When I was in Jackson, MI — continuing from my last post, about my encounter with the orchestra there — my mission was to help the orchestra think about how it could connect more strongly with its community.
I don’t remember if I asked Steve Osmond, the music and executive director (and my old friend from the Yale School of Music) to drain me dry, as I’ve routinely asked people who engage me as a consultant (or who bring me to visit their school). But Steve most definitely did that. I spent time with five groups of people;
- people from the community, including some who like the orchestra, at least in principle, but don’t go to its concerts
- board members and volunteers
- students at Spring Arbor University
- some of the musicians
- members of the audience (though this was a very brief session, appended to a preconcert lecture)
When I made presentations at these gatherings, I basically said what’s in my Australia speech, which (as I’ve said here) is the best current summary of what I’m thinking about the future of classical music. Classical music has receded from our culture; that’s why the audience has aged; that’s why ticket sales and funding have been falling; the solution is to reconnect classical music with our culture.
The full-bore version of this talks about programming a lot more new music, and attracting a new audience of younger people (which in a classical music context, sigh, could mean anyone under 50) who spend their cultural time with things in popular culture (and the other arts) that seem smarter and more challenging than classical music seems to be.
Of course I mean classical music as it’s currently presented. The music, on its own, is as smart and challenging as anyone of any age would want it to be. The question is whether this comes across.
But I didn’t stress these last points in Jackson. I’m not about to say the orchestra and those who work with it should reorient themselves toward Xenakis and Mason Bates. They may not be inclined that way. (Though I did tell them that these alt-classical things are going on, and that I think they’re part of classical music’s future.)
Their needs, for the moment, are simpler and more basic. I asked the people from the community who didn’t go to concerts why they didn’t go. And I stressed that I wasn’t going to harangue them, that I didn’t think civilization would end if classical music declined, that I (no doubt like them) liked music that wasn’t classical, and thought it was important to our culture. If these people didn’t go to hear the orchestra, that was their business. But why?
The answers would, I think, be familiar to anyone who’s explored this territory. The people were a bit apologetic. They thought the orchestra was important. They’d love to go to concerts. But they were busy. They couldn’t find babysitters. All of which I sympathize with, but I think there’s also a larger story. It’s not that people with kids at home aren’t going to go to classical concerts. It’s that they don’t give the orchestra’s performances a high priority. For other things, I’m sure, they find a babysitter. But the orchestra just doesn’t matter enough to them.
So the orchestra’s job is then to make itself matter. What can it do so people don’t say, “Oh, I know I’d love to go sometime,” but instead say, “Damn! The concert this week sounded hot. I’m really sad I missed it.”
More on that in another post.