Orchestral challenge — second post

In my last post, I urged orchestras not to worry so much about what their audience likes, and to program music they themselves like. Presenting to the world something more vivid, more individual, more compelling than (to paraphrase the kind of language so often found in orchestra publicity) “Tchaikovsky’s beloved violin concerto.” The concerto, please note, isn’t the problem. It’s the language used to talk about it.

Why aren't your concerts exciting?

Better to say (if you dared), “The concerto our soloist loves the most, but also the one that drives her crazy because it’s so hard to play.” Say something like that, and — suddenly! — you’re telling the world, “We’re real people, who think and feel the way you do.”

And you’re talking about something that someone — an actual or potential member of the audience –might really want to show up for: A violinist playing a piece she loves, but whose difficulty just about scares her.

So — building on these thoughts — here’s a challenging exercise you might try, if you work with an orchestra. Take every concert your orchestra gives, every single one, and (quickly, in one or two or three sentences) find words to say why that concert is special. What makes it distinctive. Why someone should go to it. Why it’s different from every other concert you’re giving this year, and different from every concert every other orchestra gives.

And — maybe especially — why it’s different from concerts where other orchestras play the same music, or when your own orchestra did, a year or two or three ago.

Yes, this is hard. Many people, I can imagine, will be tempted to say, “This concert is special because we’re playing Tchaikovsky’s beloved violin concerto.” Well, in a way I’m joking, because I’ve made fun of that phrase. But that’s the kind of thing blurbs for orchestra concerts normally say!

And think about it. Not only is that language not remotely compelling (or even very human; do we really live in a world where everything is “beloved”?), it’s doesn’t really make the concert very special, especially to people outside classical music. Because if this week’s concert is special because we’re playing Tchaikovsky, last week’s was special because we played Mozart, and next week’s is going to be special because we’re playing Beethoven’s inspiring Ninth Symphony.

Which really means these concerts are all the same. On each one you’ll hear great masterworks of symphonic music. Which everyone already knows your orchestra plays, so you’re not telling anyone anything new.

So, please — try the exercise. Go through your programs, and find something special to say about each one, maybe about the music, maybe about the performances. Your goal is to present a season in which each concert is a distinctive and vividly human event, so that people in your town won’t want to miss even one of them.

Be bold, take chances. Because if your concerts aren’t special, aren’t distinctive, aren’t vividly human, aren’t something the whole town should be talking about, why are you giving them?

In another post, I’ll give examples of concerts that sound like they might be special. But I’d love to hear your ideas. If anyone tries this exercise, send me your concert descriptions! Or put them in a blog comment. 

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  1. richard says

    “ ‘Tchaikovsky’s beloved violin concerto.’ The concerto, please note, isn’t the problem. It’s the language used to talk about it.” Personally, I’d rather have a root canal than listen to that maudlin old warhorse.

  2. Mark Lindeman says

    Greg, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, saying that “we’re playing Tchaikovsky’s beloved violin concerto” is also telling a lot of us that there is really no reason for us to come. It’s like an invitation to a memorial service for “our beloved Ruth Ann,” with the subtext: If you don’t already know why you should come, well, you probably shouldn’t.

    I don’t think about this systematically, as you do, but it seems that much of the classical music publicity I’ve seen doesn’t even make it as far as “beloved” in trying to tell me why I might enjoy the concert. Empirically, in fact, I attend classical music concerts almost exclusively when one of the performers tells me how he or she feels about the music. I’m just not sufficiently interested in researching why I might want to pay to attend the rest.

    That isn’t to say that all publicity has to be based on personal testimonials. But they’re a great idea, because a lot of the excitement of live performances comes from appreciating that the performers are trying to do something hard. If it’s all about creating the sound of a reference recording under possibly more favorable acoustic conditions, well, I’m not that much of an audiophile.

    • says

      Two commenters named Mark, both making the same excellent point. Thanks! In my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, the final assignment is, very simply, to get up in front of the class and speak about a piece that you love — speak in very personal terms. The results, for years now, have been spectacular. Sometimes we all get goosebumps. Of course it would work with an audience!

  3. says

    Nice post! A parallel point I make to my students is 1) to talk to audiences when you can (whether this is at a pre-concert talk or [better] from the stage during the concert) and 2) to say something about their PERSONAL relationship to the music. This always succeeds, as any member of the audience (from the elite connoisseur to one who is attending his/her first concert ever) benefits from hearing about the performer’s own relationship to the music being performed. This also tends to bring out our own excitement about the music, our passion, our humanity. It connects and can make the experience deeper for both listener and performer.

    It may be that fears of alienating our audience or of sounding silly tempts us to play it safe and impersonal, addressing neither the music nor the personal and instead providing numbing accounts of the composer’s biography. This is only interesting for me when it bears upon the moment, when it affects the performer’s relationship to the work and his or her interpretation that I’m about to experience as a listener. The real art of audience engagement is to be able to share personal insights that the listener will hear — to describe the sound that’s about to fill the auditorium in terms, personal and memorable, that open all present to the experience.

