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Change We Can Believe In

Yesterday’s post sparked an interesting discussion; thanks to all for the great answers.

I’m interested that a lot of the responses proceeded on the assumption that “change” is a synonym for “dumbing yourself down for a younger audience.” This lies very close to the assumption, voiced by at least one commenter, that the audience is stupid.

But blaming the audience is too easy. It leads to the underlying view that none of the current crisis, the steep downward decline in ticket sales (the NEA just released some scary figures about this) is our fault. We (as orchestras, or classical music lovers) should just go on blithely doing what we do, and it’s the Philistines’ loss if they don’t cotton on to it. That’s all well and good, except that continuing to play pretty music if nobody is buying tickets is only economically feasible for just so long. (See “newspapers, current state of” for a comparison.)

Anyway, you can’t control the audience, though God knows orchestras are trying these days. All you can control is what you do. “Play good performances” is a start, sure, though it reminds me of an editor in a past job of mine who used to summon department meetings and tell everyone to write better, leaving the writers feeling a little bruised: does that mean we’re not writing well? how exactly do you want us to go about writing better?

But I had the impression that what Ivan Fischer was talking about in the post that sparked this discussion was a more fundamental change in how orchestras are conceived and run: a change that doesn’t have anything to do with dumbing down or reaching out to younger audiences, but that does have to do with creating a more viable ensemble, artistically and financially, in today’s world. I asked him about the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, which he thought was a very interesting model: basically, it’s made up of freelancers organized in a hierarchical structure, so that there’s a core group that plays nearly everything and additional tiers that come on for performances that call for a larger ensemble. It also is one of the best orchestras in New York (I wrote about it some time ago).

Another interesting place to look is the New World Symphony, which is basically an orchestra laboratory since it’s an educational rather than a professional institution. They’ve had some ideas about varying the length and presentation of concerts – 20-minute concerts, some projected live outside the building – that I think are interesting.

Other thoughts?

By Anne Midgette  |  June 19, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  from readers , random musings  
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Next: In Performance: Guitar Festival, Emerson, and the NOI


I agree with you Anne that it's a total dead end to say that the public is "stupid" for rejecting classical music. Moreover, it's totally counterproductive if you're really trying to reach out to people.

The thing to understand is that when a person rejects classical in order to continue listening to the "tried and true" pop he or she has always enjoyed, the person is being perfectly rational. Why go out of the way to learn a whole unfamiliar idiom when you are perfectly happy with the music you've always listened to?

Rather than call such a person uncivilized or stupid, it's necessary to reach out and appeal to him/her while recognizing the essential rationality of his/her attitude. And this is not easy to do, but I'm not sure the classical music world even recognizes the nature of the challenge.

Getting people to listen seriously to classical (which is not the same as getting them to the symphony once a year) is very much like a religious conversion. It's very hard to convert people who don't feel there's something missing in their lives, and similarly it's hard to get people to listen to classical when they feel totally fulfilled listening to pop.

The target audience therefore would be people who've always listened to pop but start developing a vague feeling that there's "something missing" in their musical experience. Maybe pop listening becomes a bit boring for them or they need something with more of a sense of "inner peace" or what have you. However defined, they're at least open to hearing something new. I know whereof I speak because I went through such an experience.

There are at least 2 ways to appeal to such a person, both valid. One is to try to hook them on the symphony sound and experience, the other is to somehow get them to listen to less elaborate classical tunes in order to get their ear used to this unique kind of music. To me the latter, "bottoms-up" approach was very appealing and I started by listening to Chopin waltzes and mazurkas and Bach solo works primarily for piano. This lets you get used to hearing the themes and melodies and later you move on to other composers and to chamber and orchestral works.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | June 19, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of short-length concerts, New York Phil runs what it is called "Rush Hour" concerts. Just like it sounds, a Rush Hour concert start at around 6:30 pm, presumably the time that most 9-5vers get off from work or, for all-nighters, a point at which can take a lengthy break.
These concerts not only start at a time earlier than traditional classical concerts, but also have a shorter duration, usually with only one major piece programmed with a short warm-up number.
I do not see why our local orchestra NSO cannot benefit from this format.

