Anyone who knows this blog knows I want classical music to change. But sometimes I’m asked why. Some people, who love classical music the way it is, don’t see why any change is needed. And for them, of course, it isn’t. Others get bothered, or even angry, at the thought of change. Often they think this means selling out to the wider culture (the supposedly horrible wider culure), and they’re sure we’ll lose everything profound and important that classical music offers.

Often I answer by saying that classical music has to change, that it’ll die out — or at least shrink a lot — if it doesn’t. But that’s not the answer I’d give from my heart. From my heart, I’d say that I’d love classical music to change, that I live in the wider world, and want classical music to fit with all the lively, creative, artistic things happening in so many other parts of life. I want to see those reflected in the classical music I hear, and the classical music performances I go to. 

And I know that others feel the same way. Many of my students do, for instance, like the student in my Eastman course this semester who said he thought classical musicians  — and certainly classical music students — were discouraged even from thinking of taking risks. I know many readers of our blog community here, from many walks of classical music life, would like to see change. 

And it’s hard to understand how powerful change can be until we see it in action. Here’s some testimony. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting, in person, someone who reads this blog. This was Holly Hickman, a classical music marketing consultant in Colorado with a company called Up Tempo Marketing. She’s been marketing director of the Colorado Music Festival, and also served on their board. She loves classical music with all her heart. 

Thanks to the Colorado Music Festival, she’s gotten close to Michael Christie, who’s their music director, and also music director of the Phoenix Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. This past weekend, Holly came to New York, and saw two performances in Brooklyn, one of them a mixture of orchestra music and indie rock. (The other was pure indie rock, accompanied by the orchestra. I was there. The opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, their biggest space, was packed, and the concert was full of life.)

At this event, Holly had what she calls an epiphany. She’s in her 40s, younger than many people in the classical audience — but let her tell the story herself. I was so moved by what she told me that I asked her to write it for a post in my blog, and she was good enough to do it. Here’s what she wrote:

As a 40-something who loves live music, I’ve been attending concerts from many genres for at least a couple of decades, including a plethora of symphony concerts. From my experience, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere between performances of other genres and classical music. The rules, codes of conduct, expectations and audience demographics are quite different. The overall dynamics are worlds apart. These concerts shattered all of that in my mind.

As a classical music marketer by profession, I’m committed to gaining a better understanding of how we can bridge the gap and keep the live symphonic experience relevant and vital. I traveled from Colorado to experience these two BP concerts, and I’m so glad I did. They were epiphanal!  I was mesmerized by the combination of ambient indie/instrumental sounds with the orchestra. The flow between the more “traditional” classical pieces and new compositions really worked. And the process didn’t seem forced or contrived like some cross-genre experiments can feel. The melodies and rhythms washed over me throughout the evening, and I was truly moved. OK, I admit…I even shed a few cathartic tears. It just felt so RIGHT to be in a concert hall with an audience of younger people who don’t typically attend symphonic concerts. And they were loving what they were hearing. 

I admire organizations like the Brooklyn Phil that are redefining the concert experience and developing new audiences. And I’m inspired by the artists who see the benefits of exploring and performing in creative ways with an orchestra.

Thanks, Holly. I’ve been moved by events like these, too.

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  1. Samantha Holden says

    …but the Brooklyn Philharmonic fired four of its top people this week, and sources say they haven’t paid music director Michael Christie in nearly a year. They are a failing organization, unable to reach the young audiences of Brooklyn unless a hot band is in front of their own players.

    Moving a 40-year-old from Colorado who already loves classical music is just not good enough.

    The Brooklyn Philharmonic has been troubled, administratively and dollarwise, on and off for at least 30 years. Not surprising that they’d be hard hit by the current crisis.

    But the point of my post wasn’t that a concert like this could save that organization, or all of classical music. It was only to say — via personal testimony — how deeply a change in classical music presentation can move someone. And that’s true even if the Brooklyn Philharmonic goes out of business.

  2. Douglas Graebner says

    I think that what this also points to is the difference in atmosphere between a classical concert and a non-classical concert. Prehaps, then we ought to promote more “casual” classical concerts. Certainly most classical music would fare well in more casual settings, and I’m sure most people would feel more comfortable in these more casual settings.

    So, when is the met going to produce “Das Rhinegold” at Madison Square Garden.

