Each week, approximately 10,000 people come to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony. Of that number, nearly 1,500 people, or 15%, are coming for the very first time. What causes those 1,500 people to make the decision to come hear a live orchestra concert? Is it our marketing? Public relations? Word of mouth? An invitation from a friend?
The answer is likely some combination of all of the above. While it is important to understand what motivates people to make their purchasing decisions, I’d like to focus on what happens to those people after they’ve made their decision to attend – when they actually sit down and experience the music. One of the things I find fascinating about orchestras is how the concert-going experience can be both extremely public and intensely private at the same time. Think about it: You arrive at a concert hall along with hundreds, sometimes thousands of fellow audience members; you take your seat in an enormous room along with everyone else, amid lots of hustle and bustle; a group of extremely talented men and women make their way onto the stage, preparing to perform with astounding coordination and passion. It certainly seems like a communal experience.
Yet when the lights go down and the music begins, something magical happens: each member of the audience is suddenly alone, experiencing the music. You have absolutely no idea what the person sitting right beside you is thinking during the performance, or how the music is affecting them. Perhaps they are thinking about the oboist’s tone; or maybe they are admiring the composer’s voice-leading techniques or orchestration skills; maybe the music is taking them back to a memory from their childhood; perhaps they are still focused on that difficult meeting they had that afternoon at work.
I am continually intrigued and surprised by how music affects me. There are times when I arrive in my seat after a long and tiring day, half wishing I were somewhere else. And then BAM, something in the performance shocks me, moves me, transports me…and suddenly I’m hoping the concert never ends. How is music able to do that? Sometimes I have a completely different reaction to a piece I’ve heard many times before. Was it the performance? My mood? Sometimes my reaction to a particular piece changes over time. For example, I used to be completely overwhelmed by the Verdi Requiem; for some reason, in recent years whenever I’ve heard the piece it just hasn’t moved me at all (apologies to all those Verdi Requiem fanatics out there). As far as I know, Verdi hasn’t made any changes to his Requiem since I’ve started listening to it…so what is it about me that has changed?
Lately I’ve realized that almost every performance I attend prompts some specific memory of my mother, who passed away six years ago. Recently I heard Richard Goode performing a Mozart Piano Concerto, and as he walked out on stage I remembered how much my mother loved his recordings of the Mozart concertos with Orpheus; a few weeks before that, at a performance of the Sibelius 7th Symphony, my thoughts wandered back to the time I played that work in a youth orchestra, and I could clearly recall my mom’s beaming face in the audience; at a recent concert featuring Beethoven’s Eroica, I remembered the first time I ever heard the piece, sitting next to my mom at home watching Leonard Bernstein’s televised performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. I’ve actually come to look forward to and be comforted by the fact that live concerts have been providing me with these regular “encounters” with my mother’s memory.
Just as my mother’s memory has become a reliable and expected part of MY concert-going experience, every audience member comes into the hall with their own memories, their own pasts, and their own life’s journeys. Perhaps because I am always so aware of music’s amazing ability to affect me, I am also fascinated with how it affects others. Whenever I invite someone to hear an orchestra for the first time, I look forward to speaking with them immediately after the performance. First, my guests typically pepper me with questions:
“What does the conductor really do, anyway?”
“How can that piano soloist memorize so many notes?”
“Those musicians are amazing, how many weeks of rehearsals do they have for each concert?”
When I have a chance to ask them about their experience, the question I pose is always the same: “What was going through your mind during the concert?” And most of the time, my guests have to pause for a moment. They were so busy thinking about the external elements of the experience that they didn’t pay attention to their emotional response. But soon the answers come: Some found that they were focused completely on the details of the music and the musicians on the stage, others experienced emotions triggered by what they heard, and still others weren’t quite sure what they were feeling.
Maybe it is counterintuitive that as part of an effort aimed at encouraging people to bring a friend to an orchestra concert, I’m choosing to emphasize the solitary nature of the live concert experience. But it is an aspect of the experience that I don’t think is sufficiently celebrated. In fact, it seems that more and more frequently we encounter the argument that the format of orchestra concerts will have to change because people’s attention spans are getting shorter. We’ve all heard the refrain: “Nobody is willing to sit still for two hours anymore.” My response is that orchestras should not only celebrate but flaunt the fact we offer an increasingly rare opportunity for people to come into our concert halls, leave their daily existences behind and sit for a while, alone with the miraculous music our orchestras can produce…and with their own thoughts, dreams, and memories. Where else can you do that?