Here’s the end of my series on awakening relationships — relationships, of course, between classical music performing groups and their communities. Didn’t know it would turn out to be so long.
I call the post “finishing — for now” because certainly there’s more to say on all of this.
Final installment (for now) — excitement and surprise.
There are few things, I think it’s safe to say, less surprising than most classical performances. The music mostly is familiar. The musicians know it. The long-time audience knows it. Performances move along a comfortable, safe track. They’re journeys everyone involved has gone on many times before.
Which isn’t to say that — just for instance — experienced orchestral players won’t get excited when the principal clarinetist plays something in a way she’s never quite done before. A musician from a major orchestra one of them once told me about these moments, repeated many times in his long career. And his eyes were shining when he talked about this.
But moments like that can happen, and still the performances as a whole can seem predictable. And then most people don’t hear details like these. Especially newcomers — the people you want to attract, and who when you do attract them, might come once, but never again. They may not hear these lovely details at all. What they’ll pick up on, very likely, is the sense of comfort, of familiarity, of everything unfolding mostly as it always does.
And they may well like that. One of the most frequent things I’ve heard outsiders say about classical music — and they say it with very strong approval — is that it’s “calm.”
Classical music, I’ve heard people say — many, many times — is “calm.” That’s why they like it.
But what’s missing is any urgent reason to show up. You know, more or less, what the experience will be. Each week will be the same. Only the names — of the soloists, composers, and conductor (if we’re talking of an orchestra) — will change. (Opera companies have it easier, of course. One exciting singer in a leading role can make a performance levitate.)
So what would make you think you had to come? Especially if, in the rest of your cultural life, you’re used to something that’s more unpredictable. (Such as going to the movies. Seriously. Think about it.) Some years ago, the London Symphony commissioned short pieces from nine young composers, and proposed to drop them unannounced into otherwise normal concert programs. I don’t know if they ever did that, or what happened if they did. But it seems like a powerful idea — not just fun, but challenging artistically — and certainly, if it worked well, could get the audience talking, wondering what the next unexpected piece would be (and at which concert it might be heard, and at which moment in the program).
During my recent visit to the Netherlands, I was part of a discussion with about a dozen people, from various walks of classical music life, some from orchestras. We started tossing thoughts around. What would make an orchestra concert surprising? I told the London story. Someone at the discussion, if I remember rightly, had an organization that had added things to concerts that weren’t on the printed program.
So we began riffing on that. Suppose at every concert by your group — orchestra, string quartet, opera company — at some point something the audience hadn’t heard about would happen. A piece could be played that wasn’t on the program. Someone not from the group could play a piece. And why should it be classical music? Why should it be music, even? Why not folksingers, dancers, improvising noise guitarists, a local poet reading? Or a magician.Or actors from the local Shakespeare theater doing a quick, sharp scene from As You Like It, in Klingon. Or Pauline Oliveros, leading one of her deeply absorbing works in which the audience creates the sound.
Or, as we did in the “Symphony with a Splash” series I hosted with the Pittsburgh Symphony, you could shave the head of a volunteer from the audience, while you played the Bacchanal from Samson and Delilah. And then the next week announce that since you’re playing Mahler’s Ninth, and it’s a serious, transcendent piece, there won’t be surprises. Everyone — musicians, audience — will descend into silence, and focus the music.
People, I think, would remember an orchestra or string quartet or opera company that gave performances in which these things might happen. And the musicians, just possibly, would take fire from the new vibe of daring, fun, surprises, and would play with new excitement.
(One example of people who offer very personal things at their performances, and offer more than music — Telling Stories, a Denver group that combines chamber music with the musicians reading writing that they’ve done. Podcasts downloadable. Very friendly, very effective, I’d think, in building a real relationship with people in the audience, who’ll have a rich experience of the musicians as the people they are outside of music.).