Posted by: fleurfo | June 19, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Anne that the problem is how to increase the classical music share of the entertainment market to the point where composing and performing classical music is economically sustainable, so that musicians will continue to perform and we will continue to enjoy their playing. From that perspective, it doesn't matter whether the Philistines who don't go to concerts are dumber that us Philistines who do go to concerts. What matters is how you get people to become involved with music to the point that it becomes a part of their life.
To achieve that, you need to share the music. There are two ways to do this, in space and in time. For the NSO, some ways to share it would be to play in schools (visits by individual musicians, music camps -- summers or weekends, where anyone can learn a little how to play any -- non-amplified only -- instrument); play on the Mall (and in malls); on the Metro, at movie theaters; at Starbucks. Be ubiquitous in space: be everywhere.
Then, to be there all the time, post rehearsals on the web, give out CDs (bookstores, Starbucks, kiosks on the metro), develop software to translate music to scores and viceversa, keep recordings on the web for downloading after people have read Anne's reviews, with pictures of the audience. The Millenium Stage is not just successful because it is free; it is successful because it is on every day.
All of this may cost money but, like they say in old movies, you gotta spend money to make money.
Not too long ago, computers were only used by a highly tralined fraternity in air-conditioned caves to which over-educated people brought offerings of punched cards. The rest of the world was not more stupid then than it is now, but did not have the means to interact with a mainframe computer. Nowadays, the vast majority of people use computers in hitherto undreamed-of ways, and we hold in our pockets computing power that, 30 years ago, would have cost millions and would have taken up entire floors of building. How do you think that happened?
Proselytize! The goal: have every American play a (non-electronic) musical instrument and be able to read music.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 19, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Are we not also altering the nature of the audience by changing how children are exposed (or not exposed) to music within our education system? I remain puzzled on why the BSO terminated their "Symphony with a Twist" series. That particular series seemed to be geared to a younger audience and yet they dropped it. The excuse I had heard was sales related. Isn't that a telling sign of our musical future...

Posted by: donahues11 | June 19, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm still interested to know your ideas and what role, if any, the critic can play in this area. No doubt many (most?) orchestras have failed to understand the changing world and their audiences. But, if orchestras or other arts groups continue to fail, the music critics also lose their jobs -- how many have been lost in the past few years?
It seems to me that critics like you have a role and a responsiblity to help educate audiences as well. This doesn't mean being a cheerleader or witholding criticism, but helping readers understand what they're hearing, where it comes from and why it's relevant today. This also means writing in language that doesn't require a dictionary and, if you feel compelled to use esoteric language or terms, at least explaining them.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | June 19, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

On Critic's Role~
In its concert programs, The Cleveland (and possibly the BSO and NY Phil) always attaches a Glossary page for newbies.

I have yet to see any critic, i am fairly sure about that, from Boston to NYC, that does something similar for a concert review in a newspaper. But perhaps Midgette can be a path blazer? I like her writing, both for its style and content.

Posted by: fleurfo | June 19, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

On the Presence of Orchestras (gauthier310's and shovetheplanet's comments):

Is everyone aware that the NSO stopped playing at Carter Barron Theatre this year?

That said, i totally agree with gauthier310's suggestion: To make classical music in people's face all the time.

To complement his approach of spreading out the front, i would like to bring attention to the 22-37 age group (with post-secondary education) who potentially have the time and income at their disposal to invest in a classical music concert.

They are a group that orchestras can easily establish a mutually beneficial relationship with. They have the need for an environment like an urban concert hall or a park to carry out their romantic inspirations. The trick is: Not to ask too much from them. Play along with them.

How? Do not encroach into their precious Saturday evening time. To that end, holding concerts at "coffee hours" (11:30 am , see Mostly Mozart Festival's practice) or, Rush Concerts (6:30 pm, NY Phil) are brilliant ideas to lure this group into the box office for classical concerts.

To generation y, the non-committers, a date at 8 pm is like wearing your heart on the sleeve. Too obvious and therefore, committing too much. To sqeeze a Rush Concert into their busy or not-so-busy schedule, on the other hand, is perfect for their attitude and life style.

We, on the orchestra side, get to play.

For these shorter concerts, we can probably charge a lower admission, thereby another good reason for them to attend.

If we can work this group well, the result would be somewhat sooner.

Yes, i agree with shovetheplanet, too. More iPod downloads for these newbies, please please, even though i personally do not own or listen to it.

Posted by: fleurfo | June 19, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Let's not forget that the NY Philharmonic playing in the parks attracts tens of thousands of people. So the audience is there.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 19, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Critics are losing jobs primarily because of the newspaper crisis, not because of arts group issues.

I know people who only go to the symphony and opera for new new new music. They are uninterested in Verdi and Beethoven, for example, and orchestras and opera companies will never have them as regular attendees with the usual conservative, backward-looking programming.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | June 19, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Here's my easy answer (if there is such a thing!):Put music education back in the schools, make it compulsory, and you will have a new crop of concert-goers. But thanks to lack of music in the schools, we no longer have an appreciation for music as an art and we're not equipped to understand it.

