Building a young audience (first post)

So how do we build a young audience? Of course I need to offer ideas, first because I’ve said (and here, too) that building a young audience should be the highest priority for classical music. And, second, because I can help you do that, if you hire me as a consultant. So I need to show how I can help.

To build a young audience, we need to do three things: (1) change the way we present classical music (2) change the repertoire we play, and (3) play better. I’m sure that last will be controversial! But let me address these points one by one.

How should we change our presentation? You might be expecting me to say we should add lighting and videos, explain our music to our new audience, or maybe draw parallels between the great composers of the past and things in present-day life. (“Liszt was a rock star!”)

But in fact I’m not the greatest fan of these things. I’ve seen them done well — wonderful lighting changes, for instance, at a performance of the Pastoral Symphony at the University of Maryland. And I can’t object to the explanations I’ve given in many, many places, for instance when I co-programmed and hosted a concert series (for a new audience) with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

But I think we need to avoid a few things. We need to avoid lecturing our audience, attempting to educate it (before it asks for information), looking down on it, patronizing it, and — above all else! — apologizing to it. Apologizing is what I think we do if we tell everyone that, hey, they can understand Liszt, because in his time he was like a rock star. Sure, there’s truth in that. But if we stress it too much, aren’t we saying — in our subtext — something like, “We know you don’t care about Liszt, but look! Here’s something you might like! Something you can understand, even if you don’t know anything about classical music!”

I find that more than a little feeble. What matters much more, I think, is that we care about Liszt, and not because women in his time ran to grab cigar butts he threw away, and then wore them like treasured jewelry around their necks. We care about Liszt because we love his music. The cigar butt thing, well, it’s a great story, but if we didn’t love the music, we wouldn’t be telling it. So let’s start with loving the music.

(And to jump ahead to how and why we should play better — if we really understood the cigar butt story, we’d understand that we have to play Liszt really wildly, giving his music the kind of gut-sexy knockout power that Elvis had when he was young. Which — let’s be honest here — is something we almost never hear.)

So that’s the main thing that has to change in our presentation — we have to give concerts in which our love for what we’re doing just jumps off the stage. That doesn’t happen now. Walk into the hall for a standard classical concert — at a major orchestra, let’s say — and what do you see? What do you feel? You’re not going to tell me that (on the overwhelming majority of nights) there’s any buzz of excitement in the hall, any spark of excitement. The audience is well-behaved, sedate. Sitting calmly, in a kind of comfortable passivity, ready to receive whatever it’s offered.

(And, of course, if you’re young, this is an audience far older than you are, an audience not like you at all. Not many tattoos in it! Which, people in the older audience might say, shouldn’t be an impediment, because what matters is the music. Until, that is, they go to a hiphop show (if that ever happened), and suddenly they’re the odd ones out, the people in an uneasily unfamiliar setting, in which nobody is like them.)

Onstage — thinking again of an orchestra concert — the musicians sit (typically, anyway, in the US), talking to each other, noodling on their instruments, ignoring the audience.

Oh, and the program, the music to be played — why this music, why play it tonight, why play it in the way they’re going to play it? These questions aren’t addressed. Again the audience is expected to be passive. The program notes tell you all sorts of things about the history and structure of the pieces, but not why they matter, right here, right now, played the way they’re going to be played.

(Also, of course the musicians’ bios, in the program book — dead, dead, dead, blank lists of achievements and distinctions, phrased in a way no living human could care about, absolutely unreadable, giving no hint that (just for instance) tonight’s soloist has even the faintest love for music.)

None of this will fly, in our current culture. It’s not the way we live now. We want to participate, be part of things, be told what’s going on, feel like we matter, that our presence and participation makes a difference. A survey I was told about, conducted in the 1990s, asked people in their 20s why they didn’t go to classical concerts, and one big answer was that their presence didn’t matter. The concert would happen in exactly the same way, no matter who was there.

We have to change all this. In a dozen, twenty, a hundred ways, we have to create an environment in which people come to a concert, feel a buzz, see musicians who plainly care that the audience is there. And know that the music is being played for a reason. Again thinking of an orchestra: it’ll be clear that the conductor, the musicians, the soloist, the board and staff of the orchestra, and other people in the audience love the music, think it matters, can and do say why it matters, at the concert, before the concert, after the concert, in the hall, in the lobby, on the orchestra’s website, on Facebook and Twitter, throughout the city, everywhere.

Each piece has not just a reason, but a goal. What’s supposed to happen in a performance? What makes the piece hard or easy to play? What’s the principal oboist’s favorite passage? What passage scares the violas, because it’s so difficult? What place in each piece makes the orchestra most thrilled? One of my Juilliard students, years ago, said something wonderful about the Brahms first symphony. He’s a trumpet player, and said that for him, the moment that showed the meaning of the symphony came in the last movement, when the horns play their famous passage in C major. He said he’d sit there waiting for that, and be thrilled each time he heard it.

That’s the kind of information we need about every piece that’s played. Things that matter to the people presenting the music (including, as I said, nonmusicians like the orchestra’s staff and board), things the audience can listen for, and see if they feel the way the concert presenters feel.

Now, how this is done is another story. Another post. A book, even. And there’s no one answer, especially because we’re going to be doing these things all season long, every season, for every piece, for every concert, for the orchestra (or whatever classical music institution or soloist or ensemble or presenter) even when there’s no particular concert we’re talking about.

And of course we want the audience to participate. So we’ll offer endless opportunities for that. Chances to comment. To remix the music. To compose! Jon Deak, former assistant principal bass player of the NY Philharmonic, gives workshops in which he teaches children and adults to compose. The results — I’ve seen it myself, done one of the workshops with him — are beyond miraculous. People with no knowledge of music compose pieces, using whatever notation they can, often graphic notation.

