Bewilderment and hope

bright blogLast week I was at the League of American Orchestras’ national conference, where I led a conversation about dreams. Or, more specifically, about a specific dream —  that 10 years from now, orchestras have a lively young audience and vibrant community buzz. Plus all the funding they need, with no artistic compromise.

Why aren’t we there now? I asked. And, if the dream came true, what would be the steps that got us there?

But more on that later. On Facebook a few days ago, I said that at the conference I’d sensed what I might — and in a gentle voice — call something like bewilderment about what the future will hold, about how orchestras will get through their current problems, and about who their future audience might be.

So I should say more about that. Not everyone was bewildered, of course. I met people who were taking more or less bold initiatives, and the New World Symphony made a striking presentation, describing special concerts they do for a new, young audience, and how happy that audience is with what the Symphony presents. I’ll say more on this when the New World’s PowerPoint goes up, as promised, on the League’s website. Then I can share — and you’ll be able to see for yourself — some very encouraging data, which I didn’t have time to write down as it shot past me. I could see one version of this orchestra’s future taking shape as I listened.

But on the other hand, I did hear other people asking, in different ways, for help — for data they could use in charting a future course, for some clearer understanding of their future audience. When I asked, in my session, why we weren’t living in my imagined paradise already, the participants were quick to blame their own orchestras, for not doing enough to make themselves welcoming, to open themselves (as I interpreted many of the comments) to the world outside.

I had great sympathy for this. What to do about an unknown future is a huge question to face, once you realize (as so many people in the orchestra world now seem to) that the older classical music culture has been fading, and now isn’t strong enough to support what orchestras have done in the past. 

But at the same time, I thought bewilderment might not quite be necessary. Our wider culture knows a lot about itself. So if, for instance, you wanted to know about what kind of music your future audience likes, there’s endless information available, starting (so very simply) with the pop charts, which subdivide into detailed looks at all kinds of subcultural choices. At the very least, we know that younger people like widely varied kinds of music, that many of them function within these many choices like true artistic connoisseurs. And that their tastes are adventurous, that they’re curious about new kinds of music. And that there’s no reason they shouldn’t respond to classical concerts, in varied forms — as many, of course, have already done. Look at the New World Symphony, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Wordless Music (when it first launched), the Bang on a Can annual New York marathons, and much, much else. 

All of which is grist for future posts. For now, I’ll add something gratifying. My session at the conference was one of very few whose title included the presenter’s name: “A Conversation with Greg Sandow.” Which is to say my name is known, that it’s a draw, that I’ve become a brand. Throughout the conference, people, reading my name tag, would come up to me to thank me for everything I do. Sometimes people even said, so flatteringly, that they’d been advised to go to anything I might be involved with.

One long-time orchestra professional, who in his time has been a power in the field, joked that in 10 years he’d be retired, drinking wine on his patio. And that if the people at my session didn’t do what I told them to, they’d be retired, too (unwillingly).

Of course all of this is flattering. Helped — though not so much as the great success of my session — to make the conference a professional high point.

But I’m not relating it all to praise myself. Because in the end, none of it is about me. It’s about the need for change in classical music, which now, it seems clear, is widely recognized. I happened to talk about that need very early in the game, and kept on talking about it, getting attention not because of any great virtue of mine, but because I was saying things that many other people were figuring out for themselves. So I became a point man for a movement I didn’t start, a movement that was created, in the most profound sense, by history — by the evident fact that classical music in its present form is failing, and by the deep need so many of us feel to renew it.

So let me pay back what people said to me. I want to thank them for what they do. Because when they thanked me, they were really acknowledging the power of the ideas that they themselves have. Bravo to everyone!


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  1. RenJ says

    Yes, it would be great if in 10 years symphony orchestras had that huge, lively young audience that they have never, ever actually had.