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Giving audiences what they want

The other day, I made a list of all the new operas premiering around the United States this year. For many of us who love opera, it’s fantastic to see attempts at bringing new energy and new music into the opera house. But for many regular opera-goers and subscribers, all this new work represents an affront.

There are many people who pay several thousand dollars a year to go to the opera and don’t see why they should be spending that money to see works in which they have no interest. These people are often intelligent opera-goers of long standing. Some of them write me about it. They formed a subgroup of those who responded favorably to my critical look at Placido Domingo’s tenure at the Washington National Opera: but one reason they were upset with Domingo is that he put on new, unfamiliar operas, whereas I was rather hard on him for, this season, not putting on enough. (Given that the Washington Opera before Domingo appears to have done an awful lot of new, unfamiliar operas, this is an interesting criticism. It might indicate that some subscribers have simply forgotten about the company’s past track record; it could also indicate that the company used to present less-familiar opera in a more dynamic way. But that's a different topic for another time.)

Many of us who love music share a vague idea that audiences should be open to new things, and that they should be convinced to give them a try. But is this true? I’ve observed before that classical music, particularly opera companies and orchestras, are unusual in that they repeatedly try to force things on its audience that its audience doesn’t necessarily want. Someone who comes to the movie theater to see “Avatar” is not necessarily going to be thrilled if I show him “Pan’s Labyrinth” instead, even if I’m convinced that he would really love it if only he would watch it. And yet this is what’s going on in classical music, all the time: audiences are being asked to pay lots of money in order to be taken out of their comfort zone.
(read more after the jump)

An interesting thing happened in New Hampshire last week. The New Hampshire Music Festival had brought in some big guns in the classical music world to help it restructure: Henry Fogel, the former head of the Chicago Symphony and subsequently of the League of American Orchestras, as festival director, and Johnny Gandelsman, a violinist who plays with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and founded the adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider (coming to Washington on February 21 and 22), as artistic director. The orchestra, made up of players from around the country, got the distinct impression during last summer’s season that Fogel was trying to change the way things had been done, and it, and a bunch of festival supporters, resisted. The result: Fogel and Gandelsman are out, along with three board members. Tradition wins over innovation. The orchestra will be the way it was, for the audience who wants it that way.

The orchestra world is certainly traditional, and it’s been glacially slow to change. (A blogger just painstakingly compiled the performance history of the Toronto Symphony over the last decade, and discovered that, even with the more adventurous programming since Peter Oundjian took over there, the most-performed works were still the Beethoven 7th and Tchaikovsky 6th symphonies, as well as the Beethoven violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto -- the meat and potatoes of the orchestral repertory.) Many of us have accepted that it’s got to change if it wants to survive, and this may be true. But how do we reconcile this with the large portion of the audience that loves things just the way they are, so passionately that it’s willing to fight for them?

It's a question that institutions are grappling with all the time, in part because they have people like me nipping at their heels in print if they fail to move with the times, and they have to balance that against the host of ticket-buyers who really want to see all those performances of "Madame Butterfly." And my tendency is usually to say, put it on and they will come; show people what's exciting, and they will get excited. But, playing devil's advocate to my own views: shouldn't paying customers be able to get what they want, rather than what some of us think they should want?

By Anne Midgette  |  February 2, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  national , news , random musings  
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I'm willing to try new things, but I hesitate when it comes to opera. When I have to pay four- or five-hundred dollars for a pair of tickets for my wife and me, my willingness to gamble on the new drops pretty low. Risking the price of a CD to hear something new, however, is entirely different, so in fact is a pair of tickets to a concert. I have no solution to suggest for the opera problem.

Posted by: wsheppard | February 2, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

“… the most-performed works were still the Beethoven 7th and Tchaikovsky 6th symphonies, as well as the Beethoven violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto -- the meat and potatoes of the orchestral repertory.) Many of us have accepted that it’s got to change if it wants to survive, and this may be true.” (Anne Midgette)

No, maybe you, Gregory Sandow, and other proponents of so-called “alternative classicism” want this to change, but I – and I expect many others here - want the Beethoven 7th and the Violin and Emperor Piano concertos – and the Magic Flute and Fidelio and Cenerentola - to be programmed regularly until the end of time. We do not, however, want Madama Butterfly performed fourteen times by the former Washington National Opera company in lieu of a careful and curated exploration of the full Western operatic repertoire from Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland” to Henze’s “L'Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love.”

I can understand that less thoughtful and conservative audience members may balk at performances of Berg’s “Lulu” and Britten’s “Death in Venice” (and “Peter Grimes”). But these are now virtually canonical Western operas, and great houses like the MET should continue to find ways of staging them under their auspices. (Both “Lulu” and “Death in Venice” did not fill the MET house in the past decade or decade and a half, and had to be cross-subsidized by popular fare.)

On the other hand, I cannot understand conservative opera audiences balking at Prokofiev’s great “War and Peace”; and that is why I raised earlier here the possibility that this Prokofiev opera may be the greatest opera of the 20th c. -- and not Berg’s “Lulu,” as some music critics and cultural intellectuals hold. I see no reason for this Prokofiev opera not to be in the repertoire of a reformed Washington National Opera (along with Boris Godunov and Pique Dame), and not simply an opera in the repertoires of visiting great Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theater great national companies.

