Tag Archives: concerts

Future Classics 2017

93022-300x224-sheetmusicpagesEvery year I look forward to the Minnesota Orchestra’s Future Classics concert, the culmination of a week of  seven young composers chosen by the Composer Institute‘s composer-director, Kevin Puts, working with the Minnesota Orchestra. I cannot say strongly enough how much I love this concert. It is my favorite in the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert season. The Orchestra and their Music Director, Osmo Vanska, have committed to bringing promising young composers to Minneapolis for a week of seminars on composing for an orchestra as well as the business side of composing, and they have opened the rehearsals to the public each year. I used to attend the rehearsals, but my part-time job now prevents me from attending them. I attended the Future Classics concert, however, last night.

How are young composers thinking this year? Are they using conventional musical structures like rondo or sonata that composers in the past found so challenging and inspiring to their musical imaginations? Will there be any lyrical melodies this year? How will the composers use the orchestra? Will they engage all the instruments or focus more on one section like percussion? These are the questions in my mind as I take my seat in Orchestra Hall. Fred Childs, from Performance Today on public radio, hosts and introduces each young composer before his or her piece is performed. What struck me this year was how young they were. They are at the beginning of their creative output and still growing into their musical voices. Some have already enjoyed some success with their music. At least one was hearing their work played by a full orchestra for the first time. But overall this concert was a showcase for potential.

Photo courtesy Microsoft

Photo courtesy Microsoft

Also in my mind is my composer, Owen te Kumara, in the Perceval series that I’m writing. At the rehearsals of the first Composer Institute I attended, I sought a composer with whom I could talk about the composer’s life, to be a reference source for me while I developed Owen and how he’d fit into Evan Quinn’s life. Owen is not a young composer just starting out. But the elements of a composer’s life are the same in 2048 as now. So for me, the Future Classics concert is still research, a way to touch base with a composer’s world and remind me of how they pursue their art.

The music displayed great potential. When I look at the notes I wrote last night, I see over and over “good orch” which means a good use of the orchestra as a full instrument rather than sectioning out the sound. I also noted  far less emphasis on percussion which pleased me a lot. Not that I dislike percussion, but when a composer is using an overabundance of it, the experience is one of only sound effects rather than music. A really lovely surprise to see the harp used prominently as well as brass and piano and…oh, my, god, strings. And another interesting experience was listening to the instruments blended but at the same time used in unconventional ways to produce unconventional sounds, e.g. sliding the strings or doing quarter steps, muted trumpets and trombones in different ways. And there were a couple pieces in which I sensed a story being told. Programmatic music was the norm, i.e. music inspired by an event, experience, a story, a character, a landscape, etc. It was fun.

During the Q&A with the audience after the concert, one guy asked if any of the composers used musical forms such as rondo or sonata. The composer who answered stated rather emphatically that those “archaic forms” were irrelevant to her as a composer. That made me smile. After all, programmatic music is also a very old form, and that composer as well as the majority of them had written programmatic music.  The next question came from a guy who sounded irritated when he asked if composing in a key was irrelevant, too. I thought: and now these young composers are coming face to face with an audience, and what the audience wants to listen to, in fact, demands from them. Another composer tackled that question by pointing out that it was impossible to write atonally, i.e. without a key, when writing tonally, but they still played with pitch. They were all amazingly articulate when talking about their music, but I was left a little disappointed.

Photo from artofcomposing.com

Photo from artofcomposing.com

I began thinking about my experience as a writer and how I had wanted to write the way I wanted to write and not be constrained by any kind of narrative structure or rules governing plot, character development, story, or dialogue. Writers experiment with form as much as any artists, but an interesting thing often happens. With me, too. I discovered that artistic forms or structures challenge the artist to be creative within the form and that paradoxically liberates the artist to truly be creatively expressive. Furthermore, readers might read one or two experiments but will always return to the “ancient” narrative structure called 3-act dramatic narrative. Within that “ancient” narrative structure, a writer can do anything. So, I smiled when that young composer stated that those “archaic forms” of rondo and sonata (and others, I’m sure) were irrelevant to her. She was well on her way to discovering just how relevant they could be to art if she was truly as open to her art as she seemed to claim she was.

Osmo Vanska spoke about how he and the Minnesota Orchestra wanted to insure that there would be good orchestral music for future audiences. They are committed to finding young composers to support and help through the Composer Institute. Kevin Puts, the Composer Institute Director, brought the evening to a close by commenting that composers needed to understand that it was great to experiment while in school, but afterward, they needed to consider creating music for subscription concert audiences which received loud applause. Undoubtedly, the Composer Institute and the Future Classics concert are important experiences for these young composers and I suspect will change them in ways they cannot even know right now, but I hope will discover when the time is right.