When musicians on hand play the pieces, the pieces sound different from each other. They have character. I sat, when I did the workshop, with the executive director of a major orchestra, someone who’d come to that position from the business world, someone with no musical training. He got so excited writing music, for the first time in his life, that I — designated as his partner (the pieces were written by teams of two) — was relegated to the role of scribe, writing down his ideas as quickly as he came up with them (which was impossible, because ideas poured out of him so fast).

So do workshops like this, and then play the resulting pieces on your programs. Play works by high school kids. Student composers. A five-minute piece by the most famous composer alive, added to tonight’s program without a word said in advance.

Put Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony on your website — several performances, in different styles. Bookmark crucial passages. Keep it there for weeks before you play it. Invite your audience (or, for that matter, anyone at all, anyone in your town, anyone from anywhere in the world) to comment. Which performance do they like best? Why? Which passages do they like? What’s at stake in each passage? Which performance renders each passage in the best way?

Not that there are single answers to those questions! Get your audience debating. Let them recreate these passages at home, on guitars, keyboards, kazoos, banging on pots, whatever. Put these renderings online. If there’s a good youth orchestra around, maybe they can play the piece. Put their version online. Invite them to join your players in a performance of the piece. Now the hall is full of their parents and friends.

If you’re doing a world premiere, have members of your audience get to know the composer, months before the concert. Let them email with her, talk to her via Skype and telephone, bring her to your town and let them meet her. Get to know the piece as it’s being written, and later when it’s being rehearsed. Get to know the composer’s other pieces.

When the premiere happens, let these audience members present it. Write the program notes. Talk about it from the stage. Send email — their own email in their own words — to everybody on your email list, saying why they like the piece. Or don’t like it. Or don’t like it, but understand why it should be played. Let them talk about it everywhere in your town.

I’ll stop here. I think you get the point. We can make concerts so exciting — including those, when very serious music is played, when everyone just sits their, raptly listening. After all the participation we’ve given them a chance to have, they’ll be a thousand times more prepared for rapt and silent contemplation. Because they’ll hear everything more vividly.

I’d love to work in a classical music world that functions in the ways I’m describing. I’d love to go to the concerts. And this is just the beginning of the changes we need to make!

One small proof of concept: At one point, I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, leading conversations with members of their audience, after concerts. 

At one point, the PSO replicated a British competition called the Masterprize, a composers’ competition in which an audience could vote on which of three finalists it liked. 

So that happened in Pittsburgh. The PSO opened a concert by playing the three final pieces from the Masterprize, each about 10 minutes long. At intermission, the audience could vote, pick the piece it liked best. Which then would be repeated, at the end of the evening. 

And what happened in the conversations after the concert? The people in them were more excited, more aroused than they’d ever been. And they’d listened very carefully. When I asked which piece they’d chosen, they answered in great detail, citing specific passages to tell me why. That had never happened before, not when they’d hated an atonal piece the orchestra played, not when they’d loved a soloist in standard repertoire. The bar was now set higher. They’d really listened, and remembered what they heard. 

Two people even voted for a piece that wasn’t their favorite. They guessed — correctly — that their favorite piece would win. But they’d also liked another piece, and wanted it to have some glory. So they voted for it. 

Again, I did several conversations like this, and never saw the people who came to them even remotely this excited. And about new music, which they’d never shown an interest in before! 

Suggestive evidence, I’d say, that participation makes an audience more engaged, and not just in personal ways. They have a deeper connection to the music — which is what we want to encourage, isn’t it? 



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  1. says

    Much of what you talk about here is being done already in various corners of the industry, albeit inconsistently, and usually on a small scale. It seems what you’re proposing is that these ideas need to become central instead of peripheral to how orchestras operate. I agree! But, there are some things I’m wondering about, or rather I think are too harshly stated. You say:

    “Walk into the hall for a standard classical concert — at a major orchestra, let’s say — and what do you see? What do you feel? You’re not going to tell me that (on the overwhelming majority of nights) there’s any buzz of excitement in the hall, any spark of excitement. The audience is well-behaved, sedate. Sitting calmly, in a kind of comfortable passivity, ready to receive whatever it’s offered.”

    I’d maybe give that to you for Sunday matinees, but, in general, even as something of a skeptic, I almost always feel a buzz when I go to a symphony concert, be it in St. Paul, Madison or New York. In short, I think the buzz is there if you want it to be. It’s the buzz or thrill of a night out, of doing something special; it’s the magic of the lights going down and knowing something is about to happen and not knowing how it will make you feel (perhaps something that’s harder to capture if you’re a regular or an expert?). What I will give you is that it is not the buzz of a “happening”, the type that spills outside of the concert hall, into the community, inspiring curiousity and passion. And that’s the problem, I’d say.

    One aside: if you’re ever in Madison, do try to catch John DeMain leading the Madison Symphony. There’s almost always a mic by his stand. He’s a talker. He’ll just pick it up and riff before a piece, in a pretty offhand way that really gets at why he loves the music, usually simply and personally stated. At first it felt sort of forced, or almost tacky – “I love this piece and I think you will too” is not something many artists are comfortable muttering, or hearing – but now I find I miss it when he doesn’t do it. It has a way of relaxing and exciting the audience at the same time.

    • says

      I know John slightly from his days in Houston. I’d love to see him, if I’m ever in Madison. My niece graduated a couple of years ago from the U of Wisconsin, but I never made it out to visit her.

      Clearly you feel a buzz, and that’s lovely. I’m sure other people do, too. But, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve been going to live events, classical, pop, and of course non-musical, and I’d say the classical music audience ranks rather low on the buzz of excitement scale, compared to what I’ve seen at theater companies, for example. And certainly compared to what I’ve seen at pop/rock/hiphop/R&B/country shows, or at dance clubs.

      A few years ago, I was part of a gathering of orchestra musicians, staff members, and board members. This was a biannual event, connected with a multi-year funding program from a major foundation. One of these gatherings was held in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Orchestra. Of course, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, and we got them involved. Participants in the gathering, for instance, could tour the hall without paying admission.

