Programming for a new audience: one example

And now to some specifics — how classical music programming (repertoire) could change, in the new world we’ll be in when we’ve found a new audience.

Or, of course, how we’ll need to change what we offer, to be part of the culture our new audience lives in.

I’ll describe a concert I saw at the University of Maryland, created by students at the National Orchestral Institute (NOI). It shows one approach.

But before that, a word about Boulez and Godard, in my last post. I said Boulez, the leading advanced musician in ’50s and ’60s France, wasn’t part of the cultural change going on there. But Godard, one of the leading filmmakers, was very much part of it. I showed why that was.

My point, though, wasn’t to say that classical music needs to be at the forefront of change. Instead, it’ll fall all over the change spectrum, just as anything else does. There were plenty of movies coming out in Paris or Hollywood in the ’60s that were entirely conventional. Plus plenty of books, paintings, poems, plays, whatever.

My point, instead, was to illustrate a failing (as I see it) of classical music in our era, that when the culture does change, classical music mostly doesn’t take part. Concert halls don’t reflect the culture changes (as movie houses, even mainstream ones in the US, quickly did, once the film revolution of the ’60s hit). And, most important, people swept up in the new culture don’t find much in classical music that’s swept up with them. So they turn to other arts, and to popular culture.

And yes, there are exceptions. Minimalism, when it emerged in New York in the late ’60s and ’70s, was very much in tune — very much part of — a larger explosion of new art, which by the ’80s had become fairly mainstream. But this is the exception that proves the rule. Minimalism sprung up outside the classical music world, and when people inside the core of classical music started to notice it, they mostly denounced it. (A long story, which I was right in the middle of. And a story worth telling, at some other time.)

So now the NOI. For a few years, there’s been an activity at the NOI (and also at the Symphony Orchestra of the University of Maryland School of Music) called “New Lights.” It’s about change — about finding new ways to give orchestra concerts.

And each summer, students are given a concert to produce on their own. I was involved the first time this happened, and blogged about it happily. The students were given some pieces to play, but told they could add anything, and present the pieces any way they liked. The pieces were new music, including a Leon Kirschner string quartet, parts of Elliot Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for wind quartet, and John Adams’s Chamber Symphony. (They had to learn all this on their own, without conductors or coaches, a fabulous teaching idea.)

If you follow the link, you’ll see how they produced this. Adding improvisations and rock arrangements, and talking about the Carter with such enthusiasm that the audience whooped and roared.

Moravec and more

For this year’s New Lights event, the students were given just one piece to do — Paul Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate, a piece that takes off from Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, using almost the same instrumentation. (Clarinet replaces oboe, though — parenthesis here — using bass clarinet as well changes the color of the music so strikingly that we’re far from Bach’s sound world, farther away even than Moravec’s thoroughly modern harmony takes us.)

So to build a concert around Paul’s piece, the students came up with this:

  • the first movement of the Second Brandenburg, but (as the program put it) “the clever substitution of vibraphone for the trumpet).
  • the ghostly second movement of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, played from the balcony
  • Arvo Pärt’s very quiet Spiegel im spiegel, played both in the balcony and onstage
  • an improvisation, begun by the musicians on stage singing quietly, with the audience invited to join in: “Choose any tone and sing it (vocal quality does not matter). When you run out of breath, take another and choose a tone that you think will add to the sounds already occurring.”
  • and finally Brandenburg Gate

(Go here to see the printed program.)

How well did this work? I couldn’t praise it enough (except for the trumpet substitution; I’ll save my thoughts on that for the end). The Bach was happily played, especially by the oboe soloist, who radiated joy, musically and physically. And it’s almost always good to hear Bach.

The final chord of the Bach was a surprise. Instead of sustaining it, or letting it end, the strings did a soft glissando downward. Completely unexpected! But quiet — not at all blatant. This was a transition into the ghostly Cage piece. And who knew the music would come from the balcony? That was a surprise, taking off from the surprise of the glissando, moving us onward.

The Pärt was a moment of quiet, keeping us in the balcony, but also leading us back to the stage. So we moved onward more.

