As we head into 2016, we — meaning we in classical music — have to focus more than ever on the future. We have to! Because here are some truths, truths that can’t be said strongly enough:
The old audience is going away. It won’t be replaced. We need a new audience.
The new audience isn’t coming to old-style events. Not in numbers large enough to keep things going. The world has changed. People have changed. We have to do something new.
If you think I’ve said those things before, it’s because I’ve said them before. More than once. And most recently in my last big post of last year, called “Lessons to learn.” I could repeat the post, but that would be crude. But I want to stress, once more, much that I said in it. Read the post for more, but let me say again:
The old audience is going away…(etc.)
Are we ready for this?
These are serious things, and I fear that even some of us who say we agree may not realize how radically we have to change. Right now, I think that much of the classical music world wants to keep things more or less as they are.
Oh, change the cosmetics. Have an out-there conductor like Yannick, someone exciting and modern. Relax some of the formalities. But still play the old music! We think we’re going to keep the core of classical music as it’s been for generations,while — somehow, some way — we get the world around us to buy into that.
But that’s not happening. Not in the long run. In the long run, everything changes.
And so, again to repeat things from “Lessons to learn”:
Classical music institutions need a strategy. A coherent, tested, long-term strategy. Backed by the same resources we give to our standard performances.
What we need
That strategy has to be based on a note-perfect understanding of the culture we’re in. We have to be native speakers of its language. And if we’re not, we’ll have to find people who are, to advise us. No, to tell us what to do. We might ignore advice, or use it only partially. We need to be yanked out of our comfort zone, and placed in a new world, or what we think of as one, even though for most other people it’s home.
And one aspect of this which hits especially hard…we do special performances, aimed at a new audience. Which is fine. I applaud these (if they’re good, and if they really touch the new audience).
But we can’t treat these simply as special events. To quote myself one last time:
These new events aren’t casual. They aren’t extras, nice additions to standard stuff, things we do on the side.
No, they’re our road to survival. So we can’t skimp. We can’t take them casually. We can’t say — about anything: performance quality, branding, audience feedback — that there are things we just can’t do. We’ve got to be just as strong for our new audience as we are for everything else.
We don’t just want to plan new-style events, coexisting with what we’ve been doing for years. We have to look to the future when all the events will be new-style. We have to plan for this now. The new-style events we do now aren’t just something nice, something we do on the side. They’re our path to the future.
So we should think of them, right from the start, as potential replacements for all our standard events. We don’t yet know what a totally new-style season would look like. But we have to evolve one. And start that now.
We’d better start moving on that!
Another truth (I’ll expand on it later):
How will we know when classical music is back in the central cultural place it ought to be in?
When some of our events resonate throughout the wider culture. New operas, for instance. When a new opera gets the kind of attention and audience Hamilton is getting on Broadway — or even one-tenth of that — we’ll know that new operas mean something.
They don’t all have to resonate that strongly. Not every new novel does, not every new play. Not every new movie! But aometimes there’s a new play like Angels in America, that gets attention far outside the theater world. Until we have resonance like that — not always, but sometimes — we’re still in our bubble.
Elliot Rosen says
As a trustee of a successful and well loved chamber music festival I agree completely with one point of departure. Hamilton *is* opera. Just because it is on Broadway does not make it something other than opera. All those thousands of people paying significant treasure for a seat are attending an opera. They are not the usual opera crowd and this is good. Maybe we should be trying to tell them “this is what opera looks and feels like.”
Mark Freemantle says
Thanks, my classical mandolin orchestra needs to address the same issue
Liza Figueroa Kravinsky says
I was about to post the same comment before I saw yours! This is the kind of shift in thinking Greg is talking about.
Dave Meckler says
The cultural echo of Hamilton is a good benchmark. Try this one, a sentence from the 25 Jan 2016 New Yorker, discussing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s move to embrace contemporary art: “Whatever the motivation, modern and, especially, contemporary art has become so big a draw that few museums can afford to do without it.” Making the obvious substitutions produces this mind bending thought: “Whatever the motivation, modern and, especially, contemporary music has become so big a draw that few opera companies, symphonies and chamber music series can afford to do without it.” What could possibly make that so?
New works like Cold Mountain, for instance? I’ve yet to hear it, so I’m not sure of its cultural relevance and stature.
Zachary Peterson says
Although I agree with the sentiment that classical music needs to boldly change its strategy going forward, I am not sure that any shift in style and presentation alone is the answer. I do think that the bureaucracies have held a tight grip on the traditions, and it is outdated, and out of touch with a modern audience. But what I fear is that simply creating a classical 2.0 for lack of a better term, may lead to some very disingenuous music making, with musicians desperately trying to pander to an ever changing audience and perhaps falling victim to using gimmicks over genuine innovative marketing. Now I am not saying that incorporating popular elements shouldn’t be done, but I feel the intention behind it is paramount. I also think that promoting an “edgy” performance culture over a “stodgy” one may lead to just one mono-culture being replaced by another, rather than a diverse spectrum of performance styles that appeals to a wider group of people. The cultural elitism that classical music has subscribed to over the last century will not be simply washed away by an update in repertoire and style, I believe it will take a genuine grassroots effort from the bottom up, not the top down. Classical musics survival may come down to musicians working in their respective communities to expose people who may in the past have felt alienated, to Classical music. This has to be fostered at the conservatory (while they still exist) and young musicians should be made aware of the reality of their career prospects from day 1 not after they graduate, this way they will be more prepared to take an active role in engaging the community with their art rather than banking on large orchestras and such to simply provide a steady income. I will admit that this is just an opinion, so take it for what it is, I hold no particular esteemed position, nor do I have many years of experience, I am young and starting my career like many others. But, that being said, I really believe that if there is a possibility of a significant cultural shift in this art form, it will not come alone from the top, in fact I believe the large organizations will be supported by many varied small scale efforts. It will have to be from the ground up, from personal connections to the audience, cross platform collaborations and casting a much wider net than anything done in the past. It is not a question of whether we should promote modern over traditional, period performance over romantic interpretation, tuxes over jeans etc, it is far more complex than that and there should be room for every conceivable way to perform, and for every kind of personality and taste. In fact, shifting to a mainstream populist model may indeed be already out of date. With the digital age, individual tastes will reign supreme, so giving people options may be the greatest innovation we can make.
Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime) says
Bravo Zachary. I couldn’t have said it any better (not for lack of trying)! But you answered your own fear, and that’s the key. Classical 2.0 or whatever we might call it, will be a spectrum; one that will at times compliment the standing tradition AND NOT REPLACE IT. So many express fears that making any efforts to popularize (aka dumb down) classical music will in effect raise the expectation that ALL classical music will have to follow suit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Musicians, if we choose to, can easily go back and forth, as easily as we do playing symphony, chamber and solo music.
I maintain that what we need to adopt is a SCALE for describing classical events in marketing. At the high end (naturally) at #10 is a traditional concert. #9 is slightly relaxed; #8 more relaxed, etc. until #1 is a typical rock show. I think I manage to achieve a #5 in my interactive Classical Revolution Detroit events… plus I STILL love playing Detroit Symphony concerts.
It’s not either-or unless we believe in absolutes (like a Sith lord). The future for classical music is OUT THERE (think of it as salon music); but we can also plant the seeds for listening in the spirit of meditation in a formal concert (think of it as spiritual or church music). It’s both-and. You already know what needs to be done Zachary, and WHY: all that remains is how, with who, when and where.