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 2, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I can feel for conservative audience members being asked to sit through SFO Pamela Rosenberg’s atrocious and deconstructivist vision of Busoni’s fascinating “Doktor Faust” and her bizarre surrealistic vision of Ligeti’s “The Grand Macabre.” Many of these conservative audience members do, in fact, choose to boycott the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennials, the Fifth Floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and “heavy metal” and “garage” alternative youth musics.

There is also a big difference between the time in the 1990s when the New York Times featured a front page article about American literary (novelistic and poetic) talent being newly attracted to the Western operatic art form; and the 2000s when the MET Opera announced – in association with Lincoln Center Theater – its experimental commissioning program; which is likely to lead to the first staged MET commission in over a dozen years (2015?) being variously described as either about a 14-year-old boy taking on the online identity of women to try to get someone to kill him, without success; or the online friendship between two male teenagers, one of whom kills the other.

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 2, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I don’t think there’s much point in judging operas by their plot outlines. Should we condemn the one about the philandering political leader who sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on; or the one about the guy who abandons his pregnant girlfriend so he can sleep with someone else’s wife, until her husband finds out and kills him; or the one about low-lifes in the criminal underworld, centering around a woman who uses a guy to avoid jail and then loses interest in him after he’s done jail time for her himself? (Name those tunes, everybody. Should be easy.)

I can think of a lot of comparable topics in great literary works, too, like the one about the student who murders his neighbor in cold blood. I mean, why should we have to read this junk? :-)

Posted by: MidgetteA | February 2, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

As for new pieces for symphony orchestra to which audiences will respond:
Consider how long it took for the last great symphonist (Mahler) to be accepted by the took over 50 years and even today his music still has trouble winning converts.
Where is our 21st century Mahler?
Therein lies the problem.

Posted by: bobman1 | February 2, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Regarding new opera:
It used to be that the greatness (or lack thereof) of the music determined the success or failure of an opera.
The story line was practically always secondary. Now it has become absolutely reversed...prima la dramma, e poi la musica.

Posted by: bobman1 | February 2, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Long before you came to town, before Domingo took over the opera here, when Martin Feinstein was director, I was an opera subscriber. They had reasonable budgets, they put their money into productions that they could rent out to others, and they hired in lead roles younger singers at the start of their careers. Productions were for the most part interesting and innovative. As you noted, there were a healthy number of unfamiliar operas presented, and audiences liked them (I remember The Aspern Papers sold out). Tickets were priced reasonably.

When Domingo took over, he brought in big-name stars, directors, etc. Prices went way up. He changed the schedule, so no opera between November and March! I changed my subscription to cheaper seats, and eventually dropped my subscription, it just cost too much, I preferred seeing the talented young artists at Wolf Trap for interesting opera and productions at a reasonable price.

I think upping the budget and bringing in the stars changed the opera audience to the conservative types that don't like things to change.

That New Hampshire stuff is very interesting. Reading the articles, it seems to have been driven by the musicians who had ties to the summertime community. The board members (probably people a lot richer than the audience) apparently wanted to do something big-time, national, innovative, experimental, prestigious. But the community liked it community based, why does everything have to be some big-deal national prestige thing? Why can't we simply enjoy being close to and feeling a part of good music-making in the summertime? We don't care about the big concert hall and the ambitions of the rich board members to be thought important outside our community. Do your experimenting elswhere, please.

Too bad. Board members who raise money think of orchestral musicians as the hired help. Nobody cares what they think, they should be happy to be paid to come and play for us, why are they complaining. But had the leadership gotten the musicians' buy-in from the start it might have turned out much differently.
Making musicians reapply for their jobs, bad idea any time anywhere. There's resentment from the start, even if everyone is re-hired. On the other hand, if leaders say to musicians: we want to try some cool new things, are you up for it, what are your cool new ideas for us to consider too, lets have fun and make great music together--it would have been a completely different dynamic.

Posted by: c-clef | February 2, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

No one is forcing people to spend money to see operas they don't want to see. They can buy a partial subscription and see only the ABCs (Aida, Boheme, Carmen) ad infinitum. My view is that any company which relies only on the ABCs (and Ds and Es) is a boring company. I applaud the WNO for staging Peter Grimes last season and Hamlet this season. I am less pleased at the "greatest hits" being offered next season, but I do understand the reasoning, given the state of the economy. The late lamented Baltimore Opera, which presented only four productions each season before its demise, actually presented Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking as one of its productions about five years ago. It was riveting, and earned a hearty Bravo from me. I am attempting to arrange my schedule so that I can be in Dallas to see the world premiere of Heggie's Moby Dick later this season.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | February 2, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Since my name showed up here, I thought I'd clarify what I actually think (noting for the record that I'm Anne's husband).

I'm not against performing the classics of the repertoire, music I love, though if I balk sometimes at going to concerts where I have to hear it for the XXth time, that's my choice.

But I wouldn't make that choice for the mainstream classical music audience. These are lovely people, who love their favorite music, and who ought to hear it, if that's what they want. (And, as Anne says, if it's what they're paying for.) I think it's ghastly that they're forced to sit through stuff they won't like. To start with, it's discourteous, simply on a human level. And it seems like a bad direction for art to take. And it's surely bad business as well.