The improvisation, of course, was also a surprise. The program said it was coming, but how could we know that the musicians would sing, and sing so quietly, with such a sense of silence surrounding them? Then, when we all joined in, we had communion, stage and audience (and balcony) together. (People who know Pauline Oliveros’s pieces for group singing or humming know how fulfilling — inspiring, even — this kind of sung improvisation can be.)

During the singing, a transition began. To quote from the program again:

In the final minute [of the improvisation], short rhythmic motives derived from the Moravec work will begin to be heard played by instruments on the stage and around the hall. On a cue the Moravec will begin.

 And then we had propulsive, thoughtful Moravec, with the audience whooping and cheering at the end. The concert lasted little more than an hour, but felt thoroughly complete. It was a journey — one of the best things about it was (as I’ve described, bit by bit) the flow from one piece to the next. I was always surprised, always delighted.

And I forgot to mention one other thing, that maybe didn’t work quite as well, but fit so well with the rest. The plan was to make a transition from the lobby outside the concert hall, into the concert. So when it was time to begin, students in the lobby started to clap, in rhythms (as it turned out) suggested by the Second Brandenburg. While clapping, they led us inside, and then other musicians, on stage and elsewhere, started to clap. This didn’t seem quite as well formed as the rest of the concert — the clapping seemed tentative — but still was a nice idea.

Some people, I’m sure, would wish that all of the Bach had been played. I, too, was eager to hear the second and third movements — until, that is, the glissando was heard, and the Cage began. Then I was swept into something new.

So stopping just after the first movement worked, and had one more virtue: It focused the Moravec as the concert’s climax, its three movements serving to bring the flow to a decisive end.

But of course if anyone wants the complete Bach, the solution is easy: Listen to it on your own (as I did, a day or so afterward). Or, better still, design your own concert, working the way you want a concert to work, in which the same kind of flow and surprises might happen, but the Bach is programmed complete.

I don’t mean to say that all concerts need to be this short, or this strikingly reconceived. Rather, my point is that if we let ourselves do what occurs to us, the mere fact that we’re citizens of the present day will mean that our concerts will take a contemporary shape. All kinds of things will emerge, including this program, which seemed — at least to me — about as perfect a way to play classical music for a new audience as I’ve ever encountered.

This is also how to proceed, if we want to be at the forefront of cultural change. If we’re producing concerts that answer our needs — changing, when we need to, traditional classical formats — then when we’re having cultural change, that change will naturally be echoed in the concerts we produce. Without anyone having to plan for it.

[Personal interlude: When I got to this point, our nanny came back from the playground with the baby. I’m in a room right by the front door, and when he saw me, he gave me a grin. So I stopped to take him and hug him. He hugged back. We ended up on the floor playing, the three of us, Rafa grinning the whole time. He’s nine months old on Sunday!]

So about that trumpet, or lack of it. One thing Bach is very good at is writing for instruments in the most tasty way. The instruments in his pieces always do what comes naturally for them, and he makes sure that they’re heard. Take the last chord of the first movement of the First Brandenburg. Since he’s using horns, which aren’t in the other Brandenburgs, he doesn’t blend them, in that final chord, with the other instruments. Instead he puts them in their striking lower middle register, shouting out a tangy major third. So you know they’re there! “We’re horns, hear us roar.”

Same with the trumpet in the first movement of the Second Brandenburg. Not an instrument that blends easily with the other soloists, flute and violin, or with the body of strings in the background. So Bach doesn’t try to make it blend. Everything it plays is designed to stand out, even if it’s a short bit of rhythmic accompaniment. Then it stands out as accompaniment.

Here’s a Spotify link to a fabulous performance of that movement — buoyant, savvy, with each phrase aimed exactly where it ought to go — by Concerto Italiano. Just as each phrase is aimed in the right direction, each instrument is perfectly placed. So you always hear the trumpet, and can feel the truth of what I’m saying.

A mallet instrument just can’t do what the trumpet does. It’s retiring, at least with all the other instruments. So the substitution all but took away the trumpet part, instead of bringing it to some kind of new life. It would have helped, maybe, if the player had pointed the rhythms more vividly, and also looked more vivid, drawing our eyes to him, so that maybe our ears would follow. But, as rendered at this concert, the trumpet substitution wasn’t a success.