  3. Michael Christie says

    Not fair Samantha. As an orchestral association we have done great work reaching out to many different audience groups and have received a great deal of attention for doing so. The interesting thing for me is that three years ago my staff and I were talking about where Brooklyn as a borough was going and where orchestras were so blatantly missing the boat on collaborative events. We started BP Presents as one facet of our programming, a position it still enjoys. Neither our Nuevo Latino Festival nor collaborative Gorecki Sym. 3 had an indie band and we drew an audience – a different audience. I got over the fact long ago that counting on an audience to migrate to another part of one’s offering wasn’t bearing fruit. We don’t hang our hat on just this one type of programming, it just happens to get a TON of ink as it turns out.

    The Brooklyn Philharmonic has been keeping the NY market on its toes for decades and blazing some great trails many others have followed, meaningfully adding to the repertoire and demanding that our industry come up for a breath once in a while and consider how it will adapt.

    The orchestral business is very tough. Fixed costs mean that we must churn out concerts like mad with little time for reflection or assessment before we shift gears and move to the next event, often for a different audience.

    That story is for another day, however…

    Thanks for your honesty, Michael. And I won’t apologize for your defense of the organization. Yes, you’re the music director, but what you’ve done speaks for itself.

    Meanwhile, Michael has started on Twitter, and has been publicly telling orchestras to make their tweets a lot more lively. Nice to see someone prominent in the field talk — again — so honestly.

  4. Samantha Holden says

    Mr. Christie: have they really not been paying you?

    This is a legitimate question, in some larger journalistic context. If there’s talk that Michael hasn’t been paid, it’s fair to ask whether that’s true.

    I’ll note, though, that this blog isn’t a larger journalistic context. It’s a discussion of important issues. I also wonder, Samantha, if you’re asking the question in good faith. to get information. Or are you asking it to score points?

    It’s no secret, once again, that the Brooklyn Philharmonic has been struggling.

  5. Michael Christie says

    Samantha, my mother taught me better than that. Never ask a woman her age and never ask anyone how much they make (and by extension the terms on which it happens).

  6. Jon Hurd says

    I have never understood why there needs to be such a division between “Classical” and other music performance. The model established by the Bang on a Can organization seems to me to break down these artificial boundaries, and breathe life needed into the experience – especially for younger attendees.

    I agree. And you hear this in the music the Bang on a Can All-Stars play. They’ll say they like composers who of course were influenced by Stravinsky, etc., but also by Hendrix, Charlie Parker, all the greats outside classical music.

  7. Bill in Dallas says

    One difference between the conduct of classical vs nonclassical audiences seems to be the willingness of the nonclassical audience to sing along, talk and in other ways interfere with other audience members listening experience. Was this the case at the Brooklyn concerts? Either way, how was the atmosphere different from a “normal” classical concert?

    “Interfere” — that’s an interesting choice of words.

    The audience was very quiet at the Brooklyn event I went to. No “interfering.” Not that I noticed, anyway, in any seat near me.

    What was the difference in atmosphere? Well, first, if you have 1800 or so people in their 20s and 30s, all looking informal, that immediately creates a different atmosphere.

    And then there were the musicians. The orchestra wasn’t formally dressed. And the people in the bands talked to the audience, took drinks of water between songs, and also looked like they were having a good time, something you don’t normally see from classical musicians. I don’t mean to say that classical musicians look like they’re having a bad time, but if they’re having fun, they don’t tend to show it. These musicians did.

    The drinks of water were a relaxing touch, very familiar to anyone who’s seen pop music live. I remember, on a jazz note now, Thelonious Monk (in a club) getting up from the piano to get a beer from the bar during someone else’s solo. You wonder why classical musicians — the members of a string quartet, let’s say — don’t have water with them to drink between movements. Is the music so very sacred, that no sign of relaxation can be allowed?

    Bill in Dallas

  8. says

    Hi, Bill-

    That’s a great question. Something that’s hard to put into words. My initial thoughts: 1. People audibly “oohed and aahed” when it was a song they recognized or something happened during the concert that they really liked (they didn’t have to wait until it was the end of a movement to express their appreciation) 2. People were dressed very casually…jeans, etc. Just a regular night out on the town rather than a more “stuffy” concert hall style 3. The format of the music was quite different than a typical classical concert, i.e., overture, concerto, symphony. This concert was more free-flowing and improvisational.

    There was no interference from the audience. People were drawn into the experience and very ENGAGED. Again, what was unique about it is that the audience demographic was so very different than at the symphony concerts I attend. Worlds apart.

    Holly’s reply certainly adds a lot to mine! I think she captured the feeling of the events better than I did.

