More on diversity

My “Diversity Challenge” post has sparked a terrific discussion. Read it in the comments. I’m grateful to everyone who’s contributed. It’s all about the increasing diversity of our culture, and the notable non-diversity of the classical music world.

But one key thought was offered three weeks ago by Jon Silpayamanant, as a comment to my post on the New York City Opera, in which I mentioned — besides the improvising flute in the orchestra (still one of my favorite classical music amazements in recent months) — how the company attracted a Jewish audience to Hugo Weisgall’s opera Esther.

(And this comment got lost. My fault — the blog software decided it was spam, and I didn’t check to make sure all comments had gotten through.)

Because I think what Jon said is important, I’ll reprint it here:

You know, I’m wondering, since the last few pieces you’ve posted about overall declining audiences–and since you mentioned the Jewish audience that was there (even if only at the beginning) if maybe there might not be more people actually going to, say, music performances that just don’t even fit into the model of a ticketed event in an orthodox venue.
     
I would suspect, given for example and ethnic audience, might go to far more events than might be measurable just because these things happen to fall off the radar.
     
I’m also recalling how the ISO brought in Ice T for a reading of Langston Hughes, “Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz,” which, from what I understand was attended by a very large African-American audience (I believe I’d heard it sold out, but don’t quote me on that).

Also, when Gabriela Lena Frank was composer in residence with the ISO her work with the Orchestra inspired the some departments in the University of Indianapolis to launch a year long Spanish Song Project.
     
I think we might be surprised at the number of the growing ethnic populations in the US might be going to concerts, or in many cases, sponsoring their own events that just happen to fly well off the radar because of established venues (both Classical and Pop/Rock) don’t necessarily support, or bring in the types of artists these groups would normally go to see.

Yes!

And there have been various moves in this direction. At one time, the St. Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony made a serious approach to the black communities in their cities. (I wrote about the St. Louis effort for the Wall Street Journal.) And the San Antonio Symphony — since well over  half the people in San Antonio are Latino — used to play a lot of Spanish music. Lots of guitar soloists, for instance.

But these things — like so many innovations that classical music institutions try — can be ephemeral. The St. Louis Symphony, as far as I know, hasn’t been doing the community projects (including those in the black community) that it did in the ’90s.

And to reach ethnic communities, classical music institutions have to work hard. I remember, more than a decade ago, the publicist for a notable American orchestra telling me — I think with some annoyance — that she’d advertised regularly in her city’s African-American newspaper, and still African-Americans didn’t come to their concerts. You have to do far more than advertise.

And here’s a lost opportunity. In the ’90s, a major New York classical music institution surveyed its actual and potential audience, and found many people who said they didn’t come to the institution’s concerts because they didn’t know about them. And why didn’t they know? Because they didn’t read the New York Times. So here, maybe, was a potential audience, one that nobody tried to reach. And still aren’t reaching.

This is something else, I’d think, that will have to change, as classical music heads toward its rebirth. We’ll have to reinvent ourselves, to reach the diverse audiences out there. And how far will that reinvention have to go?

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Comments

  1. says

    The point about failure to market to potential audiences is very important. The Met’s marketing for Satyagraha makes a great example of getting this right. See my S21 post on the subject from 2008 for the details: http://www.sequenza21.com/2008/06/the-right-kind-of-advertising/

    Basically, the Met’s Patrons were fleeing Satyagraha like rats from a sinking ship, so the Met found a whole bunch of niche populations for which that specific opera might appeal and did targeted marketing to them. Ben Rosen says they marketed to “New-age magazines yoga groups, anti-apartheid organizations, India groups, South African organizations, et al.” and that as a result they sold out the run.

  2. says

    I think Carnegie Hall may be doing exactly what you are suggesting-inspiring people to attend through ethnic music concerts. With the Hungary Festival last year, the China Festival this year, and various other types of “ethnic” music such as Flamenco or Indian percussion, I think quite a few people who would not have gone to a concert at Carnegie Hall otherwise decided to go. And I would guess that some of those people then felt a lot more comfortable going back to a classical music concert. The best part about having such music performed was that it worked like an exchange-those who might not have been comfortable seeing “ethnic” music decided to go because it was being played at a famous place like Carnegie Hall and ended up enjoying it and being inspired to see more of it.