      The reaction from the orchestra musicians was very wistful. They toured the Rock Hall, and of course watched many of the videos on display. They came away feeling (or at least many of them did) that they wished they had an audience that cared as much as the audience at rock shows does.

      And my Juilliard students often say they wish they got more reaction from the audiences they play for. They feel a lack of connection, which they certainly don’t feel if, say, they get a gig playing gon Saturday Night Live. (With a band that might want some string players, for instance.)

      • says

        Interesting that the musicians in Cleveland and Juilliard are saying they wish they got more reaction from their audiences, of that they cared more. To which I’d say (and as you and others have already said), the musicians (and administrators) have to cue the audiences that such displays of passion are acceptable, as they would presumably involve breaking some taboos. I’m not sure exactly what those cues look like. More casual dress (relaxing the environment), more movement on stage (visual signals of their passion), and an actual invitation for more audience reaction could be some starters, but perhaps still too superficial. Again, I’ll bring up John. At the MSO’s season finale in May, he did a Porgy medley that had some breaks for audience applause, and there wasn’t any – people were genuinely afraid to clap “between” the movements as it were. So he just turned to the audience after this happened the first two times and signaled with his hands and made a face that said “C’mon, show these guys some love, that’s the point”. It was an electric performance, and they ended up getting much more than applause. I think some small gestures – even if they’re kind of awkward or cringy to musicians or regulars – can go a long way.

        • says

          Great story! I agree — the pump needs to be primed. One of my Juilliard students, some years ago, put in the program for her graduation recital that people should feel free to clap or boo during the music. Nobody did, though she really meant it. I think everything else about the recital was standard, which supports your point. We have to loosen things up in many ways. And maybe even plant people in the audience to start things going!

  2. says

    The concert-hall isn’t the right place to do this stuff. The concert-hall is for concerts.

    Outreach work – and you *do* have to reach out to new audiences! – is done by going to *them* on *their* turf. That means doing workshops, chamber gigs, interactive sessions, meet-the-performer sessions etc in schools, colleges, youth clubs, night clubs – wherever. The more interactive this work can be, the better it will go.

    You have to make it accessible to those who cannot play or sing, but would be interested to be involved. We did some workshops in which kids were asked to help in apprehending a terrorist, who was then locked up. Then they took a vote on whether or not he should be tortured or executed. Some kids started to ask what the terrorist had actually done? Support for the police began to wane. This all led carefully through to enacting parts of FIDELIO. Kids were then offered heavily-subsidised tickets to see the full performance of FIDELIO. After the show they got to meet the performers – at the time they saw the workshop, they were not aware these performers were opera singers.

    • says

      But I’ve seen a lot of this work in the concert hall! When I did a concert series with the Pittsburgh Symphony, we had the audience sing along with a 12-tone row (!) in Todd Levin’s techno dance piece Blur. We had a volunteer from the audience have his head shaved onstage during the Bacchanal from Samson et Dalila. We had a violinist from the orchestra demonstrate the hardest passages from the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, and explain (while we showed the score on a screen) what made them hard. Then the audience could sit on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if he’d ace the passages. (He did.)

      We played the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. I read Mozart’s letter to his father about the piece, in which he explains how he constructed it to make the audience applaud during the music. I told the audience they were free to applaud whenever they heard anything they liked, and they did it.

      All this in Heinz Hall, which of course is where the Symphony gives its regular concerts. One lesson for me was that the hall became instantly intimate, the moment we did these things. They didn’t damage the hall, and the hall didn’t damage them.

      And how about this? Maxim Vengerov, giving a concert in Carnegie Hall (the main stage, not the recital hall), stopped after the first piece, and called out to the audience, “Any questions?” Which then turned the recital into an ongoing dialogue, in between the pieces. No problem with how that worked! (I wasn’t there, but my wife reviewed the concert for the Times, and told me it worked wonderfully.)

  3. says

    Fascinating post, much of which I find very resonant e.g. endless bios of soloists. I wonder about two things: (1) would composers, working to deadline, have time or inclination for emails, phone calls, Skype? (2) if young people eschew classical concerts, feeling that they would take place in identical format without their presence, does this put them off cinema?

    Best wishes

    Alan Coady

    • says

      Very good questions, Alan. Thanks for bringing them up. Composers vary. Some crash deadlines, others (Philip Glass, for instance) are easier with them. And of course some would want this kind of contact with the audience, and some wouldn’t. So you couldn’t do it with every composer, which is interesting in itself. After it began to be established that you did these things, you’d say, “Well, we have a world premiere coming up by X, but she feels she needs to keep things private when she composes.” Which then would make her more interesting. Just as, in the publicity-drenched pop world, there have always been artists (Elvis Costello) who don’t care to do many interviews. And some who might not talk much to the audience. And, of course, in jazz people like Miles Davis who don’t want interaction with the audience at all. He used to turn his back on the audience during his solos. I saw Monk several times when I was in high school, and he was similar. Off in his own world. Which, again, becomes part of their appeal.

      But some composers would love this, I think. Jennifer Higdon might. Or Joan Tower. Or Derek Bermel. Or Chris Rouse. I think those would be good people to start with.

      As for movies, I think the relationships of audience and art forms are complex. Of course a movie is always the same, whenever it’s shown. (Though I’ve certainly seen audiences react out loud to movies. Years ago, during Prince’s impossible film Graffiti Bridge, when the treacly angelic heroine gets mashed by a truck, someone in the mostly black audience shouted out, “About time!” And when my wife and I saw Tree of Life, the audience broke out into derisive laughter during the credits.)

      But I think people bond with movies. They know the actors, know the directors, identify with the stories. And know that the movie enterprise — both as an art and as a business — responds to our culture. So you feel a sense of give and take in a larger sense, even if you can’t affect what’s happening on the screen.