  9. Bill in Dallas says

    I chose the word “interfere” carefully: even when I attend jazz performances I don’t want the audience to sing along, although applause after solos is no problem.

    “dressed very casually…jeans, etc. Just a regular night out on the town ”

    As to attire, I don’t want to generalize too much, but here it is not unusual to see all sorts of attire at Dallas Symphony concerts. Most are shall we say age-specific. Younger patrons very casual, or perhaps dressy, coming from an early dinner in a fine-dining restaurant, and middle agers dressed office casual.

    I have been a season ticket holder for about 30 years and it has been at least 5 years since I wore a tie or even a sport coat to a concert.

    Finally, let me offer my agreement with two excellent bloggers on the general subject of classical audiences and audience building : Bill Eddins


    … and his co-blogger Ron Spigelman


    This is an excellent topic to discuss, and I appreciate the opportunity to put in my two cents worth!

    Bill in Dallas

    The Dallas audience you describe sounds like what we see in NY.

    Thanks for the links. Two very lively, very thoughtful blog posts. Ron Spiegelman, when he talks about getting more of the older (potential) audience to go to classical concerts, is surely right. I know an orchestra that’s had a lot of success focusing on its core (and potential) core audience.

    But at the same time, we also have to attract younger listeners, because they’re the future, and also because many younger musicians would love to play for people their own age. Which (as I’ve said before) unfortunately gives classical music institutions a double mission, even though it takes everything they’ve got just to keep going the way they are.

  10. says

    “like the student in my Eastman course this semester who said he thought classical musicians — and certainly classical music students — were discouraged even from thinking of taking risks.”

    I know we’re speaking about approaches to programming and presenting classical music here, so the following is a little off-point, but I’ve seen comments along the lines of the above a number of times here and elsewhere, and so I feel compelled to state the following:

    If you are a young person in the USA in the year 2009 and you choose to pursue classical music as your career, you are by definition a risk-taker. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    But Philip! Do you really think it feels that way, to students at music schools? They know the truth of what you’re saying, consciously, but their everyday reality doesn’t involve risk at all. Except — and now I’m repeating what years of Juilliard students have told me — the risk of playing a wrong note in rehearsal, and having your career ruined forever. There isn’t any sense of risk, from day to day. If anything, there’s a sense of comfort, as the students do what they love to do. When they graduate — or, even worse, when they get their masters’ degrees — then suddenly they’re plunged into cold water. Now, unless they immediately get on a thriving career track — they’ll have to learn to survive.

    My student was talking about a willingness to take risks inside the normal process of learning to be a classical musician, and also a willingess to take risks in an effort to find new ways to make classical music work in the outside world. You’re not going to tell me, Philip, with a straight face, that such things are encouraged at music schools.

    Which, if we accept your first point, really makes no sense. If music students understood, in their bones, that merely by enrolling in Juilliard or Curtis or Eastman they were taking enormous risks, and if the schools also knew and cared about that, wouldn’t the students be encouraged to find new ways of doing things, in order to maximize their chances of making a living from music?

    Some schools, in fact — Mahattan, NEC — are trying to change their curriculum to emphasize this. And Eastman has a long-standing program that more or less goes in this direction. But it seems to me that music schools, and many music students, are in a state of denial. On one hand, they know that what you say is true. But on the other hand, they don’t do much to help their students cope with the risk. And they certainly don’t emphasize it on a day to day basis.

    How could they? They can’t very well stay in business if they tell their students how unlikely it is that they’ll succeed — even though the percentage of students who go on to make careers in something other than music is pretty high.

  11. Pierre Medard says

    The quality of classical music peformance during the past 50 years has decreased consisderably. One listens today to concerts which are loud, generally in fast tempos and lacking in honest emotional content.

    Gone are the days of pianist Artur Schnabel who played wrong notes, violinist Fritz Kreisler who sometimes played out of tune, conductor Piere Monteux. All of them made music of an emotional character unheard of today. None of them had the technical facility nor charisma which today’s audience demands and which determines their entry into the musical artists celebrity column.

    Today people go to see a concert, not hear one.

    Amen to this. Sometimes I feel like an old fogy — or a broken record (to use an out of date analogy!) — when I say what Pierre is saying. But the truth of our point of view can be documented. Recordings exist. Many of my students prefer current performances, because they’re so used to hearing technical perfection. But most of them can’t deny that there was more individuality — and more sheer love of making music — in the past.


  12. Andre Louw says

    I agree with some of your comments but not the last one.