  3. says

    I’ve read the comments in the Diversity Challenge with some interest and although I have shared many thoughts about the subject of diversity and perception numerous times over the past year on my own blog, I will say a little something here about the subject here.

    As a member of the classical music’s so-called target diverse audience, in many ways I find the whole establishment attitude an act of pandering. To think that I will only go to a concert if it features things from (what is purported to be) MY culture and things that are from people that look like ME in order to attend or enjoy going to a classical or opera performance is offensive. I do understand that with a history of under- and no representation, some targeted inclusion might be necessary. But I don’t only need or want a jazz night or a Honor! festival that, because I’m some member of a particular racial group, exclusively focuses on something that a marketer or PR person thinks I might need in order to come to the concert hall. Don’t ghettoize the music. I don’t want to go to a concert that is all or mostly black just as I wouldn’t want to if it was all-white or all-old people (although I guess, that’s what happens when I go now, but we’re talking about what I’d ideally like to see). If it is really important, be courageous and include interesting works on regular concerts, that show what’s happening today. The so-called mixed music that myself and many other younger/youngish composers and musicians are producing today, is quite exciting, shouldn’t we see/hear some of it in the concert hall. Yes, on occasion include some classical war horses and standard bearers too, they are important as well. Sure you will lose some audience, sure you’ll be taking a risk, especially if it is a composer or work that is little known, but you’ll be vital and just may gain people who were never interested before.

    How do you attract a more diverse audience? Let’s start with who programs (or attends) classical music concerts now? Do they truly have a diverse group of friends (not acquaintances, but people they socialize with, who visit their homes, etc.)? Where do they live, do they have diverse neighbors? Do they even have diverse musical tastes, i.e. do they look down, not respect the tastes of upon other musics that aren’t classical? Do they have friends who are younger/older than they? who are less financially secure? How can you change the classical music culture if you don’t have any (or little) first-hand experience with some of the audience you are trying to bring into the hall. If we can start by bringing in more diverse voices in the decision-making at the establishment, perhaps then you’ll likely to start seeing more diverse people coming into the halls (assuming it is affordable that is, and that’s a whole other subject…).

  4. a curious reader says

    i think that the ethnic diversity is just the beginning of a larger diversity problem. it’s not just ethnic, it’s musical, format, experience, etc…

    i think that the bringing in of popular hip-hop artists to do readings is a great idea and i’d almost like to see what would happen if orchestra’s tried something like the LSO/Metallica cd…say, “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring Radio Head” or something…somebody write a concerto for drum kit and get the drummer from system of a down to play it. and make it a program that features that, but also give the audience some of the standards to give the long standing audience their recognition.

    A question: by relying completely on the old patrons/donors are we holding back the development of a new audience?

  5. Katie Berglof says

    Curious reader, I like your ideas! Serj Tankian, the lead singer of system of a down is someone I consider a musical genius, his writing and ideas in his music are phenomenal! I love how he incorporates political views in the music, and also the Armenian flavor that shows up throughout some of his songs. If a concert ever existed with orchestra and System of a Down, I believe it would sell out very fast.

  6. Janis says

    I wonder if the best way to do this isn’t just to reimagine what an “orchestra” is. There’s already lots of people IN the thing; piggyback off of the orchestra’s own internal diversity.

    I can see an “orchestra” evolving slowly into more of a community of musicians than as a group of people who are assembled to realize the musical imagination of one person Like a Facebook for classical musicians in meatspace; in a model like that, good luck trying to keep the “outside world” of music out.

  7. Aric Isaacs says

    Many of the comments are right on point – especially the idea that diversity means more than racial and ethnic groups. The difficulty in expanding the family, though, is a very tough nut to crack.

    What the Met did with Satyagraha is wonderful but they also have an extremely large marketing budget and staff to be able to execute such a plan. I would also be interested to know if those folks who came out for the opera have attended any subsequent productions. That is the problem with “niche” marketing. An organization seemingly starts from scratch for every event; very difficult for smaller organizations with limited budgets and staff.

