Programming for a new audience — things that worked

So why does Lincoln Center’s White Light festival matter? I mentioned it in my last new audience post, and listed next season’s programs:

U.S. premiere of Rian, performed by Ireland’s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre

 Virtuoso Wang Li plays jaw harps and calabash flute

N.Y. premiere of choreographer Akram Khan’s Vertical Road

Cameron Carpenter plays Bach on the Alice Tully Hall organ

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, arranged for chamber orchestra, conducted by Matthias Pintscher, and  performed by pianist Emanuel Ax, members of the New York Philharmonic, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Russell Thomas

Cosmic Pulses, all–Stockhausen program, performed by percussionist Stuart Gerber and sound projectionist Joe Drew

U.S. debut of the Latvian Radio Choir

Mary Chapin Carpenter sings from her new album, Ashes and Roses

Heiner Goebbels’ music/theater work I went to the house but did not enter featuring the Hilliard Ensemble

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads Philharmonia Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9

So here we have classical music, old and new, mixed with world music, theater, dance, and pop. The thread tying it all together is spirituality. And what Lincoln Center has done, with this focus, is bring in an audience (a segment, I’d guess, of the Next Wave audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) interested in art, and happy to go to classical music events because they’re part of the festival.

Something similar happened a couple of years ago with Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope festival, which was only music, of many varied kinds. I went to one of the events, and heard a Heiner Goebbels evening (current classical music),  played for a fairly full house of people  — and this wasn’t just my own view — who clearly weren’t the standard classical audience, or the standard new music audience. Lincoln Center had found an audience eager to come to whatever the festival offered — Goebbels, Emanuel Ax playing Schubert,  Xenakis, Tyondai Braxton playing out-there rock with a classical orchestra.

And, as I’ve written before, there have been many events in New York that draw a non-classical audience to new classical music — the Bang on a Can marathon, a big Wordless Music orchestral concert. And  yes, the Wordless Music concert featured a piece by Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, and that was clearly the draw. But it was a piece any classical group should have been proud to play, a piece whose ancestry lay far more with the texture music of composers like Penderecki than with rock. (As you can hear on the Nonesuch album pairing Greenwood with Penderecki himself. (Here’s a Spotify link if you’d like to hear it.)

The lesson for us here? That if you create an event — something that feels like more than the usual classical concert — people open to adventurous culture may well come, whether or not they normally go to classical performances.

And it doesn’t only work in New York. In Sakatoon, Saskatchewan, Lia Pas founded the Mysterium Choir, which for two years presented concerts of spiritual music, including pieces by Meredith Monk and Pauline Oliveros. She told me she drew more people than the Saskatoon chamber music series.

(The graphic I’ve used here comes from her website.)



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  1. Carlos Fischer says

    Great things in this program. I’d wish i could be there…The Latvian Radio Choir is fabulous singing Peteris Vasks works.

  2. says


    My concern has been that while there are relatively haphazard occurrences in which classical music performance seems to resonate with new audience members of a young age, they are nevertheless haphazard, largely because the root causes of liking and disliking are not well understood.

    You mentioned in this post, “Lincoln Center has…[brought] in an audience (a segment, I’d guess, of the Next Wave audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) interested in art.” This is part of what lies at the heart of the problem with respect to the sustainability of classical music. Let me explain.

    Rock musicians seem to have far less difficulty in making a financial go of a music career than classical musicians for a number of reasons. Laying aside the issue of creating and copyrighting music and the financial benefits that accrue from such actions, what I notice about rock concerts is that the large majority of attendees do not necessarily like art or artistry. They like the experience of being allowed to unchain themselves emotionally at a concert. They dance, jump, shout, sing, and carry on without being shushed by others. The music played at the concert is not as important to them as the occasion of being at the concert to experience a cathartic release. Riffs on a guitar are not judged by their technical perfection but rather by the jolt of adrenaline that they produce in the hearing of them. It is a different standard for judging the goodness or lack thereof of a concert when compared to a classical concert. And that is what I believe is the essential difference between the two and why there is such a disparity between the attendance at the two different types of concerts. If U2 were to perform, the audience could fill a stadium. If the Cleveland Orchestra were to perform, it would have trouble filling a 3,000 seat hall.

    As I have said, there are lots of parameters, but I think that the focus on the purity of the music by classical musicians and audiences (and the resulting elitism) compared to the focus on the experience of being at a catalyzing popular musical event is the crux of the matter. I have been to concerts where the performances were so perfect, so flawless, that I was utterly bored to death. The predictability of it all made me think that I could have had more excitement by watching a clock tick off the seconds. If others are like me (and I think they are…big surprise), I think that they go to concerts where one has to pay to support the performers in order to be a bit transformed by the experience, not to emerge from the hall in agreement that everything heard was according to specifications.

    I love classical music. I was trained to perform it, sang it professionally, and now I have a young 18 year old son who is about to embark on a career in classical music as a cellist. As I contemplate how his life will progress, I have to ask myself if he will opt for a different career in midstream to pay the bills, or if he will persist to the bitter end to become another starving artist. For the more than 5,000 highly qualified graduates of conservatories and music schools that are graduated every year with, quite honestly, no place to go plus the more than 10,000 graduates of public college music departments that pour out of their doors, one has to wonder how long the industry will refuse to be completely honest about the classical enterprise.