  4. says

    Two things to love about Putting the Music You Plan to Play on Your Website:

    1) Leave it there for weeks! (Familiarity is SO MUCH of it.)
    2) Remix the music. (WHAT?!?! Yes!)

    Also — we need chief experience officers whose job includes creating the feeling of excitement when entering the space! And really, do the musicians HAVE to wear black and white formal attire?

    Enjoying this series of posts!

    • says

      Thanks, Margy. Of course the formal dress has to go. Or else be done ironically! That, actually, would be a lot of fun. Do a concert of old classical chestnuts as a costume party. The audience could wear things like the amazing improbably gowns socialites wore in the 1940s, photographed by Weegee at the opening of the Met Opera season. Or I’m thinking of Cameron Carpenter, the organist, doing a Halloween concert at Trinity Church in NY, improvising an accompaniment to a silent horror film — wearing an all-white suit of tails. He looked spectacular.

      The Gamer Symphony at the U of Maryland has a social director, whose job it is to make sure that rehearsals and concerts are fun. They’re a student group who play videogame music, and as far as I could see when I was artist in residence at the school, they’re the best run and most succsessful musical group on campus.

  5. says

    Bravo, Greg — something I can forward to my skeptical musician friends. And considering the level of skepticism I encounter, at least in some quarters, I worry about whether the current musical establishment will be open and flexible enough to the changes you recommend. On the other hand, I have no worries about the emerging younger generation of musicians, including the chamber groups I present in concert. They’ll try out these and other new ideas not because anyone told them to, but because they’ll seem natural to them. Not interact with your audience? Not do things to create buzz? Not play as if it were life and death? You’ve got to be kidding!

    • says

      Thanks, John. Forward away. I’m flattered that you want to do that!

      There’s a lot of opposition to the things you and I seem to agree on. But that’s OK. Change can be hard, and the people who disagree with us love music very deeply. That’s one reason they disagree. They feel that something they love is being threatened.

      But I think there’s more agreement than we might think. Many older people, I’ve found, agree, too. Including some in high places in the classical music biz, people who can’t come out and say everything they think in public, but still would strongly agree with us.

  6. Sonia Lovett says

    If concerts were much shorter they would be far more enjoyable.

    One hour is quite long enough.

    • says

      A good point. I can imagine giving concerts at many lengths, but some certainly should be shorter than concerts are now.

      One problem with the longer concerts — often the only reason for programming some of the pieces is to fill out the length. No, let me say that again. Of course the pieces deserve to be played. But the only reason they’re put together on programs is often involved with filling out the length. If we gave shorter concerts, they might be more coherent, too. Which would help a new audience feel that something understandable was going on.

  7. says

    [[ To build a young audience, we need to do three things: (1) change the way we present classical music (2) change the repertoire we play, and (3) play better ]]

    1) yes
    2) no
    3) I beg your pardon?

      • says

        I am intrigued to know what is wrong with the way we play things right now?

        Bear in mind that some of our brass players are 200lbs and up, they stand over six feet tall, and these are guys you would not like to mess with :) And they never split a note, ever. National Radio and TV broadcast our concerts across the entirety of this huge country, and millions tune in. In what way could be playing the music ‘better’ than we do?

        Of course, our situation is probably different to yours. We have an orchestra which gets 100% subsidy from the Ministry of Culture. The only problem we have with promoting our concerts is that there are never enough tickets – they always sell out. Last month I gave my own tickets back, so that music students could get to hear the concert – and I stood at the back instead. It’s that bad with tickets.

        What I hope we could do eventually is play the same programmes we play at the Conservatoire Hall or the Tchaikovsky Hall and repeat them in Universities and Schools, so people who rarely get a chance to attend our concerts (the tickets are not cheap) can hear them too – but supported by workshops and outreach programmes to bridge the gap between complete non-concert-goers and hearing a concert for the first time.

        The main area we are falling down at the moment is regional touring – which we are supposed to do according to our remit, but for which we have no budget. But this is a question we have to fix with our Government funders, because by its Constitution – drawn up in the USSR days and never changed – we cannot accept outside sponsorship, even if it is offered. We get lots of offers to go to places like Khanty-Mansisk or Surgut – the big oil-producing centres of Siberia, where they have huge funds available, but no cultural organisations on site – but our Constitution prevents us from accepting the offers :( We are working on it, but it’s a poisoned chalice – who would voluntarily end a contract in which the State guarantees you 100% of your operating costs?

          • Neil McGowan says

            OK, I’ll be looking forward to hearing what you mean then.

            So far it doesn’t sound promising, so I hope there’s more substance in the next posts.

          • Neil McGowan says

            Good Morning, Greg!

            I was hoping that by now you would have explained what you meant when you said that we’ve failed audiences by not playing well enough in concerts.

            It was certainly a glib crack when you made it. Are you ready to back up your claims? Are you a practitioner yourself? Or is your role only to jeer from the safety of the sidelines?

            Performers are tired of people like you and your wife writing empty insults.

            I call on you to substantiate your allegations – or apologise for them and withdraw them.

            Let’s recap. You have made serious allegations. You now owe your readership:

            1) Substantive detail on how the presentation of concerts can be changed in practical ways

            2) Full detail on how the material in concert programmes should be scrapped and replaced with ‘better’ programmes. With examples, please.

            3) An explanation of your disgraceful and demeaning accusations that orchestras have played poorly in concerts and failed their audiences.

            Will you provide this, Greg?

            Or are you just like Lebrecht – another hot-air merchant with no creative career, who just luuuurves being at the centre of attention?

          • says

            Oh, please, Neil. I’ve written about all this repeatedly, for many years. Including a recent very long post about how concert presentation should change. Scroll back and find it.

