroNews, there was a 14% increase in Hungarian music school applications after Virtuosos’ first season aired.

It’s hard to guess how an American Virtuosos would be received, but it might have been equally difficult a decade ago to imagine that ballroom and contemporary dance competitions would carve themselves a successful niche in prime time network TV. Also a dose of young prodigy can’t hurt its odds.

Maybe American audiences will one day soon turn on their television to see a young violinist perform a Bach partita prior to the evening news. Or maybe not. Either way, it never hurts to day dream.