Making it work — finishing (for now)

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.).

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  1. says

    You conclude that “People . . . would remember an orchestra . . . that gave performances in which these things might happen.” They sure would. Many (including young people), who attended the concert expecting to hear just classical music, I’d wager, would simply not buy tickets again, no matter how future concerts were marketed. Time, of course, will tell.

    Regarding “many, many” ordinary people saying “with very strong approval” that they like classical music because it’s “calm”: I doubt that this is what a professional, unbiased scientific survey would report. When I taught music appreciation in a secondary school a few decades ago, my students would say that music was calm only when it was in fact . . . calm. But then my remarks aren’t scientifically-based either.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art [including music] Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) –

  2. says

    I like these ideas a lot. For one, I don’t know why classical concerts require such detailed program notes. In other genres of music, program notes would be completely absurd. You wouldn’t go to a concert to read or get a musical history lesson, you would go to enjoy what’s happening on stage. The most you know before going to a regular concert is usually just the name of the headlining band. You don’t know what they’re going to play and you’re not going to be given an in depth analysis of the philosophical implications of the experimental methods the band employed to write a piece of music. A big part of the surprise at these concerts can be the opening bands as well. Why don’t orchestras do this sort of thing? Why not start with a local youth orchestra before the regular performance or, instead of switching orchestras, just start with some music by little known local composers?

    Also, Telling Stories makes me think of Tom Waits. At his concerts, the stories he tells between songs can be just as entertaining as the music. They turn him into a real person and allow him to connect with the audience on multiple levels and you just don’t get that in the classical world. At best, someone will come out beforehand to talk about the upcoming piece but it usually feels more like a self-absorbed lecture than entertaining dialogue. Maybe that’s just in the delivery though.

  3. piccolo says

    The Guerzenich orchestra in Cologne plays unannounced (in the program) pieces in a “third act” at the end of the concert. That can amount to combining early-baroque cluster music with the canon by Pachelbel or brass players smattering Stockhausen from the galleries as concert goers exit the building.

  4. Robert Berger says

    Sorry,but I disagree with the whole premise of your argument. While you are right up to a point,there are many,many exceptions to the kind of dull,predictable routine you describe in classical music today.

    First of all, there is actually greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the history of classical music. There is a core repertoire of lastingly popular works which never go out of the repertoire,but no lack of new music.

    If you go say,to a New York Philharmonic concert,and this has been true even before the much-touted arrival of Alan Gilbert there,you might hear anything by any composer of any perdiod,nationality or style,ranging from

    Bach,Handel,Haydn,Mozart and Beethoven to the latest works by a wide variety of contemprary composers. Yes,the NY Phil. plays the beloved familiar masterpieces,the same as orchestras everywhere,but it has also played a wide variety of new or recent works by many different contemporary composers,as well as reviving interesting rarities form the past by composers you don’t hear very often in the concert hall,or

    unjustly neglected works by famous ones.

    I reject the notion that there’s little or no reason to go to concerts or opera today.

    In opera too,while certain popular operas by Mozart,Rossini,Donizetti,Verdi,Puccini,Bizet,

    Wagner,Richard Strauss and others composers are still a prominent part of the repertoire,

    there is also greater diversity of repertoire than ever before.

    Today,opera audiences can attend performances operas by Janacek,Dvorak,Prokofiev,Adams,Glass,Bolcom,Ades,

    Henze,Goljov,Tan Dun,Zemlinsky,Schreker,



    Picker,Danielpour,Heggie and many others outside the standard repertoire.

    The classical music scene is much more lively and relevant than you make it out to be.

  5. says

    Louis, maybe it’s those audience members that classical groups are chasing too much – those who want to predict what they’re getting. Maybe orchestras should stop prioritising those sorts of listeners and court more adventurous, omnivorous, sophisticated listeners – it’s a better investment long term. Possibly I’d be tempted back to classical shows then.

