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.
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?