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  1. Neil McGowan says

    >> Same with the trumpet in the first movement of the Second Brandenburg. Not an instrument that blends easily with the other soloists, flute and violin, or with the body of strings in the background. So Bach doesn’t try to make it blend.<<

    Garbage, garbage, everything you write is GARBAGE.

    EDUCATE YOURSELF you idiotic man?! Brandenburg 2 is for RECORDER and violin and clarino trumpet, NOT FLUTE – YOU MORON.

    And when it is played ON THE RIGHT INSTRUMENTS (ie the baroque instruments which BACH wrote for) the blend is perfect – because Bach KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING.

    But now I see what you were talking about in your previous idiocy. Because if THIS is the CRAP level of concert-giving that goes on in your PATHETIC WORLD, then YES… you DO need to play better. You need to play a MILLION TIMES BETTER and you'll still be selling your audiences SHORT, you FOOL.

    PRATTLE all you like about the AMATEUR concerts you give, Sandow – but DON'T, just DON'T slander PROFESSIONAL ORCHESTRAS with your A-M-A-T-E-U-R-I-S-M.

    • says


      Why the harsh words for Sandow? I do not always agree with him but reality is that the audience at classical concerts is aging and in order to keep classical music alive and fresh we need new ideas on how to present the music to the larger culture. I am a music professor and in my classes with general education students the majority of them have never been to a classical concert in their life. Why would they go to something that does not communicate to them and is rather pretentious and stuffy in their minds? What I think Sandow is trying to do is to push the envelope for those of us involved in the classical music world to be engaged with the wider culture and present this great music in new an interesting ways that is going to speak to the culture. Why would that be a bad thing when the way the classical music currently functions it is headed towards a certain death. Also, could not a professional orchestra take up these ideas that he is suggesting and make their concerts a bit more interesting.

      On a side note, while I think the historical performance approach to Bach and other composers is interesting it often gets wrapped up in being so historically accurate that it loses the passion and fire that should be part of the music. I agree that using the proper instruments for the music will help us to hear the music as the composer intended and provide the right blend but did Bach always have the forces that we desired for his music? No, in his letter to the Leipzig town council, Bach complained about not having the right musical forces to properly play his works so I doubt that Bach always heard his music in the way he intended. There were also times when Bach purposely made his music ugly and not blended. He often would stretch the limits of what instruments in his day were capable of and purposely have it where the music would sound bad to fulfill the greater meaning of the text.

    • says

      If people really understood Baroque music, they’d know that it’s not about the instruments, it’s about the notes. That’s what gives the music it’s universality — what makes it timeless and great. Personally I don’t think period instruments don’t really serve much of a musical purpose other than to indulge the fantasies of a select few.

      Blend is achieved by performers, which is part of the reason why specific dynamics tended to be pretty sparse. You have to figure it out on your own.

    • richard says

      Calm down! I’ve been following this blog for several years, and initially Greg and I went at it hammer and tongs.
      I don’t buy everything that he says, but for the most part he is spot on in his critique of the classic music situation. In this case, he’s talking about college kid’s, and I think it’s great for them to experiment. Sometimes one has to throw off the “dead hand” of traditional to come to appreciate it. What harm is being done?

      • says

        Thanks, Richard. And Matthew and Carlos, too. I’m glad you all don’t always agree with me. How would I learn anything — and how would all of us ever figure out what’s going on with classical music — if everyone simply accepted everything I say!

  2. says

    Bravo Greg!
    I love reading your stories of how the students made the music their own, drew their audience of friends into the performance and transitioned in and out of other works for a connected experience. But of course this is an academic setting and the students took alot of time to collectively work things out and market to an audience of friends (and their friends and the curious). It’s a fabulous dream-realization of what is possible in a temporary, sheltered environment.

    Trying to carry this into the real world is possible, but very time consuming. I can’t remember the review I read of a NYC group that did something similarly dreamy recently but my point is going to be that it really doesn’t take much to refresh old works… which is probably one reason why we do the same works again and again… because new players add subtle changes. And different conductors and chamber ensembles HOPEFULLY exaggerate interesting but usually-overlooked details.