            What troubles me, not for my sake, but for yours, is why you’ve become so aggressive. You don’t like what I’m saying? Join the club. Many people don’t agree with me (and many do). Are you, as a musician, insulted because I say we can all play better? That’s ridiculous. To say we can play better doesn’t mean I think we play badly. Why do you take it personally? And why are you now moved to hurl insults? It’s troubling to see you do this, again not for my sake, but for yours. What, exactly, troubles you so much?

            I’d urge you to calm your impatience, if nothing else. Can you muster at least that much self-control? I’ve made it clear that I’m writing a series of posts, to explain the three points you dislike so much. I’m not able to write a post every day, so doing my series will take time. If you just exhale a few times, deeply, in a relaxed way, you’ll find that the time passes quickly enough.

            You ask if I actually do music. I’m a composer, with many works performed, including two with full orchestra, and four operas. I used to sing, and did a number of opera roles, not to mention lieder and new music. I’ve also been an opera stage director, and I’ve conducted (though I wouldn’t want to boast of my conducting skill).

            I’ve also taught graduate students at Juilliard for many years, all of whom (obviously) are highly skiiled musicians. They certainly accept me as a musical colleague, as we talk about issues related to the ones that have you so much in a twist.

            In case you can’t muster the self-control to be patient, here’s a very quick summary of how we can play better. I think, speaking now of technical skill, classical musicians have probably never played better. But expressively, I think there’s a certain neutrality that’s set in, compared especially to performances from a generation or more ago.

            This isn’t exactly a new or radical position. Many people think it, especially about performances of Italian and Wagner operas. You can listen to performances from the 1950s or earlier (and some from the ’60s and ’70s) and find a level of personal commitment, passionate expression, technical security, individuality, and just plain verve — as well as a kind of superstar glow — that you just won’t find now, or at least not nearly as often.

            Instrumental performance isn’t as often discussed in this way, but in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music I play recordings from the past for my students, and they’re just about unanimous in thinking that there’s something missing now. They’re knocked flat by the freedom and individuality the older performances have. And one opera selection I play for them — Bjorling and Tebaldi doing the end of the first act of La Boheme, on a video taken from a 1950s TV show — leaves them just about speechless.

            I could go on to talk about many specific details, but I’ll just cite two. First, classical period orchestral scores. Anyone who’s looked at them knows that they’re full of contrasts of forte and piano. But how often do we actually hear that in performance? I’ve heard performance after performance of Mozart and Haydn, by the top musicians of the world, in which I don’t think a decibel meter would measure more than a hair’s difference in loudness between the forte and piano passages. What I’ll hear is a slightly different quality of attack — a sharper attack (though only slightly sharper) for the fortes.

            What I’ve almost never heard is a vivid difference. Fortes that make you sit up in your seat. Pianos that make you lean forward, to catch what’s going on in the sudden hush. This matters especially, I think, when newcomers to classical music are in the audience. They may think the music sounds nice, but isn’t especially gripping. And that may in part (maybe in large part) be because the things that might make the music gripping aren’t happening in the performance, however marvelously skillful it might be in other ways.

            Is what I want to hear too exaggerated? It’s fascinating to read about Brahms, von Bulow, and other 19th century masters who thought dynamic and tempo contrasts ought to be exaggerated, when a piece was played for an audience that didn’t know it. They thought it was important for audiences to be able to follow the flow of the music, with absolute clarity. And if that meant taking different tempi than you’d take for an audience of connoisseurs, so be it.

            My second example:

            If you look at scores of Italian operas written in the first half of the 19th century (Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi’s early pieces) you’ll see that in many fast, excited passages the timpani, bass drum, and cymbals play on every beat. The orchestras in opera houses back then were small. The instruments didn’t blend as smoothly as ours do. And the performers were Italians! The percussion must have been clamorous. Deafening! Especially since, from contemporary reports, the entire theater — performers and audience — was going wild with excitement.

            But you’ll never hear that today. The percussion is expertly blended in, so as not to create a disturbance. Though clearly a disturbance, on many levels, is what was intended. It’s not only the percussion. It’s the wild rush of the melodies, and (something I really love) what I like to call “scare” harmonies, momentary slips into other harmonic regions, done for shock effect. Like, for instance, in the duet for Lucrezia and Gennaro in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, when she tells him he’s been poisoned. It’s in F major, hurtling forward at great speed, with a high A the climactic note of the melody. Often Donizetti harmonizes the A with an completely unprepared A major chord, which — especially to 19th century ears — has the effect of a monster suddenly jumping out at you in the dark. It’s marvelous, but (like the percussion) will just be blended in today to the overall flow. We’re trying to make these operas respectable, when in their time they were anything but.

            A sense of well-behaved respectability is something we find too much of in classical performance this days, at least in my view. So newcomers are likely to hear the classical-musicness of the proceedings more strongly than they’ll hear the innate excitement of the music.

          • Neil McGowan says

            No, Greg. Emphatically no.

            You claim orchestras in general have failed to play to an acceptable standard.

            That’s a wretched calumny upon orchestras of whose work you know N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Merely to try to drum up consultancy work for yourself?

            You claimed you were going to make a fresh posting this week, but clearly you’re not going to. Instead you cite some made-up examples about orchestras and performances you don’t name – as though all orchestras play this way?

            Regrettably you’ve wandered off into the Norman Lebrecht world of empty accusation and factless twaddle. It’s your own reputation you’ve harpooned, and not that of the orchestral players you’ve attacked.


            Yes, Greg, I’m insulted, and our players are insulted. Slapdash may be the way *you* do things. It’s not a word in our vocabulary. We take it personally because you sit on your butt typing crap about performances in which fabulous musicians have worked *their* butts off, and achieved a stupendous result. You have no right to make such insulting claims.

            None at all.

            Nor have you explained what you mean by the suggesting of junking the programmes we play, and playing different things just to please you and your wife.

          • says

            Neil, you’ve descended here into hysteria. And also you’re attacking my wife, which I don’t take kindly to. She and I may or may not agree on things I say here. Our professional lives are separate. And she has nothing to do with this blog.