From the institutional point of view, it's dangerous for orchestras and opera companies to program things their audience won't like. They depend on the standard repertoire for their income, both from ticket sales and donations.

So the classical music world, for its survival, and also to serve its audience, needs to keep on doing what it's doing -- playing Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Whether the standard programming is viable for the future is another story, which only time can tell. But it does seem, from experience in New York and elsewhere, that a large young audience is ready to come for programming of a different kind.

So for the sake of the future -- and also for the sake of art -- classical music institutions have to find a new audience, for newer programming. This is a great burden, since now they have to go in two directions at once, and I sympathize, having worked on the inside of some big orchestras, and seen how stretched they can be -- in staff and finances -- just to do what they usually do.

Still, I think they have to branch out. The next decade may see some large changes in classical music, as the present audience gradually is replaced (we hope) by younger people. What the balance then will be between Beethoven et al and newer music is something we'll find out. It does seem odd to me that classical music, almost alone among the arts, so strongly stresses old pieces. But that doesn't mean that it should -- or can -- stop doing that without what may be a longish evolution.

Posted by: gsandow | February 2, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps if better composers were chosen the public would want to hear new music. Why is that never considered? Instead of the elitist contemporary music mentality that is shoved upon us, orchestras and operas should recruit composers that don't fit the current mold.

Posted by: pbosca | February 2, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

So, let's say an opera company looked at its ticket sales over the century and concluded that one opera above all others always attracted the largest audiences and always filled the most seats. The company might then decide, "Let's play this one opera... forever!" And they henceforth play that one opera over and over again. That may sound absurd, but that's actually what has happened with many ballet companies in the United States with "The Nutcracker." And while no opera company performs just one opera over and over again, what's apparent is that they do this with a list of about thirty operas.

The really peculiar thing about classical music is that it's the only field of the arts in which the old masterpieces dominate so strongly. In movies, literature, popular music, and the visual arts we're always creating new works and there isn't this huge tension between the established masterpieces and the new. Why is this? Because the financial constraints on classical music institutions are so huge, there's very little room for them to have unpopular performances. It costs a whole lot of money to put on a performance, and there isn't a large pool of people interested in attending.

In general, patrons are always more conservative than music enthusiasts. Musicians and the people who really love and follow music like to try out new ideas, listen to new things, and expand their horizons. While some patrons may share their sentiment, their chief characteristic is that they want to invest their money into a good time, and so they are risk-adverse. And so, since they are risk-adverse, they would rather see something they already know rather than something they don't. The problem with this is that they may be denying themselves an opportunity to experience a new thing that they could actually enjoy; and by extension, they could be denying that opportunity to others who actually are seeking out new experiences. If we take the patrons' risk-adversion too far we end up with a ballet company that only does "The Nutcracker."

This is part of the reason why subsidization can be so important, by the way. It can allow arts organizations to take risks without fear that an artistic failure is going to ruin them.

Posted by: robertcostic | February 2, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

This is a great issue to discuss. But maybe your article should ask not what the Audience wants, but what the Donors want. I've seen many examples of audiences turning out for new and unusual programming, and I know many people who never want to see yet another Boheme. But operating a performing arts organization in this country means that even if the house is full, there is debt to overcome. That's where the Donors wield the loudest voice, and Donors are often more conservative than Audiences with their money.

Symphonies and opera companies are notoriously slow to change, either because they lack the acumen and resource to do so or because they are so beholden to Donors who like things they way they have always been (or at least how they remember them).

Ultimately, it's about mission. If a company's mission is to be a sort of performing opera museum or merely an entertainment source, then let it stick with the ABC's. But if the mission is to advance opera and the creative spirit that's driven it for 400 years, then it needs to program and produce accordingly and find ways to education its audience about the worth of that mission.

Though people get nervous when I say it in my own company, the mission is more important than the audience (obviously, they are both very important). If a company can't build donor and audience support for its mission, then maybe the company isn't necessary.

Posted by: tuckerc | February 2, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

This whole topic is news to me, as I live right across from Lincoln Center and do not personally know anybody who doesn't love Wozzeck, the Bartok string quartets, Elliot Carter and Luigi Dallapiccola.

Posted by: ScottRose | February 2, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Anne, you said it best several days ago in your article on classical music recordings. Surprisingly, no one commented when you wrote, “If classical music can’t make money, it can’t stay alive.”

That’s really the essence of the question you’ve posed and is the programmer’s dilemma. Program the chestnuts and those who want something new complain. Program new music and the bulk of the audience stays away. It’s been going on for decades. The orchestra answer is to tuck the new music between Beethoven and Bach and hope no one pays too much attention.

One poster says he doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t like Wozzeck, Eliot Carter, Luigi Dallapiccola et al. I suspect there are more people, however, who couldn’t be dragged to a performance of Berg or Carter despite its critical acclaim. And, remember, if you can’t make money, you can’t stay alive…..

Greg Sandow has, in the past, I thought, spent some time thinking about rock and roll and other “popular” music. Don’t the same issues apply here as well? The critical darlings draw small audiences to clubs. The acts that fill arenas and make all the money are sneered at by the rock and roll equivalents of snaketime.

