I talked in my last post about ways that classical performances could be friendlier, so the audience — especially a new audience — will feel welcome. I gave examples from the Baltimore Symphony, the Pacific Symphony, the Jackson Symphony, and other orchestras. In all of them, the musicians or the music director, or both, did something at a concert to welcome the audience.
What these orchestras did might not seem dignified. Ask all the people coming to one of your concerts for the first time to raise their hands? Went over very well at the Pacific and Jackson Symphonies, but, as I said, maybe the Cleveland Orchestra — or some other top-rank, dignified ensemble — wouldn’t want to do anything like that.
Which from a more down-home point of view might be a shame. Though maybe, for the Boston Symphony, asking newcomers to raise their hands just wouldn’t be appropriate. Or the staff and musicians wouldn’t think it was, which (for the moment, at least, until things might possibly change) would mean they shouldn’t do it. Especially since, at an orchestra like that, some reasonably large part of the audience might also not be comfortable if somebody asked them to raise their hands. There’s been too long a habit of formality and silence.
So what can orchestras with this kind of dignity — or dignified string quartets — do to be friendlier?
In my last post, I mentioned CRM, Customer Relations Management. Aka keeping in touch with your audience, getting to know them, giving them a chance to talk to you. And listening to what they say.
This could take many forms. The New York Philharmonic, just for instance, could set up a kiosk in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, where they play, or better still on the second floor promenade, where people go at intermission. The kiosk would be there so people in the audience could ask questions. What instrument had that long solo in the second movement? What are the horn players doing, when they seem to take their instruments apart? Why does the program book say that there are three trombones playing in this piece, when I can see four of them on stage?
And I’m sure there would be questions that weren’t so specifically about music. The kiosk staff would answer all of them. And also would be friendly, welcoming, so people would feel encouraged to go up to them and ask them things.
Another idea: the program notes could be less formal. Instead of talking only about the history and structure of the pieces being played, talk about how they feel to the musicians. What’s the conductor’s goal in conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony? What’s the hardest passage for the oboe? What’s a moment difficult to play, that the audience can listen for?
And what do some people in the audience think of these pieces? Maybe if there’s a new piece being played, instead of having the program annotator be the one to advocate for it (by praising it in a program note), or even having the composer write, why not have some members of the audience say what they think? They could have talked to the composer about the work, listened to other pieces that she’s written, heard excerpts played by members of the orchestra, or on the computer demos that composers routinely can prepare these days.
And if one or two of the audience members taking part in this don’t like the piece — well, bravo! Why should everyone like everything? Life doesn’t work that way. If we offer a full range of opinion, then the favorable comments look more plausible. And some new pieces can pose difficulties. Why not admit that, admit that some people in the audience may find it difficult to hear these works, and flat-out might not like them?
I can almost guarantee that this approach will make your audience sigh with relief. At last they’re given permission to be themselves! It’s OK if they don’t like something. Paradoxically (though if you think about it, understandably) this makes them more open to trying to like whatever piece it is. You respect them, treat them as human beings, and they’ll respect you.
I could add that I’ve seen people speaking from the stage at very serious orchestras — musicians from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, for instance, have done this, asking for donations, among other things, if I remember rightly. At the Pittsburgh Symphony one night, there was a rose on every seat occupied by someone who’d given money to the orchestra. A lovely way to say thank you, and, maybe, to call attention both to the presence of donors, and to the need for more of them.
But the important thing, I’ll say in closing, is that when you start to do these things you shouldn’t only do them once or twice. You want to do them constantly, maybe not the same thing every night (though the kiosk should be there for every performance), but always something, so you never drop the thread, and you’re always showing your audience how much you care for them.
Looking back, I only suggested two ideas. But people reading this — and also people who haven’t read it, and who’ve never heard of me — will think of more.