Talking to the audience


I’ve started a project with the Pittsburgh Symphony that’s certainly unusual, and could be extraordinary. The Symphony calls it “talk back,” and the idea is simple enough — to get the audience talking back to the orchestra about the performances they hear. But it’s extraordinary because orchestras don’t normally consult their audience about music, and don’t set up forums in which their audience can talk to them. I’ve written about this, in a piece that appeared two years ago in Symphony magazine, the publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Traditionally (as I said in that piece), the audience sits at the bottom of something like the medieval Great Chain of Being, waiting passively for art to descend upon them, as a gift from composers and performers.


This isn’t healthy, either for business, art, or simple human relations. And it’s especially baffling because the orchestra audience is — demographically speaking — so famously smart and educated. Not many of these people, maybe, are trained musicians, but so what? Why shouldn’t they have something important to say about the music they hear?


The Pittsburgh Symphony agrees with at least some of this (I should stress that all the ideas here are mine, not necessarily theirs), and hired me to help get their audience to talk. The project began on October 8 and 9, with discussions after two performances of an unusual program: Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Berio’s Stanze (his last work), Barber’s Violin Concerto, and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Theme of Weber. Two of these pieces are atonal; none were written before 1940; in no way was this as standard concert program, even though no music could go down more easily than the Barber or the Hindemith. (Or at least that’s what I’d think. I’ve since met members of the Pittsburgh audience who had trouble with the Barber.) David Robertson conducted, and while the stage was reset after the Schoenberg piece, introduced the Berio, speaking to the audience in a forceful and friendly way.


But of course the program was hard for the audience. Many subscribers gave back their tickets, exchanging them for some other date. The house, I was told, was just 40% full. But after each program, to begin the “talk back” project, I led discussions with maybe 20 to 30 people who’d attended, and this is where things got interesting. I made sure everyone who came got a chance to speak (in fact, I just about insisted that everybody speak), moving among them with questions and comments. (The session was held in a bar in Heinz Hall, where the Symphony plays, with participants sitting at tables.)


Some people couldn’t accept the Schoenberg piece, or the Berio. But others readily explained the musical idiom of these works by addressing their subjects. Both are about the Holocaust, Schoenberg’s very directly (the piece, with a narrator and male chorus, is about the Warsaw Ghetto), Berio’s more subtly (he sets texts that address the Holocaust more indirectly, sometimes with private references that many people wouldn’t immediately understand). But the people at these sessions had read the program notes, and understood what was being addressed. If the music was difficult or even unpleasant, some people said, that made sense, because the Holocaust was (to say the least) unpleasant and difficult.


Other people raised objections, but not obvious ones. One woman said she knew a Holocaust survivor, and felt that the overt anguish in Schoenberg’s piece — as a Holocaust survivor recalls what happened in Warsaw — wasn’t right. Holocaust survivors, this woman said, were numb, not anguished. Someone else thought, quite honorably, that it’s possible to address unpleasant subjects in more consoling ways. (Certainly many artists of the past would agree with him. Art can deal with ugly things without itself being ugly. This discussion, by the way, touches on deep issues with atonal music. The rise of atonality, early in the last century, was linked to the rise of expressionist angst in other arts. Theodor Adorno famously said — in support of Schoenberg, explaining why he felt atonal music was the only responsible art music of the 20th century — that atonal dissonance was a covert expression of frozen pain. Schoenberg, though, seemed to think atonal harmony was neutral, just another way of combining notes, and that’s generally what people who’ve written atonal and serial music would say.)


Pittsburgh Symphony staff and musicians were at these discussions, and had useful things to say. One musician stressed that the Berio performances were, in a sense, just a beginning; the orchestra didn’t know the piece yet, and could get more out of it if it played the music more. And Bob Moir, the Symphony’s Vice-President of Artistic Planning, was willing to talk about a performance compromise. Someone from the audience had heard the Schoenberg piece before, and didn’t think the Pittsburgh Symphony performance was as strong as the earlier one. I commented that I’d found something missing; the sudden entrance of the male chorus (representing Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto defying the Nazis by singing a religious chant) wasn’t, I thought, as dramatic as it ought to be. Bob, in response, said that the size of the chorus, and the way it was divided into three parts onstage, were dictated by what the Berio piece requires (it’s longer and more complex than the Schoenberg). So while the chorus was effective for Berio, it might not have been as effective for Schoenberg.


This was something I’ve never seen before, though I’m not going to claim it’s never happened — people from an orchestra discussing the quality of a performance with members of the audience, and admitting that there were faults. But something even more extraordinary happened. David Robertson was at the first of the two sessions, and talked a lot. He just about mesmerized the audience, though from one point of view he might have talked too much, as I think he himself was aware. The point, after all, was to get the audience to talk, not the conductor.


But from the conversation that David’s comments provoked, we learned things about how to present composers like Schoenberg and Berio to an audience that isn’t comfortable with their work. I asked if it would help for someone simply to say to the audience, “Look, this music is difficult. You might not like it.” The people from the audience said they’d like that.


And so the next night, when David introduced Stanze to the audience, that’s just what he said. He began his remarks, in fact, by saying that he’d been at the discussion the night before, and had found it very helpful. He then talked about the piece in some detail, suggesting things in each movement that the audience might listen for. The response to the performance was quite a bit warmer. I’d say that the piece got a quiet ovation, with several curtain calls for David and for the baritone soloist, Sanford Sylvain. I think David’s remarks made a lot of difference. He didn’t just speak to the audience; he acknowledged it and empowered it, meeting it halfway by recognizing problems the listeners might have, and trying to address them.


At the second session, one woman asked whether the orchestra thought about the reaction the audience would have to programs like this. I said that of course the orchestra thought about it, and in fact that people inside the profession talked about this a lot. Sometimes, I said, the audience is treated as a problem, as a group of people who don’t want to hear music that the artistic leadership of an orchestra wants to play. What would happen, I asked, if the audience was brought into this discussion? I think that would be wonderful—and I doubt it’s happened very much before.


But how can these discussions continue? How can they become a regular part of the orchestra’s work? I’m holding more sessions with audience members after concerts on November 6 and 7, and the Symphony has started a message board on its website, as a forum for ongoing discussions. But these are just beginning steps (and the message board itself has only just begun). What we still have to figure out is how to draw the audience into conversations that are strong, unstoppable, and influential. Any ideas?