I love classical music, and I have set my novel, Perceval’s Secret, in the classical music world of the near future in Vienna, Austria. My future classical music world resembles the present as far as the concerts are concerned, but there’s a discussion going on in the classical music world about how the concert experience could be changed to draw in younger listeners and how to engage them. Attracting new audiences is an ongoing challenge and has been around for as long as there have been orchestras performing concerts.
Historically in America — perhaps this continues in Europe and Asia — music education began in elementary schools where kids took naturally to all kinds of music. It didn’t matter if it were classical or not. It was music. There was a strong instrumental program with a band and orchestra, and an equally strong choir program. I remember singing in the school choir through elementary, junior and high school. I played in the school band and orchestra until I was forced to stop playing the French horn due to teeth issues (the mouthpiece vibrations were cracking my teeth and it was painful to play). By the time I entered college, no one had to attract me to classical music concerts. I’d already been attending them, albeit community and school concerts, for years. This kind of music education continues in many American communities, but budget issues often cut music education before anything else.
Now we deal with young people who have not had the same exposure to classical music that I did growing up. Some don’t even realize that they’re listening to classical music in movie theaters with the original soundtracks of movies. They have grown up with iTunes, rap, punk, and rock music, and maybe a musical or two. The challenge here is drawing these young people into the concert hall and making them feel comfortable and welcome. Once they hear the music, the vast majority of them will probably enjoy the experience.
Swiss conductor Baldur Broennimann wrote on his blog recently a post entitled 10 things that we should change in classical music concerts. His goal is to make the concert experience more comfortable and welcoming to young people who haven’t grown up with classical music. And maybe even people who have….
1. “The audience should feel free to applaud between movements” — concert etiquette has required the audience to wait until the end of a work to applaud. Mr. Broennimann likes for people to express their pleasure whenever they feel it, even if that’s before the end of the work. I don’t see any problem with this at all.
2. “Orchestras should tune backstage” — as a conductor, Mr. Broennimann believes that many pieces should come out of complete silence, and not immediately after tuning. The thing is, the orchestra has tuned backstage and the onstage tuning is a tradition that signaled the beginning of the concert, encouraging the audience to settle down and listen. Nowadays, that signal is given by lowering the lights. I don’t see any problem with this at all.
3. “We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)” — Not making phone calls, of course, but to tweet, take photos and record the concerts silently. Mr. Broennimann argues that the audience has bought tickets and should then be able to enjoy the right to record what they see. Well. In America, the musicians’ union would be having fits over this one, not to mention some conductors and soloists. So taking photos and recording are out. Tweeting? Texting? Perhaps. As long as the whole process is silent, including receiving answering text messages.
4. “Programs should be less predictable” — This adds an element of surprise and fun to the concert experience, like when someone plays an encore. Mr. Broennimann suggests not listing all the works in the program. This one could be fun to try.
5. “You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall” — This adds to the relaxed atmosphere and doesn’t force people to finish their drinks quickly during intermission. Not everyone would want to do this, of course, but perhaps younger people would. Hall management would need to approve this, but they have, in most places, already approved it for pops concerts.
6. “The artists should engage with the audience” — Many conductors already talk with the audience before a piece on a program and have Q&As afterward. Mr. Broennimann wants this to be mandatory, and also that the audience be allowed to go backstage after the concert to talk with the musicians. Here in Minnesota, audience members often talk with musicians during intermission at the edge of the stage. Since the lockout ended, the Minnesota Orchestra musicians have continued to mingle with their audiences before and after concerts, talking with people. It’s not hard to spot them either because of the way they’re dressed.
7. “Orchestras shouldn’t play in tail suits” — here he means the venerable tuxedo. Conductors have begun to move away from white tie and tails, and there’s rumbling in orchestras for the musicians to do the same. The formal wear can restrict movement. I used to be totally against this, but now I’m not. I just think they need to find something to wear that can become like a concert uniform, for both men and women. The music needs to be at the forefront during a concert, not the fashions worn by the musicians.
8. “Concerts should be more family friendly” — Many are. Mr. Broennimann wants specific seats near exits earmarked for families with young children so they can leave quickly if they need to. To my knowledge, the Minnesota Orchestra welcomes families to all concerts as long as the kids meet minimum age requirements. And of course, there are specific family and children’s concerts, too.
9. “Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology” — Of course. And who will pay for it? A lot of concert halls do have screens they use for supertitles that perhaps could show video of the musicians during a performance. There are aids also for those who are hard of hearing. It would be great if people could download examples of the pieces on the program before the concert, and I’ve argued for a long time for an online forum for the audience to use to post comments and questions. Facebook and Twitter, when used well by an orchestra, can serve the same purpose.
10. “Every program should contain a contemporary piece” — I could not agree more with this one. My favorite concert each year at the Minnesota Orchestra is their “Future Classics” concert. They perform the works of young composers that have participated in their Composer Institute during the previous week. I think this kind of programming has been occurring more often than Mr. Broennimann seems to think, but there’s no harm in repeating it for those who aren’t doing it.
Looking at this list now, I find it rather conservative, including things already being done by American orchestras. I think that American orchestras need to work on their websites to make them user friendly and fun to visit, not only a place to sell tickets. I suspect this discussion will continue….