  4. Trevor O'Donnell says

    I’d take your recommendation one step further and suggest that concert marketers challenge themselves to use the word “you” in every message they create. That way they’ll be forced to describe not only what’s unique or human about the work, but what it is about the event that audience members will find rewarding.

    I challenge arts marketers to do this in copywriting workshops and it’s amazing what happens when they stop talking about themselves and start talking about how their events satisfy the desires and expectations of the people they mean to persuade.

    • says

      Trevor, I’m not sure we want to fulfill people’s desires or expectations. These are too limited. Or, as Steve Jobs said, “I wouldn’t dream of asking my customers what they want.” (I’m paraphrasing — don’t have the exact quote in front of me.)

      And that was one key part of his genius, He gave people something better than they ever dreamed of, something they couldn’t have said they wanted because they’d never seen anything like it.

      We should do the same thing. There’s another quote I love from Diana Vreeland, something she said when she left Vogue to run the Costume Institute at the Met museum, and was curating her first show: “People don’t know what they want. They’re want us to give them something better than they’ve ever seen.” (Again I’m paraphrasing.)

      • Trevor O'Donnell says

        I’ll see your Steve Jobs and raise you an Aristotle, who said that if you want to persuade, you have to know what your audience wants and you have to appeal to those desires. It doesn’t mean orchestras have to play Beethoven at every concert, it means that marketers have to appeal to new audiences by knowing what they want and describing how their products will make them happy.

        I’ve read enough of your writing to know that we probably agree on this, and that you’re talking about the big picture while I’m talking about next week’s earned revenue goals, but I couldn’t let a comment like “I’m not sure we want to fulfill people’s desires or expectations” go without a response.

        And as for Diana Vreeland…

        “You’re not in charge. And your prospects don’t care about you.” – Seth Godin

        • says

          Here’s a compromise: We want to exceed people’s desires and expectations.

          What’s the context of that Seth Godin quote? It seems to go against everything he says in his astounding book Tribes. Whose thesis is that the world is full of people who want something they haven’t dreamed of yet, and that this something might be you.

          • Trevor O'Donnell says

            I’ll see if I can pinpoint that quote. But it fits with his contention that in a user-controlled environment, marketers don’t control the conversation. And prospects (new audiences) need to know “what’s in it for me?”

            Exceeding expectations? Absolutely.

          • says

            Yes, you don’t control the conversation. Which means you can’t count on appealing to what you think other people already like. You might just bore them. Or their reaction might be — especially among younger people these days — “I already know that.”

            “What’s in it for me”? Well, look at Apple, everyone’s role model for a modern business. They introduce products nobody said they wanted, and made it instantly clear what was in it for us if we bought them. The iPod is a classic example. MP3 players existed, but weren’t a successful product. Suddenly Apple made them something everybody wanted. As Seth Godin says over and over again in “Tribes” (saying it in many different ways), you go out there with something that excites you, and the other people it excites will flock around you. No guarantees, of course. Your product/art/idea might not find a response. But the people who think they know what the market wants, and supply mainly that, are stagnating.

  5. says

    Well, no one wants to hear orchestras perform music they don’t like, or are bored by. And we’ve all heard examples. Indeed, I’d rather hear our home-town amateur orchestra struggle bravely with a Symphony than hear a jet-set maestro phone it in with one of the majors. But on the other hand, Greg, I think a word of caution against self-indulgence is in order. Let me cite as an example James Levine’s too-brief tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Clearly, he loved the modernist fare (Schoenberg, Carter, Wuorinen) he programmed fairly heavily. Yes, it created buzz and pleased the critics. But did it really help the BSO energize its fan base and build bridges to new audiences? I don’t have facts and figures (and wouldn’t know how to interpret them anyway), but I doubt it. Given a choice for Levine’s successor, I bet most BSO patrons would rather now move on to someone with more contemporary sizzle than continue with yesterday’s avant-garde, no matter how much the maestro loved it. So yes, orchestras should be adventurous, and advocate for fresh, exciting ideas in new and old music. But it has to be done with deep knowledge of and respect for your current or desired audience, not just for the obvious financial reasons, but for artistic reasons as well. Like politicians, orchestras should be leaders, but not get too far ahead of their constituents, lest the orchestra lose the ability to hear what their constituents are saying.

    • says

      Yes, not everything is possible. And the music Levine so strongly favored is music that will never have a large audience. So it’s most likely a mistake to play it for a mainstream subscription audience. Just as you wouldn’t show art films in a multiplex, or sell Beckett’s novels on a rack eith John Grisham books at an airport.

      That said, though, I doubt the BSO mounted any campaign to transmit their delight in the music — well, Levine’s delight, anyway — to their audience. They should have gone right out, forthrightly said “You all will very likely hate this music,” and then, with great passion and joy, explain why Levine loves it. I saw David Robertson do that with Schoenberg and Berio at the Pittsburgh Symphony, with impressive results. (I’ll take a little bit of credit. I suggested he say they might not like the music, which seemed to be one big key to getting them to give it s chance. You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through Heinz Hall, when David said those words.)