But then I had music education in my school and I also didn't gravitate toward it right away. So what gives?

Well, my parents encouraged me to explore it, and didn't hold hostile attitudes toward the arts. That's another issue we're facing. Years upon years of a conservative mind-set that is distrustful of the arts (or anything it does not understand), classical music is seen as unapproachable, as something European that we Americans shouldn't involve ourselves with.

Lastly, it's an issue of making classical music seem essential. Orchestras have done an atrocious job marketing themselves. They gear their communications toward the very demographic that's dying out. And they gear increasingly safe and dull programming to that same demographic. Young folks want to hear what's new, not yet another rendition of Brahms' First Symphony.

Here in SF, new music, new operas sell, and they sell well among the demographic that will soon make up the core audience that orchestras need to court. If orchestras took some programming risks, they might be surprised.

Opera companies have been far better marketers of themselves and attendance figures bear that out. Here in SF, a new "Porgy and Bess" sold out before it even opened, thanks in part to aggressive marketing and lots of hype. And the SF Symphony was smart in doing a festival of Berg and Schubert, pairing the adventurous with the familiar, but at least doing the former at all.

Lack of music education, lack of good marketing, and a conservative mindset about the arts and in arts programming. It's a triple whammy that's difficult to breech but it must be done.

Posted by: knightstale | June 19, 2009 7:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm in my late 20s, make between 50k and 100k, and spend at least $300-$500 a year on classical music tickets. I typed up some thoughts on what the "young audience" wants, to continue the discussion from a few posts ago:

Posted by: classicalburgh | June 20, 2009 1:18 AM | Report abuse

For communities where there is a steep decline in ticket sales, I have to wonder how the music progams in the schools are. Are children in the community learning how to play instruments, or have music programs been stripped out of the schools? If the music programs are weak, what is your orchestra doing to lobby and strengthen them. If the audience is dieing out and the orchestra is doing nothing in the community to promote music programs in schools, then the dwindling audience IS the orchestra's fault.

Regarding the dwindling ticket sales, I work on the staff of a full-time orchestra, and last season (ending in May 2009) we had about a 3% increase in ticket sales and quite a few sold-out performances (of classics - not "dumbed-down" music). The positive trend is continuing with a rise in revenues for next season's subscriptions also (we haven't changed ticket prices in a few years). My worry in the current economy isn't ticket sales - the patrons are continuing to support us - I worry about the funding from foundations and other groups. The musician salaries will never be able to be covered with tickets.

Posted by: fortuna | June 20, 2009 2:54 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday I saw part of a TV interview with Sir Colin Davis, who was downbeat (excuse the pun) about the state of classical music and the arts in general.

His explanation for a decline of classical music is that most people in today's culture are not willing to dedicate themselves to acquire the knowledge necessary to appreciate this kind of music.

I think he exaggerates the amount of study required. IMO Aaron Copeland had a much better approach in saying that the average person can get to like classical through a lot of listening--he doesn't say you need to be a student of the genre in order to enjoy it. After all, we can all enjoy a good movie without analyzing all the technical details involved in making it. Why should the same not be true of a piece of music?


Posted by: shovetheplanet | June 21, 2009 9:13 AM | Report abuse

First, I wouldn't necessarily use the NEA report to show that the current orchestra model isn't working, because the NEA report shows that participation in all art forms is going down. That suggests that there's a larger sociological/cultural trend going on that has nothing to do with the structure of orchestras. If anything, the NEA report should be used to address what's causing that larger trend so that all art forms can address it.

Second, I don't think orchestras are analogous to newspapers. The decline of newspapers has a lot to do with the availability of news sources that can provide the same news more efficiently. There are not other sources of music that provide the same music as orchestral music more efficiently. A rock band with four or five musicians might be cheaper than an orchestra, but rock bands aren't replacing orchestras because the respective music genres are so different.

If anything needs to be changed, it should be the larger classical music culture and the incentives it gives to composers to compose music. I swear, I think most composers are motivated to write music for other composers, conductors, and professional musicians. 95% of the new music I hear is fascinating for its impressive use of orchestral color, harmonic sophistication, etc., but it doesn't communicate those fuzzy larger truths of emotional depth, spirituality, etc. Composers are too pre-occupied with impressing other music professionals.

I harp on this because it's simply a travesty to have orchestras playing mostly music made over fifty or even a hundred years ago. Imagine a movie theater that only plays classic films; that's exactly what orchestras do. There are lots of people who like the classics, but no one wants to go to a movie theater that only plays classics; people appreciate art forms that are current, that are made by living people who know what other living people are going through and address our current condition.

Posted by: robertcostic | June 23, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

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