    Have just watched a disc of the Mendelssohn commemoration concert from Leipzig with Chailly and Lang Lang. While the latter played I had to keep my eyes closed.

  13. says

    “eople were drawn into the experience and very ENGAGED. Again, what was unique about it is that the audience demographic was so very different than at the symphony concerts I attend. Worlds apart.”

    I come to this discussion from the perspective of writing about folk music, often Irish and Scottish music. When it is real music of the heart done by top class musicians such as Cathie Ryan, Eddi Reader, or Altan, (no disparagement to Celtic Women and High Kings, but music that goes very far beyond that sort of pop Celtic sensibility) the same sort of leap of connection, so to speak, occurs, even across demographics. That is another way of thinking about expanding the audience, as is the sort of thing Orchestra Nashville has been doing for some time, parallel and collaborative work with artists from a range of genres relevant to their geographic audience.

    An interesting exchnge of views, and it’s given me several ideas for blog posts of my own too.

    Hi, Kerry. Glad you’re so interested in what we’re saying here. And it’s good to have your perspective. The kind of engagement Holly described is pretty common in other musical genres. I remember it very well from my days as a pop music critic. And I particularly remember the comments of a group of orchestra musicians who visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. After watching some videos there, they wistfully said they wished orchestra audiences were as excited as rock audiences are.

    I’d never confuse the kind of music you’re talking about with the Celtic Women, and other watered-down things (in my view) that PBS disgraces itself by showing. Don’t know what your view of that music might be, but I think it’s about as simplistic and sentimental as anything i’ve ever seen.

  14. Gavin Findlay says

    It would be a help if composers wrote more music that was more enjoyable and rewarding for audiences to listen, and for orchestras to play.

    It’s very important to have new music that really connects with an audience. But with all respect to Gavin, I’m not sure it’s as simple as composers writing music that the audience likes.

    Because — just for instance — which audience are we talking about? If it’s the normal classical audience, maybe (again with all respect to many people) they’re not the most interesting audience to write music for, if you’re an adventurous composer. They’re not an adventurous audience, on the whole. Though to be fair, composers have been writing more accessible music (at least in the US) for some decades now, and audiences have often liked it.

    Another way to look at this might be: If more new music was played, a new audience might arise to hear it. There are certainly signs of that in New York. On the alt-classical side of things, there’s certainly new music that finds an excited audience.

    Finally, what’s often important isn’t simply mass acceptance, but excitement among a smaller but influential group. An example would be the growing popularity of French “new wave” films in the US, in the early 1960s. These films showed a new way of making movies, with a new culture attached. Not so many people watched them in the US at first, but that small group was passionate. And it included people from inside the movie business. Eventually the movie business in the US was injected with a powerful new energy, and art films — like Antonioni’s “Blow-up” — which formerly would have played to a very small audience sold tickets all over the country. (All of this is documented in Mark Harris’s wonderful book, “Pictures at a Revolution.”)

    This was part of the major cultural change that took place in the 1960s. I’m sad that we can’t point to anything equivalent in classical music, unless maybe it’s the rise of minimalism in the 1970s and ’80s — a perfect example, by the way, of a new style of music that found a completely new audience, no matter what the standard classical audience (or, for that matter, classical music professionals) might think.

  15. says

    Having worked with Michael Christie back in 2000, in a new work and a 19th century work, we shared the vision that new and old can indeed share the stage and appeal to many listeners in a single flowing concert experience. Just several weeks ago, I met with my agents for lunch and discussed which New York orchestra might be approached for a New York premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s exciting and beautiful Third Concerto. Yup–you go it–Brooklyn Philharmonic was the first mentioned–and rather quickly. Kudos to Michael and the orchestra for maintaining and growing the New York audience’s awareness of what they do and how to keep programs unique and enjoyable.

    Yes, of course you thought of Brooklyn. Made perfect sense.

    But now — you’ve heard that they’ve laid off staff, and might cancel their upcoming concert. i worry about their future, despite the good things Michael does.

  16. says

    I have heard about this–across the country actually with many orchestras. I don’t think the staff cuts would affect the idea bringing Lowell’s brilliant concerto to New York–especially with one of the better orchestras and conductors–and Michael is just that. I am also Head of the Piano Faculty at Brooklyn College–makes sense. We’ll see. I think that, again, as I have been preaching on these forums for many years–programming is the key to win new hearts and souls. Sort of off topic, but not quite–I am performing Keith Emerson’s Concerto next month with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic–and–Keith will be there on stage to introduce the concerto. Can’t get much better than that. I think more orchestras should program this and other works where the composer can get on stage and introduce the work. Rare enough for a legendary rocker like Keith to have a concerto–then to have him there! Should draw a great crowd. Maybe Brooklyn and others experiencing hard times could ponder these ideas. Brooklyn is on the right track, though. Everyone needs to calm down, stop going off the deep end and get very creative for the future, working with less $$. We’ve all cut our fees to help out everyone enduring the financial crunch.

