Good news

In my last post, and often earlier, I’ve said that the biggest orchestras have suffered falling ticket sales to their core classical concerts for well over a decade. But now, on the grapevine, I’ve heard something hopeful–sales were slightly up last season. Not all of the biggest orchestras showed an increase, I hear, but most of them did, and their aggregate sales were definitely up.

This is wonderful news. And what’s the cause? I’m going to make a hopeful guess. I’ll guess that sales are up because the orchestras–and of course especially their marketing directors–decided to do something to reverse the falling sales. And figured out something that began to work, even if it wasn’t wildly radical. Not that they hadn’t tried hard before, but years of trouble, combined with financial problems and a troubled landscape (see the American Symphony Orchestra League’s new strategic plan–go here and scroll down), have a way of stimulating even greater and more thoughtful efforts. One goal, from what I hear, is to sell more single tickets, since subscription sales have been falling for many years. It’s encouraging to see that this might work.

But then there are changes all over classical music. I’m amazed–and heartened, and impressed–by how fast things seem to be moving. Here are some straws in the wind, chosen simply because I happened to notice them:

  • Last year, the New York City Opera started its season with a gala, which included a party at which the East Village Opera Company did its arena-rock versions of opera tunes. Then they did a regular opera performance, with all seats on sale for $25. I praised that at the time; I went to the opera performance, and saw that it really did attract a new audience. So how are they starting this season. With the gala again, and three performances with all seats costing $25. I don’t know how many of the new ticket-buyers they were able to retain, but it’s good to see them expanding their new approach. (And raising the money to pay for it.)
  • EMI is releasing Gabriela Montero’s second CD, on which she plays improvisations on Bach. I don’t call this crossover. Montero is a serious and quite good classical pianist, and her first EMI album had one CD of straight classical performances, and a bonus CD of improvisations. She’s a good improviser, and a dawning era in which top classical musicians are also featured improvising–making their own music, as individuals–is an era in which classical music is far more human and far more approachable. (For musicians, let’s note, as well as audiences. For more on Montero, see the end of this post.)
  • Lincoln Center staged some late-night, relatively informal concerts in its Mostly Mozart festival this summer. And there’ll be more on its regular schedule this fall. I’m not the only one who thinks we need varied concerts–some shorter than usual, some earlier, some later–to attract a new audience. In fact, any study of current event-going patterns shows that this should be essential. (See Richard Florida’s seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, just for instance.) It’s good to see Lincoln Center doing it. My wife Anne Midgette reviewed one of the late-night Mozart concerts for The New York Times, and thought the informal atmosphere spilled over, quite wonderfully, into the next night’s more formal Avery Fisher Hall event.
  • Outside the Royal Festival Hall in London this summer, the Philarmonia Orchestra set up a sound installation called PLAY.orchestra (collaborating with Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, South Bank Centre Education and, not least, six elementary schools, whose students provided the graphics; ). You really should go to the orchestra’s website to read about this; there’s more than I can easily describe. Outside the hall, on a space the size of the stage the orchestra plays on inside, were 58 cubes, each with a light and a speaker, representing one instrument from the orchestra. Or not just representing it — actually creating its sound. If you sit down on the cube, you hear that instrument. People were invited to bring friends and sit down on many of the cubes. Then, if you’ve got a Bluetooth phone, you can download a ringtone of the sound you’ve created. There’s much, much more. The music the cubes play changes each week; there’s always one standard rep piece, and one new piece. People were also invited to record sounds on their phones, and send them to the Philharmonia, to be added to the orchestra’s sample library. This all sounds just wonderful — a famous orchestra opening itself to the outside world in terrific, inventive ways. (Many thanks to regular reader Sam Richards, for e-mailing me about this.)
  • The American Composers Orchestra has moved way past its many years of presenting American music (mostly new) only in formal settings. They now welcome a far wider range of music creation, including (just for instance) a series of composer-performers, who’ll be presented 9/27 and 10/20 at Joe’s Pub, in New York, a terrific New York cabaret. Where Gabriela Montero will also be playing, on September 21. The ACO is also featuring composer-performers in its first regular concert this year, on October 13.
  • Plus the venerable Concert Artists Guild, giving its awards (with concerts attached) to more adventurous musicians, and putting the concerts in far more informal places.

It all adds up to one absolutely crucial and ongoing project — putting classical music back into the world most people live in. More than anything else, that’s what classical music must do, if it’s going to survive. I’m thrilled to see it happening, and gaining such momentum. But I’m sure I’ve only cited a few of the things that are going on. Please let me know about more!

And about Gabriela Montero…here are some excerpts from a press release about her new CD, starting with a quote from her:

“Because improvisation is such a huge part of who I am it is the most natural and spontaneous way I can express myself. I have been improvising since my hands first touched the keyboard when I was just eight months old, but for many years I kept this aspect of my playing secret. Then Martha Argerich overheard me improvising one day and was ecstatic. In fact, it was Martha who persuaded me that it was possible to combine my career as a serious ‘classical’ artist with the side of me that is rather unique. Improvisation is so natural for me that it was something of a relief to be able to finally ‘come out of the closet.'”

These days, after performing a concerto Montero often invites her audiences to suggest a melody for improvisation by way of an encore. They ask for themes anywhere from Haydn symphonies to Star Wars, or they come onto the stage to play a melody that Montero might or might not know. “When improvising,” Montero says, “I connect with my audience in a completely unique way – and they connect with me.”

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  1. says

    There have been a few events like these in London recently. Covent Garden broadcast a few performances on a big screen in Canary Wharf, The Curve open air amphitheatre next to Tower Bridge has been staging some free, outdoor plays (not sure if any opera or music has been performed), The Proms of course and their £5 promming tickets, the LSO do a great programme of very cheap or free lunchtime concerts at St Luke’s as does St Martins in th Fields. Of course the barrier to all of this is actually finding out about it in a city the size of London in time to still attend!

    One thing I think is amazing and wonderful is that the BBC broadcasts loads of the Proms performances live, during prime time, on BBC 4. I only attended one performance this year, but I watched about 10 on TV.

    There are probably loads more programmes I miss out on, but I have to admit London is an incredible city to live in for the access to this amount of arts activity.