    This would still be too subtle for listeners with no experience. So they need changes or exaggerations to be more dramatic, visual or sonic. For example, veteran audiences like my transcriptions of symphonic rep for octet, because they can not only HEAR lines that are too blended in the orchestra but they can SEE who actually plays it! New audiences like them simply because they’ve never heard these works except for a movie or commercial. And they enjoy seeing that we actually LIKE to play them.

    For me the strongest aspect of your story is that the students agreed to juxtapose old with new. (Of course, they probably also didn’t KNOW much less have ACCESS to alot of new music, nor time to try them all out.) Curious new audiences want to sample as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Such a feel-good experience is great… but is this realistic to produce once a week or once a month to build an audience?
    Sorry to think out loud here.

  3. richard says

    Yes, the clarino part in the 2nd Brandenburg is special, as are the other times Bach uses trumpets. You probably know this, but the picc part of “Penny Lane” came about after McCartney heard a perfomance on the BBC of the 2nd Brandenburg. About the Moravec, if one wants to re-create the Baroque sound world, one doesn’t use single reed instruments. Stravinsky”s “Pulcinella” is a example of “neo-Baroque” scoring. His “Mass” uses only brass and double reeds, which gives the work an updated baroque sound.

    • says

      I didn’t know that about Penny Lane!

      Someone should write a book someday on the ways classical music has influenced rock. Apart from the obvious borrowings of classical material. Many people in indie rock (Amanda Palmer and Bjork are examples) had classical training when they were young, and wouldn’t hesitate to say it helped them make their own music later on. And there must be countless incidents like the Penny Lane story, when a classical piece inspired something in rock.

      An account of influence in the other direction — apart from obvious things, like Chris Rouse’s “Bonham” — would be interesting to see, too. Maybe a classical composer has seen the documentary about the making of “Born to Run,” and has been inspired by Springsteen’s account of the careful layering he did of the sounds at the very start of the title song. (Actually — hope this isn’t too off the wall! — Strauss’s scoring for the chamber orchestra in “Ariadne” strikes me, at least from memory (my full score is in my other home), as a careful job of bringing instruments in and out, and subtly changing what they play, in a way that — though again, maybe I’m off the wall here — bears some resemblance to what Springsteen did.)

      • richard says

        Obviously minimalism owes a lot to rock. And as my daughter says, at times I write “twisted techno”.

  4. Carlos Fischer says

    I endorse M. Linder’s words. It’s a pity to read personal insults . Neil Mcgowan’s words show a lack of arguments and ideas, a lack of self-control and an abundance of frustration.

    Just as M. Linder, i don’t agree with everything that Sandow says in this blog. But probably, it is the only blog( and place) in the world, that discusses the CM audience crisis in such a transparent ways. Certainly, CM won’t die even if no changes happen in the way that is presented; but it will become a kind of “hidden” form of art that only a few people like me and the commentators here follow. I listen frequently to CM more than 30 years ago, and i truly think that orchestras and ensembles never played better than today ; there’s never been such a quantity of choices and opportunities to hear and to discover new music from past composers and wonderful new contemporary classical music that deserves a much wider audience and, for this, CM music needs to find its own ways to go through today’s culture(s) .

  5. says

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on this — like the concert described above, I’m seeing a trend of new music ensembles programming a wide variety of things in all different styles. The mix of old with the new, tonal vs atonal, improvised vs composed, etc. It may sound great on the surface but in some cases it could be interpreted as being unfocused.

    Maybe it’s a way for musicians to reflect the pluralistic society that we’re living in, but entrepreneurs typically recommend upstarts to strongly focus on a niche before expanding too fast. You can’t be “everything to everyone”, at least until you get to the Wal-Mart level of influence

    • says

      Ryan, I think people do this for the simplest of reasons — they like all the music they play. And don’t think they should be restricted to playing any one kind. Clearly this can backfire, when programs get incoherent. But then that can happen on normal classical concerts. And more often, in the new music events you’re talking about, the result is either harmless or really engaging. I’m about to blog about Matt Haimovitz/Chris O’Riley’s Shuffle.Play.Listen CD and concert, which might seem incoherent (film scores, Arcade Fire arrangements, standard cello and piano pieces), and in fact is meant to be shuffled in various orders, but which — when I heard it live — was a delight.