    The idea that diversity in the decision making process might attract greater audience is intriguing but holds its own difficulties as well. To cite a couple of examples: Several seasons ago, I attended a concert where a DJ was part of the program with the symphony. It was very well attended by an under 30, multi-racial audience. Needless to say, for the most part, they did not stay for the second half of the program which was a traditional piece. I did not notice any significant increase in younger attendees in subsequent concerts. In another instance, Connecticut Opera, for several years prior to its demise, had at its helm two African-Americans yet the audience remained overwhelmingly white.

  8. says

    Dear Greg:

    Happy New Year! I hope you are doing well.

    We noticed this statement & felt it warranted a response w/ some clarifications on our end:

    “At one time, the St. Louis Symphony and the Detroit Symphony made a serious approach to the black communities in their cities. …But these things — like so many innovations that classical music institutions try — can be ephemeral. The St. Louis Symphony, as far as I know, hasn’t been doing the community projects (including those in the black community) that it did in the ’90s.”

    Our Community Partnership program is stronger than ever.

    EDUCATION AND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM

    The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra is an integral part of the community, sharing the gift of music with tens of thousands of people in schools, churches, parks, community organizations and other venues throughout the region.

    In just the last 18 years, the Orchestra’s broad-based community and education efforts have grown to include:

    • Programs, festivals and showcases each year at more than 100 schools in 12 area school districts

    • Kinder Konzerts, Young People’s Concerts, and Young Adult’s Concerts for more than 40,000 students annually

    • The St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which includes talented young musicians from more than three dozen area schools

    • Performances in 40 African-American churches through the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Program

    • Over 250 free performances at community organizations, schools, churches, parks and other locations throughout the year.

    Our diversity efforts include the following:

    • This season is the 15th anniversary of the In Unison Chorus

    • 18th anniversary for the church program – grown from 5 churches in 1992 to 40 churches today

    • 15th year of the Black History Month Concert

    • The SLSO hosts St. Louis’s annual MLK Day celebration at Powell Hall.

    • 5th anniversary of the MetLife Music Without Boundaries Program, engaging the Eastern European, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American, and Asian communities.

    • On Stage at Powell free concert series this year, next month’s concert features Reggie Thomas, Robert and Sylvia Ray, and SLSO musicians playing Joplin, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, etc.

    • We are developing a new Instrumental Mentoring Program for Minority Music Students

    • The SLSO is a member of the St. Louis Minority Business Council

    • diversity is one of the main initiatives of our Strategic Plan now being implemented by the CP Task Force

    • we were one of the first five recipients of the MetLife Award for Excellence in Community Engagement in 2002, mostly due to the IN UNISON Program

    IN UNISON® Church Program

    The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® program began in 1992 through the leadership and generosity of the Monsanto Fund. The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® program, which began with five churches, quickly established itself as the model for the Symphony’s community programs, and now Orchestra musicians perform to 20,000 members from 40 churches in the Metro-St. Louis African-American community. The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® program was designed to provide music-related resources to area churches while increasing access to Powell Hall. Orchestra musicians visit member churches offering music during services, special event concerts, and educational events. In addition, the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® program church members are eligible for discounted tickets to SLSO concerts, tuition discounts to area music camps, music scholarships to colleges and other benefits. Partnering churches are also invited to special events at Powell Hall.

    Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus

    The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus was created in 1994 as a one-time effort for the performance of Hannibel Peterson’s “African Portraits”. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response, the Chorus has become a permanent part of the Symphony’s artistic family. The Chorus performs as part of the Orchestra’s season in the annual Black History Month Celebration, as well as in Gospel Christmas concerts, and community concerts in various locations around the area. Maestro Robert Ray, Professor and Director of Keyboard Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, conducts the Chorus. The Chorus’ annual holiday concert, “A Gospel Christmas,” was an instant hit in the St. Louis community and has become a holiday tradition. The chorus joined the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra for performances of Kurt Weill’s Marie Galante in the 1999 – 2000 season, their first appearance on the subscription concert series. The Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISON® Chorus made its Carnegie Hall debut in January 1998. The Chorus now comprises 130 members from throughout the community.

