Classical Music’s Coolness Factor Crept Up on Symphony Violist Michael Casimir
When Michael Casimir was growing up in West Philadelphia, he didn’t have the sort of single-minded focus on violin that people often associate with classical musicians. He played a lot of soccer. He played video games. He sang in a professional boys’ choir. He listened to rap, rock and jazz.
These days, Casimir is a member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and he thinks that having a diverse set of interests actually helped his career.
“I like to do stuff outside of the box. I think it has helped me get noticed by people who wouldn’t necessarily find me otherwise in the classical field,” says Casimir, 28, who now primarily plays the viola.
Casimir’s father introduced him to the violin when he was 2 years old and taught him until he was 8. At that point, he started learning from Lee Snyder, who studied at the renowned Juilliard School and was a member of the American Symphony Orchestra.
Still, Casimir said that, for most of his life, he didn’t want to be a musician. “I just didn’t think classical music was cool,” Casimir says, laughing.
But as a student studying violin and neuroscience at Oberlin College in Ohio, Casimir was listening to a classmate play the viola and noticed sounds he didn’t think the instrument could produce. The viola is often the butt of jokes: The Washington Post once ran a story with the headline “What’s So Funny About Violas? Evidently a Lot.”
But what Casimir heard were “sounds that I think closely resemble the human voice or things that I notice in nature …. The viola captures that a little bit more because it has a huskier timbre” than the violin.
Casimir switched instruments and schools, transferring to Juilliard. After graduating, he moved back to Philadelphia to study the viola at the Curtis Institute of Music’s graduate program. “I loved the mentality there; I loved the pace there. It was like going to Duke for basketball. You go there and [NBA player] Kyrie Irving is there; You go there and [NBA player] Zion [Williamson] is there,” Casimir explains.
While he was substituting with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 2018, a musician sitting next to him told Casimir about an audition for a space at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Casimir was aware of the institution’s rich history; it’s the second oldest in the United States behind the New York Philharmonic, and renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin spent much of his career there.
But all across the United States, orchestras do not generate the same interest that they once did. As a result, local symphonies now regularly hold events featuring less traditional music, like screenings and performances of music from “Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back” and “Home Alone.” The SLSO also lowered its base ticket price this year from $25 to $15.
“The world isn’t the way it used to be, so you just have to find that avenue that gets you to where you want to be in the charts,” says Casimir , referring to how frequently the local symphony used to be recorded.
Still, Casimir joined the symphony on a tenure-track basis in September—after working on a one-year contract—and he believes in fellow newcomer Stéphane Denève, who joined as the new music director the same month.
“He’s going to have new ideas, and I think he’s open to listening to new ideas as well,” says Casimir.
Casimir has certainly reached outside of Mozart and Brahms. In 2016, a friend from Philadelphia approached him about writing the music for a new smartphone game called “Trumpy Hair.” The plot centered around then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “wig” as it flies off his head and tries to make it to Mexico while avoiding being shot down by one of President Barack Obama’s drones. (Like the viola, Trump’s hair has been the subject of many jokes, but there are not allegations that he wears a wig. The game has since been taken down.)
The music “was essentially just a bunch of American standards like ‘Yankee Doodle,’ but with a mariachi style,” Casimir explains.
The young violist was also invited to perform music for a slightly bigger project. An old friend recommended him to perform in the orchestra recording for “The Lion King” remake released earlier this year. So Casimir traveled to Culver City, California, to record at Sony Pictures Studios.
“To play ‘The Lion King’ music that you have grown up with and loved, and hearing on the speakers Beyoncé [singing] and hearing Hans Zimmer, [the composer of the film’s music], on your speakers being like, ‘Guys, piano here,’ just casual stuff, was so cool. And then he was telling us stories of how he didn’t even leave his hotel room when he was writing music for ‘The Lion King,’” Casimir recalls.
Not only is Casimir unique in the local symphony because of the projects he’s worked on, but he is also one of only three African American members. According to a 2016 report from the League of American Orchestras, African Americans comprised 1.8 percent of orchestras nationwide. Casimir says that being recognizable—he also has a unique haircut—has some upsides: People have stopped him outside Powell Hall, where the symphony performs, to congratulate him on becoming a member.
“It’s hard to be upset about it in a way—but that’s a selfish thing. As a whole, of course, I would love to see more diversity because everyone loves music and anyone is capable of doing it,” he says. “But if I have to be an example because I stick out, then that’s just what we have to roll with.”
Featured image courtesy of Dilip Vishwanat.