      • Steve Ledbetter says

        James Levine didn’t speak to the audience from the stage about why he liked those very challenging works, but he did put an essay in the program book to talk in what I thought were very enthusiastic terms about those programs. Of course, that will only reach audience members who have already bought a ticket–and only those who actually choose to read the program.

        • says

          We need to take active steps to involve our audience. An audience that’s talked to feels cared about. If there’s nothing more than an essay in the program book, it’s business as usual.

  6. I.Plead the 5th says

    Your “beloved” example made me smile. When I worked in the marketing department of a top US orchestra, one manager would always send back ad copy with the words “audience-favorite” added before every performer and piece.

    When we had a concert with Beethoven’s 5th on it, one colleague suggested we add “actual audience-favorite.”

  7. Todd Moellenberg says

    Hey Greg,

    You should look at the La Jolla Symphony’s programming – our last concert Steve Schick programmed David Lang – Bartok Cantata Profana – Ligeti 100 Metronomes – Stravinsky Les Noces. And this is a community orchestra and choir. Last year I think they did Xenakis. His philosophy is placing Stravinsky as the midpoint of music history. Upcoming performances still include Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven.

  8. gary panetta says

    As a listener, I’m not sure the sort of appeal you’re talking about would work for me.

    Whether or not a concerto is difficult for a player to performer doesn’t grab my attention.

    What’s more likely to grab my attention is whether a concert connects with some larger issue or question — aesthetic, political or cultural. Something ought to be at stake in a live performance.

    This may be easier to accomplish with new music rather than old music — or maybe combining new and old music in some provocative way.

    • says

      Very tricky, Gary, for you (or me, or anyone else) to judge an idea only by our own reactions. I’ve done a fair amount of work with orchestra audiences, and as far as I can see, they love some kind of personal contact — even at a distance — with musicians. Once, in a concert series I hosted for the Pittsburgh Symphony, we had a violinist playing (with a lot of excitement, and pinpoint precision) the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy. Before he played it, he came onstage and talked about what made the piece hard to play. He named specific passages. While he talked, we showed on a screen the parts of the score he was talking about. When he played, the audience was on the edge of its collective seat, waiting to hear what he’d do with all the passages he’d talked about.

      The most effective connection with a larger issue I’ve ever seen also happened in Pittsburgh, but without any largescale, preconcert focus. Semyon Bychkov was conducting Shostakovich 7. He came out on stage, acknowledged the ritual applause, and then, instead of turning to the orchestra, briefly spoke. He said (paraphrasing): “When this symphony was premiered, Leningrad was under siege during World War II. People were starving. And yet they played the symphony. The performance was broadcast. The German soldiers, besieging the city, heard the broadcast, and said, ‘We’re going to lose this war.'”

      The hair went up on the back of my neck, and I can’t imagine that the people in the audience weren’t, once more, on the edge of their seats, to hear music that could have such an effect.

  9. Jess Hohman says

    This post reminds me of my current thoughts on orchestra bios as well. I’ve found almost without exception, ensemble member bios include education and then a long list of what that musician has performed in the past. It’s almost as if they’re trying to say, ‘I’m great! Aren’t you impressed?”, except in the most boring format possible. It doesn’t tell the audience anything about the musician as a person. Sometimes I think they try to make them boring on purpose so that the audience concentrates on listening instead of reading the program. One exception I’ve found is the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which lists musician’s hobbies and other more interesting aspects of their personalities.

    • says

      Hi, Jesse,

      As you can see, Bryan Townsend made the same point. And I strongly agree. Very glad to know about the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

      I’ve known of a few attempts to change these bios. Or rather cases in which someone producing a concert asked for a different kind of bio. The reply, in those cases, was that if the bios didn’t include all the stultifying lists of achievements, people would think the artist hadn’t done those things! Pathetic.

  10. says

    This post had me thinking about what pop artists do to create this sense that their show is going to be special and I realized, in the pop world, this sense of the event being special or one of a kind is a natural result of the way musicians play their music: they tour. There are countless bands that I’ve gone to see after waiting long periods of time and those shows always felt like something special. The bands come into town, then they leave town. Your only chance to experience what they do is that one moment. Hell, half the time you have to finagle your work schedule around when they’re showing up.

    This isn’t a given in the classical world, which makes your suggestion that much harder. There’s nothing naturally built in to the way orchestral concerts are operated that causes this excitement. It’s not even very practical for a whole orchestra to go on tour, and if they did, they’d likely be playing music that the local orchestras of each city are also playing, so who cares? It seems to me that this task means the classical world has to not only match the marketing of the pop world, it has to exceed it.

  11. says

    You forgot in this post to include a list of words and phrases that are prohibited in the exercise!! “Beloved” is near the top of the list especially if you alphabetize. :-)
    After reading this, I feel better about my own fondness for speaking to the audience about each piece we play. I do believe it gives the audience something to “hold on to” as they listen. It might be something musical, or it might be cultural, historical or personal, but it’s something.

  12. says

    Actually for all types of music there different people, and this is not yet Nonstop how the artist is delivered makes people feel identified with us, how to express the idea and the heart are the magic that makes it unique.