TAFTO 2009 Contribution: Giancarlo Guerrero

Now that we have a good idea of what makes classical music special and the importance of non-musical elements on the overall concert experience along with taking an amusing look at concertgoing stereotypes, it is time to hear from an artistic leader at an organization that has been successfully putting all of this into practice. Nashville Symphony music director, Giancarlo Guerrero, shares some recent experiences interacting with new and potential patrons in Music City, USA. ~ Drew McManus

When it comes to getting people interested in what we do, I’m afraid there’s no magic bullet. It’s just not like that. The essential thing is for us to work hard to make the concert experience memorable from the moment they walk through the door. Even something small, like the way the ushers treat them or the conversation they have with the coat-check person, can make visitors feel special. In short, every concert needs to be an event. And everyone on the inside needs to give it their all, because everyone is part of creating an amazing two hours.

At the same time, for the experience to be as direct, engaging and unforgettable as possible, we must remove the aura and the mysticism that surrounds classical music for some people. No one should believe there’s something wrong with them just because they may not like a certain piece of music. Some will be moved, and some will not. Some things will have more impact than others. It’s that simple. Our job is to help take the pressure off. We should encourage guests, for example, to attend the pre-concert lectures, where the music – as well as the men and women who wrote it – can be made more approachable and less intimidating. In fact, when the Nashville Symphony performs new music, we often include the composers in these events so they can talk frankly and revealingly about themselves and the music they write. There’s no question that this makes the experience of hearing that composer’s piece far more rewarding.

Ultimately, we should help listeners understand that the best music is an incredibly personal statement from the composer. When Beethoven wrote a symphony, he wrote it based on what he was feeling at the time. He wrote it to express something meaningful. When a listener connects with a piece of music, he or she is on the receiving end of a very personal message that can include a wide range of emotions, from the most complex to the most basic. It’s all very public, of course, since it’s played live before nearly two thousand people, but it’s also very private at the same time. For me, that’s a huge part of the unique attraction of what we do, and of what we have to offer.

Here in Nashville, we are extremely fortunate to have Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a fantastic new venue that offers every visitor the chance for a special experience. Because of its beauty and impressive scale, people simply like being in the hall. That’s exactly what I hear, for example, from some neighbors of ours, a husband and wife I invited to our opening concert earlier this year. They had never been to a concert here before, even though they enjoy good music. Like my wife and me, they are relatively new to Nashville; they had definitely heard about the new concert hall on the news, but it had not yet captivated them. They are a young couple with two kids, so going out at night is not always an option. The husband was more interested in sports, but I knew that his wife, who teaches accounting at Vanderbilt University, would probably want to come to a concert. So I told her that I’d give her a pair of tickets as long as she promised to bring along her husband, and that’s just what she did.

They came to the season-opening all-Gershwin Gala and – guess what – they were completely blown away. Yes, it was opening night and a sold-out concert, and there was so much electricity in the hall adding to the excitement. But it really got to the husband. He couldn’t believe it. Several months later we had them to the house for dinner and all he did was talk about the orchestra. He said that because he had expected to be bored, and thought it was going to be so painful, the positive impact for him was probably 20 times greater than it might be for somebody else. Now he has become a groupie. He asks me for recommendations on what he should see, and they are thinking about becoming subscribers. They love being in the hall, they love the elegance of the experience, drinking the wine, everything. Since they’re my friends and neighbors, you’d think they would mainly want to see me when I conduct, but since that opening night, they have come to see other things here as well, when I wasn’t even in town.

All in all, you just have to be patient. We can’t expect that we will suddenly have new subscribers. But you can open up new possibilities for people. In my mind, there’s really nobody out there who isn’t capable of getting on board. Sometimes it’s the least likely candidate, like my neighbor, the sports fan, who turns out to be one of the most passionate of all.