A few weeks ago, Kurt Masur returned to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra after an absence of 17 years. I had played for him before, but never with Cleveland, where he had been a favorite for many years before he got his position in New York. From the first moments of rehearsal it was clear that this was going to be a very special week of music-making. Masur appears to be somewhat frail, but his experience and passion for the music made Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony come alive with a tremendous clarity right from the first bars.
The experience of actually seeing an orchestra live is magical. Bows moving in tandem, melodies flitting from section to section, the anticipation of the crowd, the conductor waving his arms–it is a thrill unique to the orchestral concert experience. Audio and video recordings can’t even come close to the feeling of actually being there, hearing music being created in that moment, filling the hall with sound and then dissipating just as quickly.
First off, let me say that I often won’t even try to take an uninitiated friend to an orchestra concert, in part because many of my friends already are enthusiastic concertgoers.
Maybe I find that there is so much less to talk about with those who seem apathetic or antagonistic about symphony concerts…heck, I’ve found that I’m related to some of them.
I spent my early years exposed to lots of concert music — operetta, movie musicals, “light-classical” stuff on the radio, and some Victor Red Seal records that my father had bought before the Great Depression made it impossible to spend money on anything but the bare necessities. I had even spent two seasons at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s student concerts. So, yes, I enjoyed music, particularly the shows put on at the St. Louis Muny Opera every summer.
One of the most exciting orchestra concerts I’ve ever attended was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on Boston Common in September of 1998. The police estimated that the crowd was 80,000 people strong, and as I recall most of them stood packed, shoulder-to-shoulder over an area the size of a football field in front of the stage. Seiji Ozawa, whose 50th anniversary as music director was being celebrated, was ill, and Assistant Conductor Federico Cortese conducted the first movements, but it was announced that Ozawa would take the podium for the final movement, the Ode to Joy. But after only two movements, Cortese left the stage. Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer described Ozawa’s surprise early arrival: “There was some applause as the soloists entered and took their positions, but the real thrill came on the giant video screen, where the audience could see Ozawa standing in the wings, speaking quietly to Cortese. A few seconds later, Ozawa took a deep breath and walked on, as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the audience leapt up, and even the orchestra applauded.” I remember extended cheering and raucous applause. Where, we might ask, did these 80,000 people come from, and where did they go after it was all over? Many of the standard explanations for the difficulties that orchestras have in appealing to the popular audience seem flimsy in the face of this overwhelming if short-lived response. Perhaps a good place to start would be to understand the differences between the popular music culture and the orchestra culture to see how they are difficult to integrate. I have been developing a conceptual model for analyzing the structure of the popular music culture and comparing it with the classical music culture which turns out to be quite revealing.
I didn’t see my first opera until my mid-20’s.
If I hadn’t entered this wonderful and crazy world as someone who works within the business, there’s a good chance I mightn’t have been around opera at all. I’m not an “insider,” and for the first part of my career, I felt the burden keenly. I got my first job in the opera business at age 29, and I always seemed to be surrounded by colleagues who were singing along with the Met broadcasts before they knew how to read. For years I played “catch up,” and am still easily intimidated.
When I bring a friend to the opera, my hope is that they’ll be surprised, delighted, and moved by things they didn’t expect to see, hear, or feel. Depending on the opera, I also hope they’ll experience a reassuring frisson of recognition, whether at a melody or story line familiar from a novel, a play, a movie, a commercial, or a cartoon; or scenic elements lifted from pop culture or famous paintings. I hope they’ll be amazed at how good it is, and how seamlessly music, words, acting, movement, and visual richness blend into this irrational entertainment that at its best is so much more than the sum of its parts. I hope they’ll say or think “Wow!” repeatedly over the course of the evening. I hope they’ll leave wanting more, and wondering why it took them so long to check it out in the first place.
Is TAFTO a good idea? Really? Or is it simply a way to shift the responsibility for less-than-desired attendance from symphony orchestra management to the audience itself? If orchestras have money for advertising and PR, expertise in all things musical, and the attention of critics and the press, what can we as individual concert-goers possibly do to help?
When I took my seat at a recent performance of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia my friend seated next to me immediately said “you better read the program if you want to understand what’s going on.” At intermission I ran into another friend whose fist words were “I downloaded all the information about the 19th century Russian socialists from the website before coming – did you?” This was starting to feel an awful like the frantic comments exchanged between students before a lecture or an exam – not a pleasant feeling.
“So, you dare to think you might possibly be qualified to even consider buying a ticket for classical music concert? Really? But you don’t even have perfect pitch! And you surely don’t know the Kochel numbers of Mozart’s big works. Answer me this: what instruments use a double reed or when should you applaud in a concert? No, why don’t you just reconsider now and save yourself the embarrassment.”
Most of us only go to new places when our friends lead us there. Every marketing guru will tell you that sales are all about one-on-one relationships. I am convinced that in each of our cities, our orchestras can become the “now” phenomenon by involving the right connectors, mavens and salesmen as described in Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. We all love the music, and we want to share that love with everyone, but the way to get people through the door is to create a warm and inviting community, get people involved, and then make them feel good about the experience.
I write this having just returned from an extraordinary week in Beijing. The trip afforded me the fascinating opportunity to observe and discuss the diverse artistic initiatives now taking place throughout China. Through this trip, and to my surprise, I have come to realize two important truths. First, despite vast cultural differences, building audiences for live performances is a universal struggle. East or West, audience cultivation is the great and common challenge. We all share the burden that deficient arts education programs have caused, principally, a diminished understanding and appreciation for the discipline and value of artistic expression and the performers that make concerts and performances possible.
A few years ago it dawned on me that I was becoming apologetic about working in the arts. “Stuffy”, “out of touch”, “elitist”, you all know the claims. We hear them so often we can actually start to believe them. In our anti intellectual, populist society, the arts aren’t only marginalized, but really don’t exist at all for many people.