Only in New York?

So now the punchline for my series (possibly too long) on the new audience that seems to have emerged in New York. (Here, here, here, here for past installments.) 

Can this audience be created elsewhere? 

First thought: It may already exist elsewhere, most likely in big cities: London, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Flood me, if you like — I’d be thrilled — with info. I saw an audience like this in the ’80s for one of the new music concerts John Adams curated and conducted with the San Francisco Symphony. And Present Music, the terrific Milwaukee new music series, seems to have created a large audience for itself, which I’m guessing can’t just be the normal classical music or new music crowd. 

There must be many other examples. (I’m sure I’m forgetting some I’ve seen.) Educate me! 

But New York — or, more generally, any really large city — has advantages in creating this audience. Or finding it. Pure size is an advantage. If we imagine ( a somewhat crude way of looking at things, but a start) that the new audience might be some percentage, maybe a small one, of a city’s population, then the bigger the city, the bigger the audience. In my last post, I listed an impressively long list of New York events this audience seems to have showed up at. Clearly you need a largeish audience to support so many events. Especially since some of the events were large-scale — Le grand macabre at the New York Philharmonic, the triple bill Monodramas at the New York City Opera. You can’t bring off events on that scale without a large audience. Or at least I’d think you can’t do many of them. 

But there’s something even more important than pure size I think, and that’s the way the size of a city can help generate a critical mass. A large city is more likely to have media that cover unusual events. In a large city, there’s more chance that you’ll hear of unusual things from a friend, because you have more chance to find friends who are into unusual things. There’s more chance you can find a large audience for something unusual simply by planting your event in a public place, as Bang on a Can  has been doing for years with their marathon. Or if, like the marathon, you’re also part of a larger festival, that festival will draw a larger audience in a larger city, which means that a larger number of people with unusual taste will hear about the festival, and respond to the new classical music on it. 

And so on. It’s not hard to figure out how a critical mass works. What I think happens is that in a large city, you can increase the percentage of people interested in the kind of event I’m talking about, just because the events themselves, as they continue to burst forth, create a presence that draws people in. 

But enough of that. What happens in a smaller city? I don’t think it’s impossible to make the kind of thing I’m talking about happen. And this, more than anything else, is what I want to stress in this post. You might not be able to get a New York-size new music scene happening, with a brand new audience. But you can do something. Something that will attract people outside the normal new-music in group. 

I’m sure this has happened. And I’d love to have examples! Again, educate me. Flood me with examples from places smaller — maybe much smaller — than New York. For instance, Baltimore. Here’s a city with an orchestra that seems to create much more public buzz than most orchestras do. It’s also a city with an active arts scene. And a lively new music scene. Put all of this together, and I can see a version of what’s happening in New York ready to emerge. If it hasn’t emerged already! 

And by chance — a lucky Facebook contact — I’ve heard about the Mysterium Choir in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, founded by Lia Pas, a multidisciplinary performer/composer/writer (as she calls herself), and also a yoga teacher. Mysterium sings meditative music from many traditions, including a lot of classical new music, by composers like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and Pas herself. As well as a small number of traditional classical pieces. (Follow the link to see their latest program.)

Pas told me, when we exchanged messages on Facebook, that she might get 200 people to one of her concerts, and that the mainstream chamber series in Saskatoon might get 50. Someone might say that the attraction here is the meditation, not the music, but then the attraction, as advertised, in Lincoln Center’s White Light festival was spirituality. And people wouldn’t come to a meditation event built around music if the music didn’t speak to them. 

Besides, the larger point — and one the classical music world so badly needs to understand — is that people for the most part don’t come to something to hear music. They come for an event. Orchestras dutifully advertise their conductors, programs, and soloists, but most of their audience comes just to hear the orchestra. In pop music, people go to hear their favorite bands — but that’s an event, not just music. The bands have personalities, they dress in particular ways. They put on shows. And the personal identification fans have with them makes a concert  an event. 

Lia Pas, it seems to me, is creating events, just as Lincoln Center has done in New York. The events are built around music. People respond. And hear and enjoy music they otherwise most likely wouldn’t know about. 

Seems to me you could do something like that — and surely more — just about anywhere. 

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  1. says

    Meditation or not, I think the running thread is that new music benefits most from a multi-component approach — if you just go with the direct, traditional concert hall, program handed out, sit in your ticketed seat, dim the lights, everyone dressed in black/formalwear, “classical” approach, you don’t get the same audience buy-in.

    Stuff going on before, after, and yes, during the music, and not just performance-as-sacrament is what new audiences are looking for. “Creating events” is another way of describing that, but I think some arts administrators hear “creating events” and they think it means “spend more on marketing,” not create a different audience experience.

  2. says

    Check out They’re doing a festival of new contemporary opera right now and getting tons of great press and buzz. It isn’t quite filling the hall yet, but they did sell out Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice this weekend. Cipullo’s Glory Denied and Gordon’s Green Sneakers are also on the bill.