So, if you’re an arts group and you want to survive, what do you do? Program a Berg festival and go slowly out of business? Program lots of Puccini? Beethoven? Most, I think, try to strike a balance. But, doing that will never satisfy either extreme. Pity the poor programmers. My fear is that the polarization and lack of tolerance in our politics and society in general is showing up here. Passion is wonderful, but it has to be tempered with reality.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | February 2, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I read this article over breakfast but needed some time to digest it, and I'm glad to have read through the comments. I particularly like tuckerc's point that it's really about the Donors as opposed to 'audiences'. And also the Mission- which also probably comes back to the Donors, as they're the ones on the Board.

I've already commented about the Met's new opera program on another thread (basically, I'd be more excited about it if it some of this projects started to bear fruit), but I think organisations like the Minnesota Opera seem to have the right balance of works, or approaching unfamiliar works by familiar composers (an interesting gambit which doesn't seem that common- a good edition of La finta giardineria instead of the millionth revival of Figaro, for example... or, better yet, Finta in one season then Figaro the next to show the development...).

With this tug in two directions that most commenters have referred to- is this the beginning of the end of the subscription series? Years ago, an orchestra in my home town tried to create a parallel series of concerts featuring new, or fairly new, adventurous programming. It sold well and got good press, but the target audience- young 'uns like myself- just don't believe in committing to a subscription a year in advance. The series died after just one year. Of course the gradual death of subscriptions would mean a major re-think for most organisations, but would it improve programming or just lead to endless warhorses to fill seats?

I think the other issue is that a lot of new operas in America just haven't been that great. I'm always excited to see them get up on stage, but the music, more often than not, doesn't make a decent case of new opera. In a discussion in comments on Greg's blog, he made me snort coffee out of my nose with his spot-on description of most new American operas- taking the Great American Novel to give a good hook for the audiences, with the music making the appropriate bumps and squeaks, more like a film soundtrack than an opera score. The end result is that the audience hears a new American opera as a pale imitation of Puccini.

The person who figures out how to resolve this will be giving Kaiser a run for his money.

Posted by: ianw2 | February 2, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

This whole discussion ignores the fact that there are many people, especially young people, who have never seen any live opera.

These people might want to start with the "classics" before exploring other operas.

And it is not helpful when music critics refer to the classics as "war horses." One definition of war horse is "a piece of music that is familiar and hackneyed because of too frequent performance."

What is a war horse for a music critic may be a piece of music that many of us in the symphony orchestra or opera audience have never heard in live performance.

Posted by: CarlosMaryland | February 2, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

“It does seem odd to me that classical music, almost alone among the arts, so strongly stresses old pieces.” (Gregory Sandow)

Not true. America’s great art museums stress Western artworks from the past, along with newer and brand new works. The Metropolitan and National Gallery of Art picture and sculpture galleries range from Cimabue, Giotto, and Leonardo to Norman Wilfred Lewis, Byron Kim, and Roxy Paine.

And when the Grammy Award winning San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, visits the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March, it will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, Liszt‘s Tasso: Lament and Triumph, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Victor Kissine’s Post-scriptum, which is to be given its world premiere in San Francisco on March 4, 2010, and which is dedicated to MTT and the SFS.

“Braver” local audiences can also sample the wide-ranging “alternative classical” programming of the august Library of Congress – such groups as Alarm Will Sound, Fireworks Ensemble, Guy Livingston, and the Jack Quartet -- as well as The Great Noise Ensemble and the Roger Reynolds Ensemble at the National Gallery of Art.

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 2, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

The simple fact is, it's about money.

In the traditional European system, arts are publicly funded. Institutions are free to challenge the limits of the public's taste without endangering their livelihood. The public comes to expect it and over a period of time the horizons broaden.

Here in the US we depend on donors, and in case of music on ticket sales. There is a lot less wiggle room.

Oh, and let's make sure not to forget that to many people it is all of course very 'elitist' and 'un-american'

Posted by: dundili | February 2, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Different people have different depths of attachment to music. Anne’s example of being shown a different movie when you go to see Avatar gives away a whole cultural perspective, where music is just entertainment. A better analogy would be, how would you feel if you came home one day and a stranger showed up, saying, “I’ll be your spouse tonight.” Or, perhaps, if you go to Mass, being offered a spiked communion wafer, so you can experience something new. Even if some of us might think this would be thrilling, most of us would wisely prefer to do without the experience.

To those of us who have an emotional attachment to music, music is not just entertainment that we purchase for a one-night stand. The music that we love – and “love” here is the operative word – is music that we want to hear more than once. It is music whose relatives we are willing to consider as part of our family. And, every once in a while, we meet strangers, musical offerings that fit into our social framework.

When an orchestra forces music down my ears that I don’t want to hear, it is not just selling me something for which I did not want to pay. It is an assault on my relationship with the music: it is an assault on who I am. It is not for the orchestra, or the opera or, with all due respect, for the music critic, to tell me to what I am supposed to listen, any more than it is their business to tell me who I am.

As a scientist, and not a musician, I can understand the appeal of the new, of discovery, of going, in the immortal phrase of one of my elementary school classmates, “where the hand of Man has not set foot.” But the success of science is predicated on careful filtering before new results are accepted. Not every laboratory measurement or theoretical proposal is immediately transferred into high school or college textbooks. New results are not even published in scholarly journals without review. The most speculative ideas are tested in seminars and meetings, where they are subject to examination and rigorous criticism. There is a considered welcome of the new, not a tyranny of the new.