    By “classical enterprise,” I mean the arrangement of organizations around the central idea that classical music must be predicated on patrons who underwrite what is in all cases an unprofitable activity, at least as far as major symphonies are concerned. There is not a single symphonic organization in America that can survive on ticket sales alone. Generally, they all require 50% or more of the amount that they make from ticket sales to be derived from private or corporate donors to make up the difference between costs of operation and revenues. If it were any other business, such would be called a failing business. A man, who makes widgets and earns $1 million per year from sales but whose costs of production equal $1.5 million, were to claim that his business was successful after he kicked in an additional half million per year from his private wealth would be deemed self-delusional. Yet, orchestra after orchestra in the U.S. today does exactly that. They claim they have had “fabulous” (perhaps the most overused word in the world of the arts), successful seasons, year after year. The Philadelphia orchestra did exactly that right up to the point when it declared bankruptcy last year. When it finally placed itself in reorganization, its ratio of contributions to earn revenue from tickets sales had fallen to 1:1, i.e. half of its revenue came from contributions, a sure sign that its audience and its pricing were badly unsynchronized.

    I dearly hope that the classical music world will jettison its snobbery and narcissism and wake up to the world as it is. A century or more of sacrificing the emotional needs of audiences on the altar of musical purity has been a costly adventure led by well meaning but misdirected advocates of art for art’s sake. The price that has been paid is the diminution of the role of classical music in the modern world, not because the music itself lacks the power to compel a response but because those who have staged, performed, criticized, and auctioned it off have done so for the wrong audience. They have done what they have for the audience of the corpus of classical music, not for the people who would gladly pay if only they could hear it and experience the freedom to be human at the same time.

    • says

      Thanks for these thoughtful, passionate comments. I’d want to say, though, that comparisons with pop music can be tricky, for someone whose main experience — whose grounding and orientation — is classical music. We associate a respect for artistry with silent listening, but in other areas of music, that association might not be the case. Nor was it the case in the 18th century, when audiences talked during performances, and clapped whenever they heard a passage they liked. It’s a shock to realize that they were actually listening, but they were.

      We tend, I think, to idealize what goes on in classical performances. That is, we assume that the audience is attentive to artistry, when in fact we don’t know much about what people hear, or think about, or feel. I could mirror what you said about rock concerts, and say that the classical audience appears mainly to love the atmosphere of a classical concert — comfortable, familiar, lovely, unchallenging — and that it lets the lovely music wash over it, without paying much attention to details. I’d be bolstered in this by anecdotal evidence, showing that ticket buying doesn’t fall off when an orchestra plays badly (the Boston Symphony under Ozawa) or pick up when an orchestra plays well (the Pittsburgh Symphony under Jansons).

      But I don’t really have evidence that all of this is true. Likewise, I’d suggest that you don’t have evidence to show that the rock audience feels the way you say it feels. Certainly if you read rock criticism, you wouldn’t get the idea that people are as shallow as you say they are, and as inattentive to details. Of course, you could say that rock critics represent an intellectual minority of listeners, but then you could say the same about classical critics! In any case, in my several years as a pop music critic, I didn’t find that what you’re saying is true. To give you just one example, the metal audience loves virtuosity, and notices quite intently which guitarists have it. Megadeth, in the years when I was a pop critic, had two guitarists who’d play blistering virtuosic music in unison, a feat certainly noticed by their audience.

      As for rock musicians having an easier time making a living, it was a shock to me when I realized this wasn’t true. Of course at the higher levels of both businesses, rock musicians make more money than classical musicians do. But at the lower levels, classical musicians have all the advantages, financially. They can get paying freelance gigs (in churches, for instance, during the holiday season). And they can get paid to teach. Rock musicians, at a beginning professional level, can’t do that. They play club gigs that don’t pay them anything (and for which, in fact, they may have to pay, since clubowners may require them to buy tickets, which they either will or won’t be able to resell). You don’t see rock guitarists teaching in the many community music schools around the country that employ classical musicians.

      One thing that makes discussions of classical music’s future difficult is a shortage of facts. I’m not blaming you (speaking to the author of this comment), because none of us can know everything. But I’d caution all of us — including me — not to make assumptions, and, even more, to realize when we’re making them, when we’re making statements whose truth seems obvious to us, but which in fact we don’t know enough to evaluate.

      • says


        I think you have a point with the differences between rock and classical musicians in regards to their financial status. However rcd123 has brought up a key fact about the differences in the audiences.

        “Riffs on a guitar are not judged by their technical perfection but rather by the jolt of adrenaline that they produce in the hearing of them. It is a different standard for judging the goodness or lack thereof of a concert when compared to a classical concert.”

        I believe classical music is the only genre of music that focuses so heavily on technical perfection. I believe we have gotten to the point where technical perfection/virtuosity is mistaken for supreme musical prowess. We wonder why major film companies save money and use Garritan samples for their film scores instead of live musicians. So many performances by classical musicians are void of emotion and have the liveliness of a well-oiled machine.

        • says

          Very good point. I could cite one major exception to your point about technical perfection — metal bands are often held to a high technical standard, especially in guitar solos. And the standards of production, when recordings are made, is stellar. The audience isn’t looking for that, and normally doesn’t comment on it, but professionals are keenly aware of it.

          And country music, too — that’s another genre where technical perfection gets high marks.

          But yes — you go to a show wanting and expecting to be wowed. There are genres in pop where technical perfection doesn’t matter at all — punk, obviously. So the priorities in pop are different. Classical music stresses technical perfection, and pays a price for it. Of course, when you’re playing notated scores, it’s reasonable to expect that you render them with technical accuracy. But as Robert Philip shows in his books on the early days of recording, classical musicians used to be much less concerned with accuracy than they are now.