      Nothing is always perfect. Especially in a time of change, I think it’s important to let people follow their hearts, and encourage them even when they fail. (Unless there’s something egomaniacal and artistically phony about what they do.)

      • says

        Hmm, okay I can buy that. You’re right — enthusiasm makes a huge difference, especially in a medium like music. Sometimes it’s the only thing that matters.

    • says

      Thanks. Classical Revolution is very active. I was invited to speak at their national conference, but unfortunately couldn’t do it. Change is springing up everywhere. Which makes me very happy. Classical music really is changing, and the process can’t be stopped, precisely because it’s spontaneous.

  6. says

    One of the really special things about classical music is that experience of focused listening to subtle and artistic sounds in the acoustically protected environment of a good hall (when the hall is good). This is the one thing that is almost impossible to find in unconventional spaces.

    I sometimes despair that this concept of focused listening is being lost. So much music is amplified beyond any possibility of subtlety (not to mention preserving one’s hearing).

    Silence is precious!

    • says

      With all respect, I think the idea that classical music involves focused listening and other genres (perhaps because they’re amplified) doesn’t, is something of a myth. First, we don’t know how much focused listening goes on in classical concert halls. How many in the audience listen in a focused way, and how many drift in and out? We simply don’t know. There’s something of a literature — Christopher Small comes to mind — about the classical concert hall being structured to separate the audience from the music making, leading to less involvement. Would an audience _dancing_ to the Eroica Symphony focus its listening more sharply? I’m sure it would, but I know that’s utter heresy in classical music. I do know that when I worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I pasked an audience to clap whenever they heard something they liked, in the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony. I did that because Mozart himself — as he says in a letter — structured the piece to encourage this to happen. The audience, to judge from the variety of its applause at different places, and also by the way it stopped applauding whenever something new appeared in the music, was listening in an extremely focused and lively way.

      As for how focused people are on amplified music. that could be the subject of another long paragraph. Or a book. I’ll simply say that I spent years in the pop music world, and didn’t see that people (broadly speaking) don’t listen just as carefully (if not more so) than people in classical music.

      Here’s something for all of us. We should beware of thinking that goes something like this. I don’t mean what’s actually expressed, but where the ideas appear to come from. “I love classical music so much, and admire it for XYZ reasons. Therefore I’ll make XYZ typical of classical music — I’ll declare [out of pure love, to be fair] that XYZ are what classical music is all about. I look at other kinds of music [with which, if I were completely honest with myself, I’d admit I don’t know much about] and don’t see XYZ. So now I’ve proved that classical music is superior.” [When in fact all I’ve done is say that other kinds of music don’t seem to work in ways that make me feel comfortable.]

  7. says

    Why the urge to demolish a tradition which was focussed upon the inner emotional experience of man? Music which aims at expression, can only do this by using a vocabulary and performance culture which has been refined over the ages. This tradition is a great asset, and if people feel it does no longer ‘fit’ into the ‘modern world’, and think it (the tradition) has to change, do not seem to be aware that in the process the fundamentals of this tradition, which make the expressive vocabularies possible, will disappear. Instead we get the same bland, materialist, vulgar products which we find now everywhere in ‘the modern world’. The entire point of departure of thinking is wrong. A highly evolved musical tradition can not be ‘adapted’ to a ‘modern world’ which has lost its bearings. In this way, degeneration and decadence is disguised as ‘creating a new audience’. If new audiences have to be created, this can only be achieved by educational efforts, teaching young people what this musical tradition is in reality. The tradition has to be left untouched in its fundamentals. Programming new music which is, in fact, a very different form of sound art, will only destroy the vestiges of musical tradition as they still exist.

    It is a grave misunderstanding to look at ‘the modern world’ as the measure of things. If new generations can no longer find an entrance into musical culture, it is better to let the musical culture shrink but keeping it intact, like the monks in early medieval times who preserved the culture of Antiquity – hoping for better times.