And now I can’t wait for next year’s Future Classics concert….

Eleven Obstacles to Liking Classical Music

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Not long ago, I ran across an article promoting the BBC Proms concerts in London entitled “The 11 obstacles to liking classical music (and why they’re all in your mind)” by Jonathan McAloon on bbc.co.uk.  Intrigued, I read through it, thinking about my own experience with classical music and attending concerts. I thought it’d be fun to share my thoughts about the obstacles noted in Jonathan McAloon’s article.

Concerts go on for too long: the point Altoon makes is that a 2-hour concert is no longer than a movie in a movie theater.  That may be true, but he overlooks the aspect of subject. Movies tell an overt story. With music, you have to listen and let your imagination discover the story within the music. I agree that 2 hours is not really that long, but I can understand if someone would rather not spend any quality time with his or her imagination during that 2 hours. The thing is, music is easy to listen to 95% of the time, and that’s as true for classical music as it is for hip-hop.

Concerts are too expensive: this point depends on how much you want to spend on music and your seat location within the concert venue. It’s possible to get quite reasonably priced seats for a classical concert. And often, symphony orchestras will offer people discounts and/or deals to make it possible to attend concerts for almost the same as a movie that includes admission and popcorn. Compare classical concerts to big pop or rock arena concerts and you’ll find the prices can be similar or even less for classical concerts. Most orchestras also offer cheap rush tickets available at the box office an hour before a performance.

Daniil Trifonov (Photo: trifonov.us)

Daniil Trifonov (Photo: trifonov.us)

It’s elitist: No, it’s not. That’s truly all in your head, you know. You do not have to dress up in formal wear to attend a classical concert. I’ve seen folks in jeans and sweatshirts, running pants, shorts and sneakers. You can bring some drinks into some venues, enjoy food in the lobbies, attend pre- or post-concert events like movies or talks about the concert program, participate in dancing, wine tasting, and any number of other activities offered by the concert venue. During the summer, some orchestras perform in outdoor venues where you can picnic on the lawn while listening to the music.

There are too many rules: this made me laugh. What rules? Oh, I suppose there’s the one about being respectful and considerate to those around you — after all, you’ll be sitting in a public space with 200 to 2000 people around you. Clap between symphonic movements if you really loved what you just heard. Being quiet during the performance is part of being respectful and considerate — in this case to the musicians performing as well as the people around you who’re are listening. Common sense, people! Cell phones do need to be turned off or put on vibrate, taking photos of the musicians when they’re performing is probably not allowed (for legal reasons), and perhaps the venue has a no shoes-no shirt-no entrance rule, but otherwise, what rules?

Newbies aren’t made to feel welcome: you’d be surprised how wrong this one is. Classical music lovers are the least snobbish people I’ve met. They love music and they love sharing it with others. You might begin with finding the classical music radio station in your locale or there are tons of them on the internet. Venture to a concert first like a cinema concert or a shortened concert to try it out. Then take the plunge on a full classical music concert. Say hello to the person next to you and see what happens!

Credit: Musicians of Minnesota Orchestra

Credit: Musicians of Minnesota Orchestra

I won’t know the tunes: So what? People go to concerts to listen. Maybe you’ll hear tunes that you really love. Or maybe you’ll hear tunes that you recognize and be surprised. It’s amazing how much classical music has been used on TV, in movies, and in commercials.  McAltoon also suggests browsing through YouTube’s collection of classical music. Search on the name of a composer like Beethoven, Mozart, or Rachmaninoff, and start listening!

Nonetheless, the music’s not for me: ah, I think you’d be surprised how much classical music you’ve heard and loved. For example, movie soundtracks. Which is your favorite? I love Lawrence of Arabia for example. Movie soundtracks are not only a gateway to classical music, they are classical music (except those that are pop or rock or jazz). Maybe just relax, close your eyes, open your ears, and see what happens.

The music is all written by dead white men: Not. Living composers, both women and men, can be found on today’s symphonic music concerts. If you like contemporary music, maybe try one of those concerts that mix contemporary composers’ music with that of the dead white guys. And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project that plays music from all over the world.

It’s irrelevant to the modern world: I suspect contemporary composers would take issue with that. And what music is played at weddings quite often? Pachabel’s Canon. At funerals? After 9/11, I heard performances of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms performed all over the country. Whenever there’s a huge national loss like the Challenger disaster in 1986, the most common piece of music played is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Classical music is as relevant as human emotion.

Ludwig van Beethoven        Source: Wikipedia

Ludwig van Beethoven Source: Wikipedia

It’s hard to find an entry point: Movie soundtracks, YouTube, classical music radio, and Beethoven are all fun entry points to classical music. Why Beethoven? Try listening to the last movement of his First Piano Concerto on YouTube sometime and you’ll know, I’m certain.

