In the arts — and certainly in classical music — we spend a lot of time talking to each other, and I’ve just about typed myself blue in the face trying to say that we need to talk to people from the outside world. Especially if we want to reach a new young audience!
One of the people I’ve long thought ought to be invited to talk to the classical world is J.D. Considine, a veteran pop and jazz writer whom I’ve known for some years, and currently writes about jazz for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He likes classical music (we used to talk about Baltimore Symphony concerts when he was pop critic for the Baltimore Sun),.and just sent me an e-mail that everyone who wants to extend the reach of classical music should read. I’m reprinting it here with J.D.’s permission. Note two important things: the parts about the audience liking difficult music, and about the limited appeal for this audience (“limited” being an understatement) of musical beauty. These are things the classical world doesn’t understand at all (beauty, after all, being one of its favorite selling points, just as J.D. says).
Last week, I had the chance to hear (and cover) a performance of Cage’s HPSCHD. It wasn’t quite the “standard” performance, as it only ran only three hours and relied on just five actual amplified harpsichords (the other parts were covered by a Yamaha digital piano and a Hohner D6 Clavinet). The quality of the players was wonderful– Eve Egoyan corralled the group — and they did a great job with the pre-recorded electronics and the projected art. But the smartest thing they did was to stage it less like a concert than a happening, encouraging people to walk around the room, or even in and out, instead of sitting solemnly and stoically for three hours. (They stressed the freedom of movement in the pre-concert publicity, too.)
And it was amazing. People wandered through the room, listening to the various harpsichords, occasionally chatted with the players, sipped wine or beer, and had a terrific time. The crowd was also mainly young boomers and older X-gens — just the people symphony boards pray for — as well as a smattering of seniors and 20- somethings. I swear, I even saw a kid wander through carrying a skateboard!
Now, you and I both know that this isn’t the sort of thing a major orchestra can do three times a week. Still, three times a season wouldn’t hurt. And this program (which was part of the SoundaXis Festival) pulled a pretty good crowd despite minimal publicity and a major competing arts festival (Luminato).
This made me think about something else. A big part of the attraction for the crowd at HPSCHD was that the music was difficult. Now, I ask you — would a symphony programmer ever imagine that offering challenging, difficult, abstract music would be a marketing plus? My sense is that most of ’em still believe that the way to bring in new listeners is to emphasize the beauty and melody of classical music.
Here’s the thing, though: For anyone who grew up in the rock radio era, the aesthetic “strengths” suggested by such thinking evokes nothing so much as Easy Listening Music. And can you imagine any serious music fan who’d pay money to listen to that crap?
Maybe that’s why much of the classical music that has crossed over, like the Kronos recordings or the Gorecki 3rd, hasn’t been sweet and lovely, but emotionally powerful and aurally challenging. Just like the rock and jazz also adored by such listeners. (Of course, this is where I’m drifting into stuff you already know.)
But I think the thirst for adventure is there waiting to be exploited. The internet hasn’t killed classical sales — it has helped it, in part I think because people can find what they want or discover new things, instead of having to paw morosely through a limited selection of the same old same old. And I know a lot of people fear the net because of file sharing and the notion that music should be free. But what if an orchestra decided to see that as an advantage, and offered one or two free concerts per season? Concerts full of daring and contemporary music? Concerts they promoted the way rock gigs are promoted (postering isn’t just for kids)?
Or am I just nuts?
He’s not nuts at all, of course. He’s talking about a market (to put this in business terms) that I’ve identified, too, a market of younger people who like challenging music and would respond to challenging classical programming, as long as that doesn’t smell like the concert hall. In New York, as I’ve noted (most recently in my post about this year’s Bang on a Can marathon), they do respond, but the mainstream classical institutions don’t seem to notice. I’d love to see an orchestra flexible and aware enough to give standard concerts for their standard audience, and indie concerts for the indie audience (not that he uses that word) that J.D. describes.
Here’s a link to J.D.’s Cage review. (Though you have to buy it to read the full text.)