    Much of this information is listed on our website – http://www.slso.org/cp/index.htm

    Best,

    Adam Crane

    Director of Communications

    Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

    adamc@slso.org

  9. says

    The idea that diversity in the decision making process might attract greater audience is intriguing but holds its own difficulties as well. To cite a couple of examples: Several seasons ago, I attended a concert where a DJ was part of the program with the symphony. It was very well attended by an under 30, multi-racial audience. Needless to say, for the most part, they did not stay for the second half of the program which was a traditional piece. I did not notice any significant increase in younger attendees in subsequent concerts.

    If you had someone young-ish or at least more in touch with the younger audience doing the programming or part of the decision-making, then probably you wouldn’t have programmed the ‘traditional’ piece after the DJ piece. Or you might have picked a piece which is a little more ‘exciting’ or current and more appealing to those that would come to hear the first piece, yet ‘traditional’ enough that the regular audience would still listen to. I know, a tough balancing act (you will lose some in each group either way), but it is possible. And certainly following up with some kind of other interesting concert(s), not necessarily featuring a DJ again, would show that the DJ concert wasn’t some kind of token, let’s-bring-in-the-hipster-set gimmick. Again, having who understands the target group, would have this awareness.

    In another instance, Connecticut Opera, for several years prior to its demise, had at its helm two African-Americans yet the audience remained overwhelmingly white.

    Just because you have African-Americans at the head, doesn’t mean instant diversity in the audience. My guess here is that while there was racial diversity at the helm, there wasn’t economic diversity at the top. So what appeals to wealthy blacks, for the most part appeals, to wealthy whites more so than to middle and lower income blacks and Latinos. Opera, with its very high prices and often cultural barriers to entry, make it a tough sell (but NOT impossible!) to middle, lower, and working class blacks and Latinos (not to mention whites of the same economic strata, not raised on opera). If they have a choice where to spend their hard earned (and meager disposable income), why would they choose opera as a place to spend it when it could be something they are more interested in and get more from? Especially if the commitment to bringing in a diverse audience isn’t really there, and this we can’t know from your example.

    I don’t think racal, economic, and cultural diversity is a panacea for all of the issues in the classical music establishment, however it is a start. The little tag phrase from Avatar is appropriate here, “I see you.” This is one thing the classical music establishment needs to do as a a starting point so the people in charge (which hopefully will also become more diverse) can at least be more aware of the ‘other side’. To see them and to think of them as potential allies in building new paradigm with new traditions. But it also means that the old ways of marketing, presenting, performing, and even, what-is-classical-music, are over.

    Good thoughts, Joe. I don’t think diversity is any kind of panacea. But I think it’s necessary, in the long run.

    It also has to be continued, over long spans of time. One DJ on a concert will have exactly the result you describe. Do it over and over, cultivate the new audience, make them feel (in a variety of ways) that they’re welcome, and you may well see a better outcome.

    Having a black conductor in an otherwise largely all-white context won’t make any difference. You need to build relationships with the black community, and again that’ll take quite a lot of work, and quite a lot of time.

    You’re exactly right when you say the message has to be “I see you.” And you have to keep communicating that message, and, most of all, you truly have to see the people concerned, and show that you see them. Which might lead to notable changes in what you normally do.

  10. Janis says

    Programming a more “traditional” piece after the other stuff can also come across as patronizing to a non-traditional audience. It makes it seem as if the symph wasn’t respecting the other music on its own terms, but just using it to sucker the audience in to listen to “real” music. The spoonful of sugar.

    And yes yes yes yes on having more economic diversity in the decision making areas! That’s REALLY hard, though; fundraising is a huge part of what goes on in the back offices, and a working-class schlub without the rich man’s rolodex of people they can hit up for checks and sponsorships isn’t going to come in handy there. Nor are their kids going to be able to take the “internship with no pay” entry-level positions that such organizations often offer. A kid who has to bus tables to go to college can’t afford a summer internship that pays nothing.

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