    Hi, Jayson,

    So now we can have the conversation here that we had on Facebook! I know about Urban Arias, because my wife Anne Midgette reviewed the group (very favorably). I’d love to know more, and I hope I’ll see a performance when I’m in DC.

  3. Mike P. says

    Hi Greg,

    RE: your point that ‘people for the most part don’t come to something to hear music, [t]hey come for an event……just to hear the orchestra.’ Is this really the case? I’m sure a number of people attending, say, the NSO here in Washington go because they decided they wanted to simply go to the orchestra, or because they are subscribers (shrinking number of these), but I would venture that program is quite important to a lot of people. I have seen some research to indicate this as well. It may be that the absolute numbers are not as great as the ‘event’ attenders. I have never been a subscriber to any orchestra and don’t go more than a few times per year in any year, but when I do go it’s only when I have checked out the program and see at least something that I would like to hear. And I’m by no means a classical wonk–I have a good # of classical CDs but I mostly listen to other music. I just don’t want to go to the orchestra on a whim and spend $$$$ on two tickets (to take my girlfriend), food, parking etc. as an experiment.

    I would be interested in research that shows the number of non-subscribers going to the orchestra simply to go to the orchestra, without regard to program, is greater than those who are there because of program. I will have to go dig up the research I referred to above that showed program as a key driver of attendance. It was a pretty thorough piece, but of course there are zillions of research studies out there….

  4. says

    Here in L.A. I remember many years ago feeling like I’d see the same group of people at every new music event. Now there seem to be different crowds at different events, many of them quite well attended. There’s some overlap, but Jacaranda has its audience, Pacific Serenades has another, Monday Evening Concerts has a lot of people I don’t recognize, PianoSpheres has yet another crowd, and it’s really different from the Dilijan series, and as far as I can tell all of these are at least somewhat different from the big audiences at the LA Phil’s new music series. Each series–and there are lots more–has its own vibe and attitude, so of course it draws a particular crowd. (All of these series are relatively conventional in presentation, although emphasizing different repertoires.) And then there are alternative spaces doing more traditional repertoire: Classical Underground, in a big warehouse-like artist’s studio, draws a big and really unusual crowd with its party atmosphere and Russian hosts.

    It seems like there are multiple scenes now.

  5. Joshua Randall says

    I agree with Mike P.

    Here’s why: last week I made the trip to see my nearest orchestra (Sydney Symphony) because they had a programme that was interesting (Beethoven 7th plus John Adams Harmonium). This was a three hour trip either way, but I did it for the chance to see Harmonium played live.

    However, I did not, this year, subscribe (or buy single tickets) to The Australian Chamber Orchestra, who regularly play in my city because all of their programmes this year are full of unadventurous, old music that I could hear anywhere.

  6. Melissa Eddy says

    There’s a pretty strong alt classical scene going on in Austin, exemplified by the Golden Hornet Project and composer/performer Graham Reynolds. Check out

  7. Michael Jaworek says

    dear greg,

    one of my colleagues in the pop music business here in the wash dc area uses as their tagline

    “not just a concert….but an event!”. That’s the crux of it in essence: creating a memorable moment,ie an ‘event’. when we do that, audiences tend to come out more. i am not talking about more ‘sizzle’…we need to provide more ‘steak’. that means more attractive content on several levels.

    best regards,

    michael jaworek

    the birchmere

  8. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello Greg! In Cincinnati (city population under 300,000, greater and ever-growing Metro population “pushing” three geographically spread-out suburbanite millions) there are two groups made up of young musicians, some of them younger players in the CSO, some free-lancers who graduated from CCM and decided to stay home and make a living making music here. One of the groups, Concert Nova is very innovative and plays in off-beat venues some very interesting programs ranging from Bach to Rock. Catacoustic is early-music oriented, hip and growing. There is an enormous amount of music for a city this size — the CSO, the Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival are the three big ones. The next tier encompasses two professional chamber orchestras, two professional vocal ensembles, no less than six concert series. I’ve been to more than twenty concerts this year so far and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. CCM presents literally hundreds of top-flight concerts every year. In general, the Cincinnati audience is sophisticated but not jaded and open to new music. the CSO’s biggest draw this season was Mesiaen’s Turangalila and the Opera’s biggest draw last season was Osvaldo Golijov’s Aydanamar. There’s hope yet.

  9. Paul Lindemeyer says

    The key with places like Baltimore and Milwaukee may actually be that they are troubled cities. They have big-city ills – crime, poverty and tension. I think Americans come together for music and art more when there’s a sense that life is somewhat dangerous. If people with a little money can park cars, stroll the parks and hang out in comfort, somehow they get too content and the juice leaves. I hate thinking this way, but it is so tempting.

    Saskatoon is on the other side of the coin in every way: it’s remote and has no real attractions, even to Canadians. But being Canadian means arts funding is available, and being out of the way means you can bring in artists from faraway places as long as they’re not too citified.

    Maybe the arts and urban quality of life have to come to a compromise, and not just a monetary one.