  6. says

    Robert Berger, do you have any hard evidence that the variety is greater now than any other point in history? No offense, your statement simply sounds anecdotal and my anecdotal evidence says the opposite. I moved a little over a year ago and wanted to move to a place that had a good opera house that would perform new music. I looked through the season guides for all the big cities I could think of and found almost the exact same scenario every time: 3-4 romantic era Italian, and sometimes German, operas and occasionally 1 new opera. I ended up in SF because they seemed to have a history of doing at least that 1 new opera every year and, go figure, the very next season contained exactly zero new operas. It was exactly the kind of calendar one would expect. I found the same issue when checking out ballet companies too. Even going to conservatory recitals offers much of the same, albeit more ‘modern’ composers but that only means it’s music that was written by people who have only been dead for 20-30 years.

  7. a curious reader says

    Robert, if the scene is so much more “alive and relevant,” then please show me some numbers. Even with the diversity of the rep the numbers are still not where they need to be; and it’s obvious that the standards didnt/dont work.

  8. Robert Berger says

    Mr. McNeill.I don’t know if you read Opera News magazine.If not,you should. Just check its annual September preview of opera seasons around the world. There is actually enormous diversity.

    You’re right up to a point.The smaller regional American companies do tend to stick to the tried and true familiar operas,but there have been many exceptions in cities like Dallas,Houston,Seattle,Washington and elsewhere to the same old standard operas,and there have been premieres of operas by composers such as Adams,Glass,Jake Heggie,Bolcom,Daniel Catan,Ned Rorem,and other leading composers of the day.

    The supposedly stodgy Met has been doing really interesting things such as The Nose by Shostakovich,Janacek’s From the Houise of the Dead,Hamlet by Thomas,Rossini’s Armida,Doctor Atomic by Adams,The First Emperor by Tan Dun,

    Die Aegyptische Helena by R.Strauss,and will be doing Nixon in China and Rossini’s Le Comte Ory.

    The New York City opera is doing Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and Intermezzo by Richard Strauss.

    Then look at Europe. The sheer diversity of operatic repertoire there is dazzling.

    It’s the same with concerts. Some orchestras,mostly the smaller oes,are forced to stick to the same old warhorses because audiences are too conservative.

    But conductors such as Neeme Jarvi and his son Paavo,David Robertson,James Conlon, Michael Tilson Thomas,Marin Alson,David Zinman,James Levine in Boston,Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland,Leonard Slatkin,Alan Gilbert and others are willing to think outside the box and are not afraid to program works by a wide variety of contemporary composers as well as searching the forgotten corners of the orchestral repertoire.

  9. says

    Robert, personally, your lists still sound very predictable to me. Essentially, you seem to be saying the same thing that I was just saying only with a much more optimistic outlook. That is, opera companies produce works from the romantic era by well known composers with the occasional wild card here and there. So they’re willing to play Nixon in China? That’s probably the only opera less than 100 years old that they’ll play that year and even that one is over 20 years old and firmly established. Or they’ll program a new work by the same guy? It’s exactly the kind of music you would expect even if you haven’t heard it before. They might play lesser known works by big composers? There will almost definitely be just one on the bill and that’s not much of a refresher anyway. Nice, but you know what to expect because you’ve listened to that composer’s music a billion times. Janacek or Shostakovich? They don’t get played as much as Donizetti but they’re far from offering a surprising experience. Even the premieres that you speak of like Tan Dun’s or Jake Heggie’s, while nice and able to offer surprises in themselves, are tainted by the fact that only one of those surprises is available for an entire year or longer.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love old music and I’d love to hear lesser played old music but it’s hard for me to see how opera houses are offering anything that’s not predictable when the bulk of the music is from composers that have been played out for a century or more. If diversity means they play baroque, bel canto, romantic, and once every couple years a new(er) opera, that doesn’t exactly equate to blowing away preconceptions of what one can expect from a classical performance.