Classical music is boring and conservative: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Gabriel Yared’s haunting music to the movie The English Patient, or the Overture to William Tell beg to differ. Contemporary composers are also composing music that challenges the boundaries of music in all its aspects, just like Beethoven did in his time, Wagner did in his.  So, boring and conservative classical music is truly a myth.

Music is music. The poetry of sound. Some pieces tell a story, others are pure emotion in sound. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Attending a Classical Music Concert, Part 2


Vienna’s Musikverein Concert Hall (Photo courtesy Musikverein)


It’s the evening of your classical music concert and you’re nervous.  There’s really no need to be nervous.  Do you have your tickets? Check. Do you know where you’ll park? Check. Or are you taking public transportation? Check. You’ll want to arrive at the concert hall at least half an hour before the concert time.  If there’s a pre-concert talk to introduce you to the works on the program, arrive at least ten minutes before the start time of that pre-concert talk.  Some orchestras request that you sign up for any pre-concert educational programs ahead of time.  If that’s the case where you live, by all means, sign up!

What to wear? Years ago, classical music concerts were a bit more formal.  Women wore semi-formal dresses or gowns, and men wore stylish suits. The orchestra musicians on stage will be in formal wear, as will the conductor.  But nowadays, the audience can wear just about anything.  I’ve seen cut-off shorts and T-shirts during the summer, jeans and sweatshirts during the winter.  I tend to believe that if the musicians have dressed up to perform for me, the least I can do is wear nice clothes.  I’d recommend business casual for both men and women.  Or if you want to make it a special occasion, wear formal clothes.

A word about grooming and hygiene: you will be sitting in an auditorium with 1500 to 2500 other people, some of whom will be in especially close proximity to you. Even if you lean toward the casual in your attire, please be clean, wear deodorant, brush your teeth.  I have seen concertgoers with piercings all over the place, or heavy make-up that would make a clown blush, but they have been clean and didn’t smell.  Thank you!

As you enter the auditorium, an usher may approach you to ask if you would like help finding your seat.  Accept that help. Ushers are walking encyclopedias about the venues they serve, as well as the orchestras.  If you have any questions about concert behavior, an usher will be happy to help you.  Ushers also carry a cache of helpful items such as cough drops.  If your phone is equipped with a camera, resist the temptation to snap photos throughout the concert.  This is forbidden for a lot of reasons, but the first is the gross distraction it creates for others.  Imagine if everyone began taking photos?  Also, unless sanctioned by the organization, resist the temptation to use your phone to tweet or post on social media during the concert.  Actually, the best thing, the most courteous thing, to do is to turn off your phone and any other electronics you have with you.  You cannot imagine the derision you will experience from others if your phone begins to ring during the concert.  If you are a doctor on call, put your phone or pager on vibrate.

OK, you’re in your seat, looking through the program book.  Find that evening’s program.  Fold the booklet in half so that you won’t need to search for the program once the music begins.  Chat with your seat neighbors.  I don’t know how many times I’ve met interesting people at concerts that way, and sometimes you can meet classical music lovers who would love to share their knowledge with you.  But do not talk during the music.  The acoustics in classical music halls are so refined that everyone on stage can hear the slightest noise in the audience.  Plus, it’s just rude.  If you begin coughing during the music and you cannot stop, leave.  Find an usher for a cough drop, or for directions to the nearest water fountain.  It happens to all of us, so don’t be embarrassed.  Just be considerate.

Some orchestras have their musicians gather on stage in the 15 to 20 minutes before the concert begins.  Others have their musicians come onstage all at once at the start time.  Take your cue from the people around you — if they clap when the musicians come onstage, you clap.  Often the concertmaster who sits at the front of the first violin section will be the last orchestra musician who comes onstage.  Clap for him or her.  Traditional ritual now has the orchestra musicians tuning their instruments to the oboe’s A.  They are all actually in tune already since they tune backstage, but this ritual serves as a way to communicate to the audience that the concert is about to begin.  It readies everyone for the conductor to come onstage.  When he or she does, applaud.  Stop once the conductor has stepped up onto the podium, the raised platform from which he or she conducts.

A standard concert program begins with a short orchestral work like an overture, followed by a concerto with a soloist or tone poem. The first half of a concert runs about 40 minutes without break.  There continues to be a debate about when someone should applaud during a multi-movement piece.  I sit squarely in the please-don’t-applaud-at-the-end-of-each-movement group but at the very end.  Applause can disrupt the pace and thematic coherence of the musical work.  Observe what the people around you are doing.  Sometimes, the applause is spontaneous because the music has been so exciting and well played, e.g. the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  Just sit back, relax, and listen.