    Well said.

    I fear the Brooklyn question right now is whether the orchestra will survive. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but there have been troubles there for quite a long time, and in the present climate…well, you know. If they have to take drastic steps now, nobody can say whether they can recover.

  17. James Patterson says

    On the question of classical audiences demanding perfection:

    I feel it is important for anyone who attends a concert to remember that we wear several hats…among them, one is that of a lover of music (in general), another is of a person who wants to support the performer or venue, another is that of a critic. More than once I have attended a concert and really enjoyed it and later had a discussion with a friend who was at the same performance and complained loud and long about this or that tuning problem, or “brass was too loud” or “the horn missed a note”, etc. I acknowledge having noticed the same things… yet, on the whole I had a great time.

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Bill in Dallas

  18. says

    Hi Greg,

    On the points of taking risks, and of young composers generally:

    I have becoming increasingly depressed about the state of composition amongst younger composers, at least in this country (Australia). There have never been so many opportunities to young composers as there are presently, with numerous workshops, performance opportunities etc. There are also heaps and heaps of younger composers undertaking training in universities – for example, this year I have 34 composition majors in my first year cohort at the University of Sydney. However, few to no young composers seem to be ‘breaking through’ into performances by mainstream ensembles and organizations, the majority of whom seem to be sticking to who they know (e.g. people like myself).

    I am still classed as a young composer, despite being 40 and being well established in the Australian musical scene for at least 10 years.

    Partly the reason for this is the aversity to risk, as you point out. Performing organizations want to see and hear music that has a really strong personality, that is individual and even extreme in its inherent forms of expression. Yet they are averse to taking risks, especially in these economically challenging times. There is enough ‘good’ new music being written out there without them needing to explore anything that may have a high risk of failure.

    The composers themselves, though, are also responsible. Perhaps it is the underlying socially conservative norms at the moment but why are so few young composers really making a splash, especially in orchestral and chamber music fields?

    Actually, while these questions are potentially very depressing to contemplate, I must tell you of a concert I attended last year which was mind-blowingly good. It was put on by the Chronology Arts organization, which is a collective of young composers, performers and administrators here in Sydney. The concert consisted of 9 brand new works by young composers for rock band ensemble – electric guitar and bass, keyboard, drumkit and perhaps vocalists. And the music… WOW! I’d heard of the majority of these composers previously and would generally describe their music on the whole as OK – reasonably straightforward, even middle of the road in most cases. But when writing for this rock ensemble, their music came alive. Just about every piece was very well written, made musical sense and demonstrated that the composers were intimately familiar with what they were writing for – at least, the sound of the ensemble. One of the best concerts I’ve heard in a long time from a compositional perspective.

    Similarly, from what I’ve heard, the majority of musical innovation and most effective musical statements are being made by young composers working in the electronic/sound-art spheres. Probably, again, due to technology which enables the composer to get exactly what they are after without needing third-party translation or limitations. They are intimately familiar with, and excited by, the emerging musical traditions rather than having to work so hard to try to join traditions that have been going on for 100s of years.

    So maybe that ensembles of amplified rock instruments or electroacoustic musical forms will provide an effective path to some sort of musical future in which we can believe. With the advent of computer-playback and the like, and the general decline in teaching of orchestration in universities (at least in this country), combined with economic pressure of students to earn an income while studying rather than attending concerts, it could be said that orchestral and acoustic chamber works may be a dead-end for the future generations. There will always be the prestige of writing orchestral music but will it be any good?

    Hi, Matthew. Nice to see you here. And, everyone, I recommend Matthew’s music. It’s fresh and strong.

    I think we’re luckier in the US. We do have some younger composers (Derek Bermel, for instance) breaking into the mainstream, and at the same time keeping their roots in a more alternative scene. There’s more new music being heard in mainstream circles, and the underground, or alternative classical world, is just exploding with new music. Come spend a week in New York sometime. But I wonder whether the exciting concert you described might not become the seed for a large (or at least larger) alternative scene in Australia. Hard for me to say, but I’d like to hope that could happen.