            I’ll comment only on one thing you said, which is that — in your view — I believe orchestras “have failed to play to an acceptable standard.” Never have I said any such thing. I’ve worked very closely with a number of orchestras — Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, just for a start — and heard performances in New York and around the country by many more. They play quite wonderfully. And sometimes, as for instance when Mariss Jansons was music director in Pittsburgh — transcendently.

            What I’m trying to say is that there’s yet another level of playing that could be reached, which would make the standard classical repertoire more gripping to a new audience. And also, I’d think, to the old one. You say I don’t give specific examples, which in fact would be hard to do, because I don’t keep a log. I can’t say to you, “I heard Orpheus play Haydn 45 on 2/14/08, and the contrasts between forte and piano weren’t clear.” I can say, in a general way, that whenever I’ve heard Orpheus or St. Luke’s play that rep, the contrasts haven’t been as strong as I’d like, though the playing overall was of course excellent. Or I can say that when Kurt Masur was music director in NY, the orchestra never (at least not when I was there, for instance for a festival of all the Beethoven symphonies) never, to my ear, played a true piano, or a very emphatic forte. The playing had many other virtues, which I set forth in a review of the Beethoven.

            And then on the other hand I heard the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra play very vividly on one occasion, and under Janssons, I thought Pittsburgh had more shadings of volume below piano and above forte than other conductors get in the entire ppp to fff dynamic range.

            But this is useless, Neil. You’re not engaging with me in any serious way, but instead just hurling invective. You can do it all you like, and I’ll always approve your comments for posting. But this is the last time I’ll answer you.

    • says

      And the most amazing thing is…that this should be a novel idea! Seems like a nobrainer to me, both for the musicians’ sake and for the audience.

      • says

        Have you seen the Piano Guys version of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 on Youtube? You can see the joy this music brings him as he is playing it and I think people gravitate towards that. I also like the intensity seen in the video of piano duo Anderson and Roe playing their piano transcription of Schubert’s “Erlking”. While the video is very strange the music sounds fresh and captivating with the way Anderson and Roe decided to present it.

        • says

          Haven’t seen the Piano Guys. But I love Anderson & Rowe. They’re a terrific example of a new way to do classical music. I also like them both personally. Both took my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. But I can’t take any credit for what they do. They were already doing it when they took my course, and don’t need any help from me to keep on doing it. Those reading this might want to Google Anderson & Rowe — a piano duo — to see what Matthew means.

          • says

            Intersting, I knew that they went to Julliard but I guess I never made the connection between you and them. I am sure though that you helped encouraged them in what they were already doing and to continue in that direction. I think that artists who are trailblazing in new, positivie directions often need that affirmation and confidence boost from outsiders.

            I also think that beyond performers that music professors who teach classes to non-music majors need to show how passionate and engaged they are with classical music. So many college students take music appreciation classes where the professor puts little to no effort into the class because those students are not music majors. To me this is very sad because no matter what the makeup of the class is, the professor should still display their passion for the music but express it in terms understandable to that demographic. This is at least what I try to do in my classes in a myriad of ways. I am always thinking creatively in how to present material so that students will understand how vibrant and exciting this music is.

  8. says

    Mr. Sandow,
    You’re going about this all wrong. We now know that all human beings have the capacity to develop genius on a par with the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles … but in order for someone to develop that kind of talent, they’d have to go through years of experience involving musical creation and improvisation. Why can’t talent be more widespread than it is? Reason: Most of our institutions have not figured out a way to produce generations of talented individuals. Your path suggests a world where an average orchestra member is nothing more than a lemming who transmits information off a page, and they should just accept that hierarchy because it’s traditional, and the music they’re playing is just that good. I would say that students deserve better from their teachers and conductors.

    If every musician could develop their own musical voice and produce their own music, why would they bother living an entire life feeding off the works of others? This wonderful music doesn’t belong to you, so stop hiding behind it. Fanaticism will not save your precious music, and your whole existence is completely arbitrary to this art that has nothing to do with you. Putting the score before your own need to express is another way of hiding from your true self.

    How about we evaluate and judge a students progress on the music they make with their minds rather than the notes of others they are required to regurgitate? I guess it’ll be a while before schools are even capable of managing that kind of curriculum. In the meantime, your idea of “Classical Music” is nothing more than a trivial pursuit.

    • says


      I think we have some scrambled communication here. You say:

      “Your path suggests a world where an average orchestra member is nothing more than a lemming who transmits information off a page, and they should just accept that hierarchy because it’s traditional, and the music they’re playing is just that good. I would say that students deserve better from their teachers and conductors.”

      But that’s exactly what I’m fighting against, as readers of this blog — and certainly my students at Juilliard and elsewhere — know very well. Please keep reading me. I think you’ll find a lot that you agree with.

      • Elliott says

        My argument is that score worship doesn’t fully address the needs of the individual musician. Every music student wants to possess the ability to translate their thoughts and emotions through musical sound, which is achieved through the art of improvisation and musical dialogue. This isn’t happening at schools like the UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, and it’s a shame because there is so much potential that is wasted in endless series of orchestra concerts.

        I saw Radiohead perform a few weeks ago to an audience of about 70,000. Their music is original, honest, and orchestral in it’s texture and scope. Audiences today respond more to this original music because it’s easier to identify with. It’s alive. I think we need to focus on the thoughts and feelings of the musicians rather than keep the focus of our audience fixed on compositions that are sometimes too intellectual for their own good or outdated and misplaced. But the more I rationalize this idea, I believe that this culture that is rightfully diminishing won’t evolve in a way that you might envision. The music is already dead. Set in stone until someone comes along and injects it full of life and unless you have a musician that brings their own voice to it, it’s better off staying behind a glass case in a museum.