The first half ends with a 15 or 20-minute intermission.  This is a break for the audience and musicians to visit the restroom, get something to drink, call the babysitter, etc.  Or socialize.  I like to walk around, stretch my legs, chat with people I know.  Again, I’ve met interesting people sitting around me just by being a little friendly.  Music lovers love to talk about music!  After the intermission, return to your seat for the second half.  A standard concert program would have a symphony on the second half, i.e. a much longer work with several movements that can last 30 to 60 minutes or more.  Sit back, relax, and listen.   At the end of the symphony, the concert is over.  And you have now attended your first classical music concert!  It wasn’t so hard, was it? (smile)  Any questions, feel free to ask in the Comments below.

When people ask me what they need to know in order to enjoy a classical music concert I reply, “Nothing.”  All you need to do is open your ears, your heart, and your mind, and listen.  Music is sound representing whatever the composer intended.  I think it is most often the sound representation of emotions.  Through music, we learn more about our humanity, and the individual’s soul.  That sounds so lofty, but I don’t know how else to describe it…..

Clipart courtesy of Warner Bros.

Clipart courtesy of Warner Bros.

Attending a Classical Music Concert, Part 1

classicalmusicA friend and I recently talked about the obstacles orchestras face in building audience. One of them is the perception that classical music concerts have mysterious special rules, and going to a concert is like traveling to a foreign country. Well, no one needs a visa to visit a concert hall.  Anyone who has attended a ticketed event already knows the first step in the concert experience.

Concert Information: Orchestras and other classical music performers want the public to ask them for concert information.  They advertise in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and online.  Nowadays, it’d be strange if they didn’t have a website with everything you ever wanted to know about who they are, what they do, and a listing of concerts and an opportunity to buy tickets right there.  Call the orchestra’s ticket office and request a brochure.  Stop in at the box office and pick up a brochure from those displayed.

Which concert, or will I like the music? If you’ve never been to a classical music concert but you want to go, you’re halfway to liking the music.  If you want to try it out, it’s possible to check out CDs from the library, or download classical music cheaply.  If you’ve enjoyed the original music at a movie, you’ve heard classical music. You may be surprised how familiar it actually is, since it’s been used in TV commercials, movies, TV shows, cartoons, and in stores. Ask a friend who loves classical music to tell you about it.

The vocabulary could be intimidating.  For example, what’s a symphony? A concerto? What do conductors do? Why are there soloists for some music and not for others?  If you want to do some research to familiarize yourself with classical music and its forms, check out a good music appreciation book from your library or buy one.  A quick Google search brought up lots of possibilities, including: Classical Music for Dummies, The Enjoyment of Music by Kristine Forney and Joseph Machlis (my recommendation), Music Appreciation by Roger Kamien, and How to Listen to Great Music by Robert Greenberg.  Or you can just start by listening to the music.

What would I recommend as a starting point? I think Beethoven’s music is actually a wonderful place to start, or Mozart’s music, Brahms’ music, Rachmaninoff’s and Copland’s. Look for concerts that include these composers on their programs.  If you don’t want to dive in right away, try a pops program or a family-oriented concert to help you acclimate to the concert-going experience at an orchestra’s concert hall.

Once you’ve chosen which concert, you need to think about which date, time, and how much you want to pay for the tickets.  Classical concert tickets can range from $20 to $120, depending on the location of the seats and who’s performing on the program. There will be add-on fees! Expect a facilities fee for each ticket — this money helps with hall maintenance.  There may be a processing fee if you buy your tickets online or call the ticket office.  If you’d like to avoid a processing fee, go to the box office and buy the tickets in person.  Be sure to ask if they have any discounts or special offers.  Tell them you’re attending for the first time — maybe they have an introductory offer.

Buying the tickets: If you’ve bought tickets to a pop or rock concert, you’ll have no problem buying tickets to a classical music concert.  Or to a sports event. The process is much the same.  Most orchestras offer three options for buying tickets: online at their websites, calling the ticket office phone number, or visiting their box offices in person. The last two options give you a human who can help you with your seating choices.  Online, you’ll see a seating plan of the concert hall. Follow the instructions for setting up your online account and buying the tickets.  If you have questions, or run into difficulties online (this happens more often than orchestras would like), call the ticket office!  They want you to buy the tickets you want, if they’re available, and will be eager to help.

Now you have your tickets, what next? Well, the concert.  In Part 2, I’ll talk about how to attend a classical music concert and reveal the “special rules,” if any actually exist….

Do Classical Music Concerts Need to be Changed?

Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall (before renovation)

Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall (before renovation)

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.

Baldur Bronnimann (Photo from his website)

Baldur Bronnimann (Photo from his website)

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.

Osmo Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra (Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry)

Osmo Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra (Photo courtesy of MOA/Courtney Perry)

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….