No such quality control seems to exist in the world of music. No objective criteria seem to be brought to bear on the output of the many people who call themselves composers, except for their feeling of entitlement, to which music critics sometimes, unfortunately, pander. The end result can be collections of musical platitudes packaged by musicians into productions that may be applauded for reasons having to do more with political correctness than musical taste. There is also an unfortunate train of thought in our culture, according to which art, to be art, has to be transgressive. Musicians subscribing to this view feel entitled to have their music heard precisely because it is “bad” – the badder, the less the sounds fit into recognizable patterns, the better.

This is all fine for communities of musicians and their groupies. But established musical institutions are in the business of selling music that fits into my musical family. If I want to meet strangers, I can go to a bar, or join a club, or talk to people on the Metro. There are venues for checking out “new” music, and Anne and her colleagues do an outstanding job of keeping us informed where to go to expand one’s horizons. But, when I go to the opera or to a concert, I am purchasing a (very expensive) ticket, and committing a substantial portion of my discretionary time, for a certain kind of experience. I want neither the business, nor the cultural critics, to tell me what experience I should be having, nor do I want to find out I’ve unknowingly ended up by purchasing street drugs.

Perhaps the most germane summary comment can be found in today’s Washington Post ("Virginia Senate bills say no to requiring health insurance"): "I don't believe someone should be forced to buy something they don't want to," said Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, a Democrat who represents rural Russell County. "It's un-American. And it might be unconstitutional."

Posted by: gauthier310 | February 2, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Well, I think it’s about money, but really it’s about economics. Supply and demand. Most performing arts institutions, especially the larger ones, are supply driven. The NSO performs 20+ weeks per year because they have a contract that requires them to pay their players whether they perform or not.

But, ticket buyers are demand driven. They buy tickets if they’re interested and stay away if not, depending, of course, on the price. Arts groups have to program to the demand. For better or worse, there is more demand for Beyonce than there is for Berg. And, for that matter, there is more demand for Beethoven than Berg.

It seems to me rather than berating arts organizations for their programming choices, you should be trying to find ways to increase demand for classical music. That’s something that will benefit all of us. With enough demand, arts groups will program Berg and Carter more regularly. And, if demand continues to decline, it will all be an academic point.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | February 2, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

gauthier310- since you are a scientist, I would be interested to hear your theories on how you feel "quality control" can be implemented on composition to sort out these "so called composers". What will be the control group?

I believe that history has generally done the quality control- when was the last time you heard a Meyerbeer opera? Or anything by Hummel (considered Beethoven's equal at the time)? Or god knows how many other people were fapping their string quartets around Vienna in the early 1800s.

So a fertile scene for new works- even if a lot of them are crap (I am looking at Heggie, in particular)- is a vital breeding ground for history to eventually sort it all out. If orchestras just keep playing Beets and Tchaiks (and in my native country, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is on permanent rotation)- what will audiences of 2110 be complaining about as their warhorses? Or perhaps, as the doomsayers believe, this whole orchestral model will already be consigned to the history books by then anyway.

And although I'm getting into dangerous territory here, and I admit I haven't really thought it through, don't orchestras (and opera companies) have a responsibility to develop new work in return for earning off the backs of Beethoven, Tchakovsky and Puccini?

Posted by: ianw2 | February 2, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The idea that unsuspecting audience members are 'forced' to endure torturous pieces of music is absurd. Programs are clearly advertised months in advance; if you object to one of the pieces then get up and leave, come late, or don't buy a ticket.

What I think is lost in this discussion is that each audience is unique, and what works in one community will flop in another. The board of the New Hampshire festival learned the hard way that in order to be successful, programming decisions must proceed from a solid understanding of what your audience loves, likes, dislikes, and won't tolerate.

Posted by: dsoiseth | February 2, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

ianw2: "how you feel "quality control" can be implemented"

It really doesn't take a scientist to figure it out, and I didn't mean to presume, just to show an alternative model for incorporating new developments into a canon.

There is a fundamental fallacy in assuming that the only alternatives for music are either to be straightjacketed into the canon of mainstream concert hall performances, or disappearing altogether. As Anne and others make abundantly clear, there are a number of venues, where aspiring musicians can get a hearing and an audience willing to experiment. For example, I am looking forward to go see Shadowboxer at the Maryland Opera Studio/Clarice Smith Center, which is being shown quite properly by an academic department, which is not too far away, and where tickets are selling for a fraction of the WNO. If it is really good, word will get around and, some day, just never on Domingo, we might see it at the Kennedy Center.

Most academic departments offer free concerts of music by their faculty and students; outside of academic departments there are house concerts, bar concerts, even movie concerts. Others above have commented on how series or single concerts of lesser known and new works have had support. Efforts like the Millenium Stage and, especially, Strathmore, are building an audience based on giving people an opportunity to hear what things sound like, before making it into the canon.

There are two things that turn off us Philistines who buy the tickets that help pay the bills: having to listen to things we would rather hear in a different context, and being stigmatized
for liking the things that we do. There has been an awful lot of music written in the last 400 years and no one contributing to this blog has listened to all of it. Like it or not, Beethoven and Mozart and (name your favorite composer) are the standard that aspiring musicians have to meet. That also is the standard that listeners putting us Philistines down for listening to the things we know and like need to educate themselves to appreciate, if they don't do so already.