        • says

          Elliott, you’re at UMD, so you may know more of what goes on there than I do. But I was in residence there for two years, and have kept track of what’s gone on after I left. I think the orchestral program there is much more inventive than most, as was shown — just one example — by the Afternoon of a Faun performance I talked about here, in which the musicians danced the piece, while playing it from memory. They were tremendously engaged when they did that.

          I’ve also seen the audience for orchestral concerts at UMD explode. There used to be half-full houses, made up of older people, and now I’ve seen much larger crowds, including one full house, with many younger people there.

          I’m not saying you’re wrong, or that the UMD program (not to mention others!) could conceivably be more inventive still. They don’t have the musicians improvising, as far as I know (though I’ve seen that in the summer orchestra program at Maryland, the NOI). But I’d still say the UMD orchestra concerts are a lot more free and inventive than those at most other schools.

          If you’d like to say more about what you don’t like, I’d be happy to read it.

          • says

            What I don’t like? For starters, I don’t like how you lump centuries of vast music history into one lump term. “Classical Music”. To the layman, you’ve already lost their interest because it’s confusing. Are we talking about the tradition? The artistry in the music? The craft of being a performer? Joshua Bells hips?

            My goal in life is to eradicate mediocrity, but it seems that classical music culture thrives on it. It’s easy to take someone else’s music and put it before your own honest convictions. It’s a crippling process that doesn’t require a mind of musical invention. People try very hard to compensate for their lack of expression, usually by writing exhaustive program notes, adding gimmicks to the performance. These boring performances usually feature music that is somehow more interesting than the people playing it. If audiences have to be told how great this music is, then they don’t really deserve to experience it. I know this may seem extreme, but I’ve spent 25 years around so-called music educators who don’t have a clue about what it is to actually make music.

            Frank Zappa was right. It’s all one music.

    • richard says

      Well, as a composer/player/teacher your approach is great for some music making but not for all. I’m not completely sure what you are advocating, it almost sounds like the musical equivalent to “Bowling Alone”. I only play a few instruments at a pro/semi-pro level, so, as a composer, I wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t have much of a “pallette” to work with, and I would greatly miss the creative interaction that happens when musicians work together.

  9. Steve Ledbetter says

    Having been to many hundreds of orchestra concerts in the last 35+ years, both major orchestras and quite good community orchestras (because my wife is a good amateur violinist), I certainly am aware of the all-too common sense that this is a pleasant night out, but not an adventure. By far the most “buzz” I ever heard upon entering Boston’s Symphony Hall for a BSO concert was when the orchestra, led by Robert Spano,performed the American premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Passion according to St. Mark”, which is mostly in Spanish and turns the Gospel account into Latin American street theater. But the buzz was not simply because of the subscription audience. Osvaldo lives in the Boston area and he spent weeks before the performance visiting public schools in the communities around Boston with the highest percentage of Hispanic students–and, of course, he talked to them in their native language and talked about the piece.

    The BSO encouraged this , of course, and they may have done something to make tickets especially available for the kids and their parents who had never been in Symphony Hall. But what excited me, as a “traditional” audience member, was the palpable excitement of people who had clearly not been there before, looking around, and talking volubly with others in their party before the concert started–and in Spanish. I have never heard so much Spanish in Symphony Hall before or since. I would love it if orchestras made programs that would lend themselves to this kind of outreach in the ethnic communities nearest them (among other ideas, of which you’ve given some really exciting ones).

    As for non-professional orchestras, I’m not sure if they can put the music on their websites, since they would have to use recordings made commercially (few if any such orchestras play “the repertory” over and over again because most of them are only able to mount three or four concerts a year). But other ideas might well be very effective. I hope they will consider the possibilities!

    • says

      What a terrific story about the Golijov piece! That piece does get a strong reaction, and deservedly. It’s a shot in the arm, a breath of fresh air. To be honest, I think it’s better moment by moment than as a whole (I don’t quite get a strong sense of dramatic flow), but (1) that’s just my opinion, and (2) so what? It’s still terrific to listen to, and many people love it, with very good reason.

      And how wonderful that the BSO prepared the ground so thoroughly, and went into Spanish-speaking communities. I’m going to venture a sad guess about what happened afterward, though — not much. By which I mean that the BSO very likely didn’t continue contact with those communities. They were needed, or were an obvious target, for this piece, and then were forgotten. That’s happened over and over in New York with the African-American community, who’ll be sought out when there’s a jazz symphony needing a gospel choir, or when there’s an opera (as there was at NY City Opera in the ’80s) on the life of Malcolm X. And then nothing. No further contact with the black community, no sign of interest in it. Until, of course, the next thing, as happened (just for instance) when the Berlin Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall suddenly showed up in Harlem to teach kids to dance to the Rite of Spring.

      That’s a shame on so many levels. As well as — in the simplest human terms — a great discourtesy.

      • Steve Ledbetter says

        I can’t give first-hand information about what the BSO might or might not have done to follow up the excitement of Osvaldo’s piece with Hispanic audiences in Boston, because I was no longer on the staff when all of this happened, but I am certainly not aware of any particular follow-up.

  10. says

    It’s been so long since I read such an excellent article on the gulf between audience and performer. I get much of my inspiration as a classical singer from watching great pop singers like Tom Jones or David Bowie giving 100% commitment to what they’re performing. I’m currently embarked on a project which involves me singing the complete Schubert songs, and I’ve opted for an informal seating arrangement at ground level, rather like the salons of the 19th century. My audiences love it.
    Best wishes,
    Conor Biggs

    • says

      Hi, Conor,

      Thanks so much for your warm comment. I’d love to know more about what you do. Feel free to use the “contact me” link to email.

