The National Symphony Orchestra played in a very large club, attracting so many people — more than 2000 — that they had to turn people away.
And they didn’t just play classical music. The program did began with the Candide overture, and included the onrushing second movement of the Shostakovich Tenth, plus “Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and, to end the evening, the “Mambo” from West Side Story. All of which the crowd — young, white, hip — cheered.
But what they seemed to cheer even more was everything else on the program, things that hardcore classical people might slag off as “crossover,” but (as anyone in the wider culture knows) is just a different kind of musical art. DJ Stylus started the evening with an hour of dance music, and then during the show we had Christylez Bacon, a hiphop/go-go rapper and human beat box, plus Wytold Lebing, an electric cellist and composer.
What we had from them largely took off from classical music. Christylez Bacon led the crowd through a piece called “X–2,” about a DC bus line everyone smiled about. Lebing soloed in “Bach Remix,” based on the prelude to the first Bach cello suite, plus another piece called “My Regards.” Bacon also did “It’s the Beatbox,” with the orchestra playing Pachelbel’s canon, and, leading into the Bernstein finale, “Mambo Sauca,” with a lot of call and response for the audience.
But of course all three guests played in all these pieces, joined toward the end by Glenn Donnellan, an exuberant NSO violinist who played the spectacular violin he made from a baseball bat. And the orchestra played in everything, not just Pachelbel, but in every piece. It was a great show, exuberant and fun. The club, Echostage, is a huge open space, with comfortable bars to drink at, sharply lit, on both sides.
There were lightshows with the music, and they were fabulous. From my wife’s review of the show: “Fingers of blue-tinged black light strobed out across a dance floor filled to near capacity. Video projections pulsed up and down the back walls.”
So effective, every bit of this, and so much fun. Much credit to Patricia O’Kelly, the NSO’s Managing Director of Media Relations, who went way outside her normal comfort zone to bring in an audience the NSO couldn’t reach in its usual ways. And to Artistic Administrator Justin Ellis, who programmed the whole thing. Everything we heard was his idea.
And finally to Eric Allen, credited as arranger for the nonclassical pieces, who I’d assume wrote the really well-done orchestra charts. And who, if memory serves, wasn’t further IDd in the printed program, though I’d think he’s this enterprising guy, a model of today’s entrepreneurial (and multigenre) classical musician. The creddentials fit.
So now I have to ask: Where’s the NSO going with this? It’s part of a series they do called NSO in Your Neighborhood, which in the past hasn’t reached this far beyond classical music or to this many people.
I don’t know what their strategy is for any of this, but for the Echostage performance, strategic questions really do loom. Here were maybe 2000 people who, as I’m sure it’s right to assume, don’t go to hear the NSO at the Kennedy Center. Is the plan to bring them there? To bring them to Echostage, and then, because they love what they orchestra played, get them to the NSO’s normal concerts?
And if so, how would that be done? Or is the point to develop, in effect, a new product line, regular concerts that blend classical music with music with a beat, so the NSO keeps reaching this new audience, but not in its usual way.
My wife thought that,
The point of this kind of exercise is not only to woo in new ticket-buyers. The point, ever more, is simply to show the orchestra participating as equals — not as missionaries — in dialogue with other artists and other communities.
And that’s a well-taken point. Classical music needs to do this, if it wants to coexist in the modern world with everything else out there.
But what else could the goal be? I wonder if the NSO asked these questions internally. And involved the musicians in discussing them, to moved toward unifying everyone involved in some kind of common purpose.
From what I’ve seen, I’d say that orchestras don’t ask these strategic questions often enough. Which then can leave them floundering after a couple of years down a new road, when the landscape hasn’t much changed, but the effort and expense of doing something new might start to feel like a burden.
An orchestra, embarking on a new project, needs to ask what the ultimate goal is. And how long it might take to reach that goal. And what might be metrics to assess along the way, so you know how well you’re moving toward that goal. (If anyone wants my help, as a consultant, in working this out, I’m available.)
As an example (incorporating more than I mentioned in the last paragraph: Suppose the NSO wants to bring the Echostage crowd to classical concerts at the Kennedy Center. That gives them a long-term goal. So then they have to lay out the steps they’ll take to reach it. Do more Echostage-like shows? Offer special ticket deals to people who come to Echostage? Team up with Uber, to offer discount rides to new NSO ticket-buyers, and discount NSO tickets to people who use Uber?
There has to be a plan. And then they’d have to ask how to quantify the goal. How many Echostage people would they have to get to the Kennedy Center — and get coming regularly? — to count what they’re doing as a success?
Then comes the timeframe. How many years do they expect the plan to take? And then the metrics. How do they know, early on, if the plan is going well or not? Probably you want at least a small number of Echostage people to start coming to regular NSO concerts. Or expressing interest in other, less tangible, but still promising ways.
And then maybe now you set yearly goals, so you can assess your plan regularly, and see if it’s working. It goes without saying (I hope), that all this needs to be budgeted. How much do you want to spend to head toward your goal? A budget helps you decide whether your plan is cost-effective. Avoiding the danger of panic — “We’ve done these concerts for two years! And still we don’t see many young people at the Kennedy Center!”
I know one orchestra that, after two years of a nwe program, hit financial snags and absuptly canned the new program, deciding it wasn’t worth the money. Wnhich meant they maybe didn’t give it time to prove itself. Plan the finances in advance, and this is less likely to happen.
There’s also a musical question that the show raised. And such a powerful one! But I’ll save that for my next post.