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June 15, 2007

Of zombies, freaks... and the other 90%

by Robert Levine

Vanessa Bertozzi wrote:

For those who live inside the looking glass of classical music, what brings the music back to life for you? What are the expressions of identity from this subculture and what do its participants value? Maybe romantics are different from modernists, and opera freaks are different from chamber music fans. I can't quite say, though I'd be interested to hear from those of you who would know.

Opera fans are most definitely different than chamber music fans. But most people who attend concerts, and even operas, are not hard-core fans. I think the problem of engaging audiences (or, in management-speak, putting butts in seats) is less about the hard-core fans than about everyone else.

The question of "what brings the music back to life" is both interesting and hard for me to answer in a way that's helpful to answering the "butts in seats" question. I know why I go to concerts (aside from the ones I get paid to perform, of course). It's not why most people go. Generally I go either to see friends perform or to pass judgment on another orchestra's technical proficiency. I find myself constantly frustrated at not understanding why normal people go to concerts. That makes it hard to figure out what changes in presentation or content could make more of them want to go.

One thing that I have noticed, however, is that people do seem to want, in the live experience, things they can't get in the recorded version. When I watch the Vienna Phil play every New Year's Day, for example, I'm struck both by the physical intimacy of the situation - with the audience practically on top of the orchestra - and the evident mutual engagement between the performers and the audience.

Laura Jackson wrote:

... our access to recorded music makes listeners want live performance even more. If a twenty year old has five CD's of their favorite rap star, they are probably going to knock themselves out to attend a live performance if the opportunity arises.

That's only true because the live performance is a very different (and in some ways better) experience than the download. In some respects that's often not true in our business. For example, most concert halls, even the new ones (and I am speaking about you, Frank Gehry), just don't sound very good as compared to live recordings made of the same orchestra, sometimes in the same hall. It's positively embarrassing how much better my orchestra sounds on recordings made in concert than anywhere in our hall except on stage.

That sure doesn't make it easier to sell tickets to come see my orchestra.

Posted by rlevine at June 15, 2007 7:36 AM


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