And, by the way, I am listening to Hummel's bassoon concerto even as I write.

Posted by: gauthier310 | February 2, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations to Ms Midgette for bringing people out to talk.

My two cents: Washington has always been a town of posturers; people on the make politically and their retainers, mostly lawyers. There is no way such a Potemkin culture can hope to support a first-rate orchestra, because that requires lots of endowed funds, a knowledgeable audience, and a commitment to stability in both the players and music directors.

Washington changes conductors at about the same rate as Presidents. No one settles in and, without that long-term commitment, deeply-felt, expert music-making will not be heard. Just another so-so orchestra, getting by on visiting conductors and soloists. How can any group of musicians rise above rote performances when there is no one in residence willing to put in the time to not only develop a repertoire but to put a personal stamp on it? Has the National Symphony ever essayed Bruckner? Could it?

Look what Levine has done over decades with the Met's orchestra (and chorus); ditto Tilson Thomas in SF. So it can be done, but it requires a sophisticated audience and the funds, neither of which DC has. If you want idiomatic music making centered on the Central Europeans, you need to move.

Posted by: JohnRDC | February 2, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

There's always a tension between playing it safe and getting outside an audience's comfort zone. As co-artistic director of a small, yet thriving chamber music festival, I've found that many audience members bristle when confronted with something a little different: Messiaen's Quartet, say, or Ligeti's Horn Trio. But the musicians are interested in stretching their abilities and crave the opportunity to play something outside the common-practice period alongside a late Schubert quartet. My job is to find a balance -- risking alienating a portion of the audience by programming the Adagio movement from Berg's Chamber Concerto is balanced by the tremendous satisfaction that the musicians derive from the experience.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | February 2, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

My points are various, but I will attempt to bring them together somewhat.

I don't think that any "non-traditionalist" music supporter would advocate for completely doing away with the standard canonic pieces in Opera, Orchestra, Chamber music or otherwise. I completely agree that people who only want to hear these pieces should have a time and place for that to happen. It seems to me that it always seems to be an issue of black and white, have or have not, when it comes to new music or creative programming. Couldn't the answer be some shade of grey? There is a substantial market of people who are looking to see works that are unfamiliar. Their "right" to have a place to go and hear them is just as undeniable as the conservative concert-goers' right to Puccini, Verdi or Mozart. It would be wonderful if both parties could find what they are looking for in the same cultural institutions--that is, large orchestras or opera companies find that certain shade of grey.

My second observation, which I feel is inextricably tied to this issue is the manner in which all works are presented by any arts institution. The fact is that the environment in which works are presented should be reflective of their target audience.

As said in previous posts, "A"rt "M"usic institutions have made a habit of bad business practices--their product does not reflect demand. The orchestra industry is largely overextended, with concert houses too big to fill and attempts at full sized orchestras in every metropolitan center. These institutions have become too big for their own good and are paralyzed by their size. If these organizations were a size that was on par with the level of demand, this problem would undoubtedly be less of an issue.

Posted by: sdeveraux | February 2, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

There is an assumption that Arts Agencies are playing the "old" repertoire for the very same people over and over. But new people are discovering Beethoven and Tchaikovsky all the time and the young and not so young deserve to hear truly great works. I'm a regional orchestra music director and I program many new works(as in: written very recently) listed as "most performed" by the League of American Orchestras. Frankly, few of them are worthy of the trouble and virtually none are going to be heard in 5 years. I do it so our audience knows what others are hearing. Then we move on and play repertoire that the orchestra AND the audience really wants to hear. BY THE WAY -think of those old Hollywood movies (from the 1940's) that included scenes that took place at concerts. There were inevitably shots of the audience. What age were they? They were in their 50's, 60's and 70's. Even in the 1940's the audiences were not primarily 30 somethings.....

Posted by: JLMus | February 2, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

ianw2 asks.”Of course the gradual death of subscriptions would mean a major re-think for most organisations, but would it improve programming or just lead to endless warhorses to fill seats?”

This hits the nail of the head. Subscriptions enable an audience member to place their trust in the performing organisation to provide a balance of new and old, familiar and not. Of course the trust has to be earned with respect to quality repertoire, artists, communication, customer service etc. If/as that sales model breaks down, every concert competes with every other concert, and there is a strong temptation to rely on warhorses, or gradually abandon classical music in favour of various pops extravaganzas. It may just be that consumer habits are changing along with everything else though, and that kind of trust is just old-fashioned. (Is there a parallel with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which seems to have faded, or splintered.)

The definition of a warhorse changes too – where, for instance, do you place a Schumann symphony or Wieniawski violin concerto in this spectrum of ‘standard works’. Are Brahms’ Tragic Overture or Schubert’s Tragic Symphony disqualified by their titles? Of the people who can hum Beethoven’s 5th, how many have heard of Berlioz?

The NYP online archive of programs provides a fascinating look at past fashions in programming that long predate the era of ‘Subscribe Now’ - For one who enjoys the unfamiliar, though not necessarily new combined with the familiar, the imaginative mid-20th century programs of Andre Kostelanetz are eye-opening. Not elevator music by any means.

For the death of subscriptions to improve programming requires a high degree cooperation between musical/artistic direction, marketing, outreach and fund-raising in a orchestra or opera company, as well as the support of the community at large and interest of local media to try to insure that every concert is somehow special and has special relevance to some significant segment of the potential audience. More people will attend fewer times and it will mean more to them.