  11. says

    OK, I am back online, and I’ve had a thought after a long road trip.
    Doesn’t Public Radio have an important lesson for us? Maybe the task of building a more inclusive audience does not rest on proving how hip and cool classical music is. It’s really not all that hip and cool. What NPR tells us is that it’s OK to be dorky and cerebral, that everyone else who is listening to Scott Simon or Ira Glass or Click and Clack is somehow of our clan: curious, open-minded, maybe hyper-educated, but maybe not, maybe self-employed (or not) – a whole host of political/cultural commonalities could come into play, BUT… NPR does not tell us “You are so cool and hip to be listening to this program”. Rather, it’s about a knowing that there are other people like us, and that could mean “like us” in a myriad of ways, listening too. And we can all wear our dork badge proudly, and if we give a monthly donation, we even get a tote bag.
    This is only the seed of an idea in my mind. But I think there is something here about inclusiveness and the reassurance of being part of something.
    I know that NPR has its woes too. I also know that listening to NPR is free, and something that requires no more commitment/effort than being in your car at the right time to catch This American Life or Fresh Air (harder than it sounds, actually). So there are extra challenges involved in convincing people to get out of the house and to pull out the debit card for a concert ticket.
    But, what is the “young audience” we need for classical music? Do we need to prove to all the 20-somethings that “indie-classical” is the same thing as inde-rock? OR, do we need for US to be the audience? I mean the us that is in the car listening to Ira, staying in the car for the “driveway moment”, us that needs a babysitter to get to a concert, us that wishes we had enough time on a Sunday morning to get through the Times, us that feels on some level that being a dork is really…kind of cool. Cool like Ira. How cool is that?
    If I could go to a concert and see us there, that would be so nice.
    As I said, I don’t have any answers quite yet except for this: Classical music isn’t cool. It’s exciting, dramatic, tragic, beautiful, moving, funny, sexy, scary, human. Maybe you’re a total dork because you like it. So fly your dork flag and come out to hear the music. Free tote bags after the show.

    • says

      Keep thinking, Lara! I love how you’re exploring this.

      NPR may have worked out part of an answer. If you haven’t seen it, you should go to their music website, see what music they feature, and how classical music definitely plays a part in their mix — but not as it’s presented by most classical music specialists. It’s one of the best music sites I’ve seen, and gives an idea of how classical music might work in the future, when the issues we ponder here have largely gone away.

      • says

        Absolutely! I was at the NPR studios the day they launched their Ipad app. The website is a priority for them, and rightly so. It’s really terrific.

  12. Steve Ledbetter says

    Your comments about TRUE piano and forte dynamics called to mind two particularly strong recollections of moments in which a conductor absolutely demanded a REAL piano and not just the sort-of mezzo-piano that we often get.

    I’m not sure if it is significant, but both cases happened to be major English compositions led by conductors with particular strength in that repertory. One was a performance of Vaughan-Williams’s Symphony No. 5 with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Andre Previn. The slow movement began with that delicious English horn solo floating on a bed of strings–but the strings were SO soft that everyone had to listen very closely to be sure we were even hearing anything–more like a gentle breeze coming in the open doors of the performance space. I asked Previn afterwards how he had gotten that effect, and he said, “I just kept saying ‘softer’ — ‘softer’ — ‘softer.'”

    The other time with a similar effect: I was singing in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the Boston Symphony’s first performance ever of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius”, with Sir Colin Davis conducting his first-ever performance of it. Part II opens with a sustained passage of extremely quiet music suggesting Gerontius awaking to the afterlife after the somewhat noisy torments of his dying and the first assertions of faith that ended Part I. I’ll never forget the first orchestra rehearsal of the passage. For a good ten minutes Davis kept starting and restarting Part II without getting past the second or third bar. “Too loud!” — “still too loud” — “less” — “too loud” and so on. By the time the orchestra believed that he REALLY meant it, I think the sound was so soft that our eardrums surely could not have vibrated more than the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Breathtaking and utterly captivating.

  13. says

    Hello, Greg!
    I am finally getting the chance to go through some of your posts. I have been working as an intern for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over the summer and I was reminded of our discussion when the oboist started the performance by thanking the audience for being there and for their support, talking to them, and sharing the MEANING behind the music. Insights were offered for each piece that was played. The audience listened to the musicians’ stories, followed by the musical performance, with rapt attention.

    The first piece was a wood wind trio written for two flutes/trumpets/clarinets (treble instrument) and a bassoon…in this case, it was two oboes and a bassoon. It was an interesting and surprisingly beautiful combination!

    The second piece was particularly special. The trio played variations on the Star Spangled Banner, which were written by students participating in the BSO on the GO! program (,3). The musicians took these variations and created an arrangement, later performing the work for the students on a return visit to the schools. I bet those kids were so excited to hear their music coming to life and being played by professional symphony musicians! Having an understanding of the story behind the music made for an even more memorable experience. The oboist even recited Scott Key’s poem for us, reading a verse between each variation.

    The music that followed had an interesting backstory as well. The bassoonist spoke this time. She told us about her bassoon teacher and her decision to have him critique a composition that she was working on. Several revisions later, she ended up with the piece that was about to be performed. You could sense the respect and admiration she had for her teacher. I was eager to hear how her composition turned out!

    The final selection was Dvorak’s American string quartet. The BSO’s concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, addressed the audience and shared a little about the composer, Dvorak’s connection to America, and some of the characteristic melodies that appear in his music. The quartet played beautifully and you could tell they were personally engaged in the music, which made the performance even more compelling. I got goosebumps watching them!

    Moral of the story, having musicians willing to talk about the music, what it means to them, the story behind its creation, and particular sounds or phrases to listen for made for a more powerful and engaging concert experience. A reception was held afterwards and several of the musicians (unfortunately, the concertmaster didn’t stick around) mingled with members of the audience, answering questions, talking about their performance, and chatting in general.

    It was so much fun!!

    • says

      Thanks for much for this story, Catherine. I agree with you — when musicians talk from the heart about the music they play, it can connect in wonderful ways with others. For years, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, I’ve asked the students to make a five-minute presentation, in which they speak from the heart about a piece they love. The results have been breathtaking. At times, we all get goosebumps, and find ourselves deeply inspired by what’s being said.