In today’s New York Times (“Arts” section, page E12), there’s an ad for a Live from Lincoln Center telecast. It’s a New York Philharmonic performance, and the text of the ad (or at least the parts of it that matter) reads like this:
New York Philharmonic Lorin Maazel, music director
Gil Shaham, violin
Violin virtuoso Gil Shaham joins maestro Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic for a spectacular performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Also on the program—Thomas Stacy, english horn.
So now let me ask a question. Is there one word in this ad that would make anybody want to watch?
Well, sure. The names. Gil certainly has fans (as he should). Maazel might have a few, and the Philharmonic has some. So for people already into classical music, maybe the ad has some point. At the very least, it says “Classical music on TV tonight!” For some people, that’s good news; for them, the ad works.
But even then there’s a question. Thomas Stacy? Who’s he? English horn? What’s that? Don’t laugh—a year ago, when I was working with the Concert Companion project, I watched focus groups of New York Philharmonic listeners who’d used the device, and even long-time subscribers, it turned out, might not know the orchestral instruments.
And even if you do know what an english horn is, the ad doesn’t tell you anything. What’s Stacy going to play? Does the instrument itself have any fans? I doubt it, apart from double-reed players. So the ad ought to say a little more, or drop poor Stacy from the text entirely.
But back to my original question. Orchestral ticket sales are falling. Classical music is rare on public TV, because not many people watch it. (Opera has its own audience, distinct from people who like orchestral music, but I love the remark John Goberman once made about opera on public TV, he being a noted producer of classical music TV events: So few people watched, he said, that it would have been more cost-effective to simply mail a videotape to anyone who cared.) Why would this ad reverse these trends? Is there anything in it that would make any newcomer want to watch?
Of course not. For attracting a new audience, the ad fails so completely that I don’t know whether to laugh, or start throwing things. All those names! Gil, Sibelius, Maazel, Stacy? Who are these people? What could they mean to anyone who doesn’t follow classical music?
Nothing, of course. There’s just one word in the text that says anything about why anyone should watch the show—the Sibelius performance, we read, is going to be “spectacular.” And, in a stunning display of inauthenticity, that one word is incorrect. The great thing about Gil is that he’s not a spectacular virtuoso. Instead, he’s warm, humane, limpid, and intimate. So that’s the appeal of hearing him play. The ad, even in its one attempt to say something real about the performance, can’t connect us with the actual music.
(But maybe the whole thing is hopeless, without even bigger changes. What’s the telecast going to look like? How would that connect even to the most loving and accurate evocation of the music? What kind of total experience can this telecast offer, that anyone new to classical music might want in their lives?)