On an unrelated topic, do you bloggers ever address the state of for-credit music courses offered by colleges and universities to non-music majors, what used to be known as ‘Music Appreciation’, and still is in some places. Do they have a role to play in audience development, broadly defined? From what I can tell, Western Classical Music is being displaced by any number of pop, ethno, sociology of art sorts of courses. Is this market driven, or have music faculties just lost interest?

Posted by: mirt | February 3, 2010 2:19 AM | Report abuse

Old music, new music, does it matter? What's important is a sense of excitement and discovery in the concert hall, a feeling that you've experienced something genuinely profound and important. And you can get that in an all-Vivaldi program (think Giuliano Carmignola and Andrea Marcon) as easily as you can in the latest bleeding-edge offerings by the 21st Century Ensemble.

The problem is that classical music has such a widespread reputation for being stuffy and boring and elitist, that a lot of otherwise intelligent people would rather stay home watching "Lost" than head to the concert hall.

That needs to change. Absolutely, keep the mainstays -- there's a lot there to love. But programming the Beethoven 7th and Tchaikovsky 6th for the gazillionth time, rarely straying from the tried-and-true, only exacerbates classical's reputation for stodginess. Biig expensive operations like the NSO are obliged to be fairly risk-averse, of course. But if you don't take a few risks, people will take you for dead.

So -- how to change this? Music directors need to get off their duffs. Instead of just sneaking new works into traditional programs and crossing their fingers, they need to do a much better job of selling new music to a wider public. Of convincing people that tonight's program of Lachenmann and Finnissy and Gubaidulina is going to be a real event -- the wildest thing they've ever heard. (Same goes for an all-Brahms program, of course.) Explain, promote, be provocative, get people interested. Expand the audience!

Sorry if all that sounds horribly mercenary and "un-classical" -- but it really needs to be done, and it's long overdue.

Posted by: StephenBrookes | February 3, 2010 3:27 AM | Report abuse

Important topic, but I think your reference to the New Hampshire Music Festival was off topic. I visited that Festival this summer and the protests were not about tradition vs. new music, but about an effort to displace musicians who had been with the festival for years. The musicians were supported by community leaders and audience members who had developed relationships with them over the years. The new management wanted to re-audition the entire orchestra. This in itself is an interesting topic, but not related to the new music question.

Posted by: fishmanj | February 3, 2010 6:31 AM | Report abuse

@JohnRDC - The NSO doesn't play Bruckner annually (as it now does Mahler), but there hasn't been a complete dearth. Rostropovich had an unexpected affinity for Bruckner and programmed his music several times while music director. A guest conductor (was it John Eliot Gardiner?) performed the earliest extant version of Bruckner's 4th (complete with a totally different scherzo) a few years ago. I suspect that the NSO's record of Bruckner performance is comparable to that of most comparable orchestras.

On the broader issue, I remember to this day a performance of K.A. Hartmann's Fourth Symphony by the San Antonio Symphony that I attended in 1953. (That's not a typo.) Half the audience was gone by the end, but the rest of us offered as thunderous an ovation as half an audience can muster. Plus ca change ...

Still, when I conduct my annual survey of coming seasons of a dozen or so orchestras within easy reach of Washington, I am reminded of how unadventurous most of them are. And I can't say I blame them. If you don't give the audience what they want, they won't buy tickets. At the risk of ghettoizing new music, I think we'll just have to trust the less traditional venues for most of our really adventurous listening.

And any time I think the tastes of the audience may be broadening, I look at the WETA playlist. That's enough to scotch all hope.

Posted by: BobL | February 3, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Viva Bruckner!

The NSO last performed Bruckner within the past year -- under the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt.

The Washington Post music critic offered a rather strange, quasi-condescending review in the print edition, and was properly countered in the comment box by reader Doug Halfen.

WETA-FM featured Bruckner's Te Deum this past Sunday at 9:30 PM in a recording from Stuttgart, under Helmut Rilling.

And BobL, all local orchestral audiences are far more intelligent than the repeatedly market-surveyed target audience of the new Classical WETA-FM.

(By the way, despite donating this past year to the former Washington National Opera, the company never called us to ask whether we prefer war-horses or well-curated programming. No donation this year!)

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 3, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

One thing that we should keep in mind when we talk about giving audiences what they want is that this is not necessarily a matter of old vs. new music. An opera like "Der Freischütz" is popular in Germany (though perhaps less so today than it used to be) yet not so much here. Examples could continue.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | February 3, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

BobL & snaketime1- I share your frustruation with WETA... I gave up listening to it in the morning when I heard the Rach Symphonic Dances for what felt like the tenth time in as many days... but thanks to the glories of the internet I earnestly encourage you check out France's Radio Classique or Australia's ABC-FM.

Posted by: ianw2 | February 3, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

With respect to opera, I really only know what I want: great singing that does something to me and beautiful music. Give me that and I'll come to the opera, often.

I can also tell you what I don't like in opera: "in the style of...", "historically accurate...", "elegant", blah, blah, blah. Most Mozart operas seem to be performed this way.

American, Italian, German, old, new, I don't really care. If the singing is so great that it moves me deeply, the singer can stand in the middle of the stage in a bowl of jello and sing their name for 3 hours and I'd come. But the singing would have to be pretty outstanding.

