This Thursday, 10/23, I’ll host a concert on a Pittsburgh Symphony series called “Symphony with a Splash.” These are early evening events (they start at 6:45), aimed at young professionals who don’t usually go to symphony concerts. Drinks are served, and, as the Symphony’s website says, “The coolest networking happy hour mixes with one of the world’s best orchestras” (which the Pittsburgh Symphony certainly is).
This will, to say the least, give me a first-hand look at how these efforts to attract new listeners really work. I worked with the Symphony’s staff to program the three events, and this one features music that either wasn’t written for our notion of a formal concert, or else has extra meaning beyond the concert hall. The scherzo from the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony, for instance, had a secret meaning when Shostakovich wrote it, as a portrait of the dread Joseph Stalin.
For music that wasn’t written for a formal concert setting, we’re doing Rossini’s Gazza Ladra overture, to try out my contention that Italian opera percussion parts ought to be played LOUDLY. Especially, I’d think, at an opera’s premiere, when audiences hung breathlessly on every note, ready to scream at the end with approval, or (if they hated the piece) with scorn.
And we’re also doing the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony, because after its premiere, Mozart told his father in a letter that the audience had burst into applause during the music, the moment that they heard a passage that they liked. And not only that — Mozart expected them to do it, and made sure to repeat the passage that he thought would please them. I’m going to ask the Pittsburgh crowd to do exactly the same thing, to forget our modern concert etiquette, and let us know the moment they hear anything that turns them on.
I’ll be eager to see how readily the audience goes along with this, and how loudly they’re prepared to clap. For more on the history of the piece, and Mozart’s comments on the premiere, see a page about it on my website, complete with musical examples showing three guesses about which passage the audience liked so much. I teach this little bit of history in my Juilliard course on “Classical Music in an Age of Pop.” As classical music moves towards its unknown — but very likely less informal — future, it’s important to remember how informal it used to be in the past.