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?
Toronto, April 14, 2003. The entrance to the large factory space at Cherry Beach Sound in Toronto’s docklands has been renovated with various vintage items of Arctic travel and resembles a museum of exploration as much as an alternative opera venue. The audience (slightly frigid as a result of an unseasonably cold April) passes through the long atrium and arrives at the starkly lit entrance to the performance space as if entering into another carefully constructed reality. The occasion is the premiere of Linda C. Smith’s Facing South, an opera (based on a libretto by Don Hannah) that looks at Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole, and has been commissioned, workshopped, and produced by Tapestry New Opera Works, an opera company whose mission is to create new works for the operatic stage.
I have a terrible confession to make. When I was 13 or so, I loved to watch chess tournaments on PBS. Shelby Lyman, I believe, was the host of these programs, and they were surprisingly campy. On the particular fateful day that I’m thinking of, for instance, Tim Rice (frequent librettist for Andrew Lloyd-Webber) appeared as guest authority, on the basis of his musical “Chess.” I not only watched, but taped, this program; puberty was wreaking havoc on my judgement. Right afterwards, a Verdi opera, Falstaff, came on; I let the VCR record this too. Of course I didn’t know from Falstaff, but whoa dude! I was entranced, delighted, smitten; I sat, glued, inches from the grainy screen, and watched while my mother yelled at me to vacuum my room or something; and when the final fugue happened and all the characters in the last joyous bars vanished from the stage leaving merely the empty forest landscape, leaving the impression that it had all been a beautiful dream … well, I was beside myself, a happy happy tween. 84-year-old Verdi had come, perhaps in the nick of time, to rescue 13-year-old me from associates of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
When Drew asked me to write for TAFTO I immediately agreed as it has been a favorite series of mine to read especially since it is such a proactive approach. However since I am mostly in performances and not watching them, I was initially stumped on the angle to take. I have invited many friends to attend in the past, some have become subscribers and one recently became a board member and now heads up Crescendo, a patrons social group at the Springfield Symphony that she herself formed. Since I write extensively on the subject of Orchestras and their relationships with their audiences and communities over on Sticks and Drones, I decided to bring to TAFTO an assignment that I gave to my Audience Connections class at Drury University. The assignment was to do a review of two different performances by the Springfield Symphony, one a Classics, the other a Pops. The class had 4 students last semester so 2 went to the Classics and 2 to the Pops and I sat them in different parts of the hall. These however were reviews with a twist (literally), for they were not there to review the orchestra’s performance, because I told them to turn their backs on us and instead review the audience!
Half of my job as a teacher is simply to put young ears and eyes in contact with classical music and art. In my experience, if you can do that with a modicum of knowledge and enthusiasm about the subject and then just get out of the way, the aesthetic experience does the work of conversion in most cases. Although the background can be handled in a classroom or in a conversation with a friend, the real magic has to happen live, with the visual sparkle of paint on canvas or the crackle of musicians in unified attack in the concert hall.
Three years ago I was a classical newbie. The day I started to switch was just a hair after my 24th birthday, and three years further on it is a process very much in development. Before that transition point I had barely more than a baseline exposure to the genre, being able to recognize Beethoven’s fifth (well, as long as it was the first movement) and listening to each of the three classical CDs in my collection for perhaps a few hours each year, if they were lucky. Classical music was something to daintily dip my toes into, not to dive under.
What do you love about going to the symphony?
This is the question I asked the readers on my website, Violinist.com, which has a lively discussion board populated with professional musicians, enthusiastic amateurs, teenage students, their parents, teachers and fans of the violin.
Taking a friend to the orchestra is a bit of a tricky matter when you play in the orchestra. Most of my friends either play in the Calgary Philharmonic themselves, or have been coming to concerts their whole lives. And when I do get to know someone from a different sphere, and find they’re enthusiastic about hearing an orchestra for the first time, I’m not always in the best position to guide them through it. I’ll be up on stage, hoping they managed to get there, didn’t feel too lost or bored, and maybe we’ll get an opportunity for a post-concert chat. I don’t get to help them out or answer their questions, at least until after the concert has ended.
One of my most interesting and inspiring experiences as a conductor happened in China, but it had nothing to do with taking a friend to a concert. It had more to do with taking people in general to a place in life and the arts they didn’t know before. I want to link my Chinese experience to the topic of taking a friend to the orchestra. Taking a friend to the orchestra is really about sharing a meaningful experience, and sometimes that means trusting somebody to lead you into a field with which you are unfamiliar.