So really, if you want ME to come to the opera, find some great singers and put them in a position to really sing. I'm willing to spend quite a bit of money for that. And I'll go more than once. The latest Gotterdamerung at WNO was a good example of that.

Posted by: MikeP19858 | February 3, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Anne: I'm not convinced your film analogy holds water; that sort of bait-and-switch never happens in the concert hall. If an orchestra announces Beethoven, it plays Beethoven, not Xenakis; and if it ever plays Xenakis, you'll know ahead of time. As has been pointed out, people almost never end up hearing anything they don't want to (or as the popular cliche goes, "having it shoved down their throat")--we can come late or leave early or, for heaven's sake, just not go to that concert. Even on those rare occasions when I have to sit through Schumann's Fourth because I want to hear the pieces before and after it, it would never occur to me to demand indignantly that the orchestra never ever play Schumann's Fourth.

Also, you do seem to imply that there's some clear-cut, obvious division between familiar and unfamiliar works, likeable and unlikeable. On one hand, there are zillions of people who have never heard Butterfly or Beethoven's Fifth. On the other, what do you do with--oh, I don't know, The Abduction From the Seraglio? Is it standard rep or not? Should it be staged ("shoved down people's throats") for those who love it, or who won't mind giving it a try, or be avoided in deference to those who don't know it and who don't wanna know it and who pay good money, etc, etc.? It would be so easy if every work ever written could be sorted into one of two boxes; then we'd just program every concert from Box A and the problem would be solved.

Another thing that separates classical music from other forms of art is that in other fields, incuriousness is considered a character flaw. In classical music, it's coddled, and rationalized at length. Every piece of music that is loved by anyone--every intimate, fulfilling relationship between artwork and auditor--was the result of a first encounter. And if you had decided I-don't-want-to-hear-anything-unfamiliar BEFORE you had discovered those works you now love, whatever they are, then where would you be?

Posted by: gborchert | February 3, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure I can agree with the premise of this discussion: that people necessarily know what they want, at least as far as repertoire choices are concerned. (I agree with the above post--we all want outstanding performances, regardless of the work being performed).

Part of the joy of music is discovery; hearing a composer for the first time and being blown away. And if you hate a new piece, well, use it as a reminder of all the things you love about Mozart.

Of course, this is easier to say when the tickets are cheap. Opera is a different beast. If you don't know the opera, or the composer, you have to judge whether or not you can afford to be irritated or bored.

The unacceptable answer is to function solely as curators, to consider the canon closed to new members. At that point, classical music moves from partial into total irrelevancy.

Posted by: plefevre | February 3, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

How refreshing (though a little less rare than it used to be) for a music critic to acknowledge, with admirable self-awareness, that her desire for the new, different and challenging are not typical of the overall audience, and not to criticize the audience for it!

Yet here, and in his own blog, Greg Sandow is right--this can't go on forever, with the established audience dying out (which is indisputably happening), and a new one neeeded to keep the music going. So, it's up to every classical institution (including my own, public radio) to do something to move the good ship classical forward, lest it become forever stuck in time.

In my radio programming, I have an informal policy of scheduling something by a living composer every day. Big deal, right? Well, you'd be surprised (or maybe not) how many stations don't even do that much. But it can't be just anything. It must, in my judgment, have the potential to engage the listener tuned in for the great old works, while also clearly coming from its own time and place. Of course, there's no real way in radio to track the audience's reaction to one piece. But our overall audience is healthy and growing, so the new things are either helping or not doing too much damage!

For those programming for concerts and operas as well as radio, I think the key word is "judgment." Of course, money and politics play a big role in determining what gets commissioned and revived. But what will really help, and is already helping, is a new generation of artistic leaders (on- and off-stage) in very close touch with both the the best music of their time and of the tastes of their audience, and who can bring the best of the former to the latter in a way that makes them anticipate the next discovery with delight, not dread.

Posted by: johnmontanari | February 3, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

This has turned into a wonderful discussion, save for the clown who always derides Washington and its audiences.

My view about new music (or older music I haven't heard) is this: How will I know if I like it if I don't hear it? I have no patience with those who look at a composer's dates and decide from them that he/she is not worth hearing.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | February 3, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

After reading Midgette's Sony-Lang Lang post, I've come to the conclusion that there is an interesting parallel between some of the comments about more adventurous productions put on essentially by less expensive performers, for example the WNO before Domingo (c-clef's comment), and the repertory released on classical music CDs by less expensive performers. Does this mean that you cannot have adventurous programming unless you have so many small organizations that not only are willing to take risks, but have to take them to survive by filling a niche or getting noticed? How do you get the big organization that is so concerned about losing their audience and donors to take greater risks? (Perhaps we need a Citibank Symphony Orchestra?)

Posted by: prokaryote | February 3, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

We already have the Deutsche Bank – Berliner Philharmoniker partnership.
Will the NSO ever perform Ligeti or Kurtag, as the DB – BPh is performing this month?

The Kurtag work even features a guitar.

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 3, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

An 'attractive and fit' 17 year-old female legally auctions off her virginity on-line for 30000 sdr’s in order to pay for her university tuition. (WP Express Feb 3, 2010)

Posted by: snaketime1 | February 4, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

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