Doing Jackson

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.

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  1. Elliott Hayes says


    Love your blog, and love what you’re trying to do. I hope you don’t get to the point where your incessant searching for an answer to the classical music crisis leads you to the conclusion that you, the critics and many academics are actually part of the problem. I think one of the major problems with classical music is that people need to change the way it is taught.

    I’m a DMA student at the University of Maryland, and I’m exploring improvisation as my dissertation topic. There is often something missing in many performances of classical music these days; where our so-called artists are nothing more than mere craftsmen with pretty faces. How are students and audiences supposed to know the difference between true artistry, and manufactured commodity? You approach this issue by asking questions on the surface, as if it’s all after the fact. Perhaps you should get down to the fundamentals of music. Why is it essential? How are people supposed to feel about it before they’re bogged down with technique and an lofty sense of “perfection”. That all depends on education. Anyways, we should discuss this further.

  2. Laurence Glavin says

    Have you ever noticed how many times the contestants on “Jeopardy” seem completely at sea when the subject is classical music or opera? (Sometimes the category is hidden, with a term like “Men of Note” so you have to guess the composer, who is NEVER a woman.) One by one, the Jeopardists sail through history, literature, science, painting and sculture, politcs, etc, almost running the risk of hurting their thumbs with their zeal to provide the answer-in-the-form-of-a-question to the “clue”. (A little “Jeopardy”-speak.) Then let Alex ask the most basic question…the composer of a symphony first dedicated to Napoleon, then withdrawn…followed by a second or two of silnce…a feeble, hopeful but-not-assured-reply “who is Thaikovsky?”. It happens over and over again, and I do believe that in this season that started the week after Labor Day, there are far fewer questions in these categories so the contestants won’t look so bewildered.

  3. Aaron Liskov says

    Quick Question Greg —

    On the matter of reconnecting classical music with contemporary culture, have you written anything to the effect that composers of new music might also do more to make their music relevant than they are currently doing? Do you think that new music adequately engages with contemporary culture and that the only question is whether or not it is programmed?

    Good question, Aaron, and one I’ve been commenting on for 30 years. Also a question that’s been answered — the current generation of composers writes fabulous music that fits right into contemporary culture. It easily attracts a large young audience, once they get a chance to hear it. Some names: Mason Bates, Derek Bermel, Nico Muhly, the three composers in Bang on a Can, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. And many, many more.

  4. Carlos Fischer says

    Yesterday night a Spanish top Pop artist , Alejandro Sanz , played and sung to a crowd of maybe 25000 people in my city-Santa Cruz de la Sierra- local soccer stadium. I didn’t go to the concert(i don’t like it) but i realized from the TV news

    that people- teenagers and in their 30’s- said that it was a great concert , fun …

    hot stuff. Tickets : From $us.30 to $us.100 ; media coverage : full , newspaper’s

    front pages, all early morning tv programs showed parts of it .Ticket sales : maybe

    more than $us.300.000.-

    The same night , our local Youth Symphony Orchestra was performing in our very

    small city theater – 400 seats capacity , full – Cesar Franck’s Symphony in d minor ,

    Juan Crisostomo Carriaga’s Overture to ‘ Happy Slaves’ opera and Mauro Giuliani’s Guitar

    concerto in A major. People- between 35 and 65 years old- said they liked it .Tickets: $us. 15 ; media coverage : almost nothing before the concert and nothing at all in today’s news

    and tv programs. Ticket sales: surely no more than $us.6000.-……unsustainable.

    Well , it was the 3rd. and the last performance of the program so maybe the total ticket sales reached near $18000.-…still unsustainable.

    The orchestra will play again only in december..…..….Christmas Carols!!!!!!!

    Is it possible for Classical music performers to play for really big and also younger

    audiences? what things should be made for this purpose? right now i am thinking about a Classical concert in a soccer stadium …all performers and instruments wired, microphoned , full sound amplification , speakers all around the stadium…playing ……that’s it ……Leos Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Magnus Lindberg’s Seht Die Sonne…do you think that is a good program for a stadium occasion ? combining the “old’ and the “new”?…is it feasible?

    what kind of marketing strategies should be executed in order that a program like

    this has great success in audience age and sales numbers?

  5. Ted Spickler says

    I am 68 years old (one of the white haired old fossils that love concert music) but my attendance at live symphony concerts is limited to perhaps 2 or at the most 3 in a year. The reason I blame on a “hassle factor”. The concert hall is at least an hour and fifteen minutes away, then you gotta find center city parking, it’s likely dinner time so add a meal into the mix; by the time we get home it’s midnight and I could have bought 6 CD’s with the money spent. I also find the concert selection includes to many often heard “warhorses”. I am amazed there are so many folks who can buy subscription tickets and say “all power to them” because someone needs to save the orchestras!

  6. says

    Speaking of including more new music on concert programs:

    I teach a music theory course at my university for non-music majors. Today, as the students were coming into the classroom, I was playing a recording Schnittke’s string quartets in the background. As soon as class started I mentioned who the composer of the music was, when he lived, and some other information about him.

    It just so happened that I solicited an informal evaluation at the end of the class today asking if there was anything else I could do/change in order to help the students. A significant number of students literally wrote “Play more Schnittke for us” on their papers.

    The impalatability of new music (even Schnittke!) is extremely overrated by artistic directors, as well as the musicians themselves. In my experience in higher education it is frequently assumed that new music is simply indigestible esoteric drivel and therefore not even worth engaging.

    Considering the extremely favorable response I received from young, intelligent, non-music majors I can’t help but think that there is an enormous untapped audience demographic consisting of people just like my students, whose interest was piqued by a mere 5 minutes of casual listening.

  7. says

    Great post Greg- to circle back to Elliot Hayes’s comment. Frankly I think academics ARE a big part of the problem, and I speak as an academic. In what curriculum do we teach our students to make classical music relevant? Maybe the Longy school with their experiential education curriculum? As academics we need to figure out how to get our kids to think beyond the practice room and how to make this exciting. There are many ways to do this, but are we actually teaching this? Or is this such a leap from what we all know? Music theory for the first two years, accompanied by class piano, and music history from pre-baroque through present day and private lessons and ensembles. Where are we teaching our students how to connect their artistry with an excited audience? Or are we just hoping they as young people will naturally get it? That doesn’t seem like we’re setting them up for success. It’s more like ok, we’ve taught you to drive on a Model T, now make the Toyota Corolla go!

    Heather McCowen

    Roosevelt University

    Chicago, IL