Making Listening an Event

Jul 31st, 2015 | By | Category: Essays, The Art of Listening

Photo by Used under Creative Commons agreement. had the pleasure recently of taking part in an informal focus group to try to help the local (but world class) symphony orchestra figure out how to fill more seats. In addition to several orchestra members, staffers and board members, the group was made up of an amazing range of whip-smart people from a range of backgrounds. I believe the organizer was on point in her thank you note to the group: “Your perspective and insights were fantastic.”

But what wasn’t fantastic to me was the realization that aside from those with close ties to the orchestra, virtually none of the affluent, successful professionals in that room had ever attended a concert by the orchestra. I confess that it’s been more than a year since I have been to one, but I have had subscriptions in many of the past 25 years and highly recommend the experience of seeing them to everyone.

There was no lack of credible reasons given for ignoring one of the best cultural bastions in our city: demanding careers, children in need of lots of care and transport, lack of knowledge of what exactly the orchestra was up to. And there was no doubt by the end of the evening that even though the musicians regularly put everything they have into their performances, they don’t receive the marketing and exposure they deserve.

But even so, I was left wondering: Would the best social media guru and marketing manager in the world be able to do a lot more to bring in bigger audiences? I am not optimistic that is enough. When I attended my first concert by the orchestra more than 20 years ago, I was probably the youngest person in the house. On more recent visits, I still am one of the “youngsters.” The kids just are not flocking to Rachmaninoff and Berlioz — and neither are their parents. As Slate reported last year,

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. … There’s also grim data from the NEA that shows the percentage of adults who attended a classical concert (even one per year) declined from 13 percent in 1982 to 11.6 percent in 2002, and 9.3 percent in 2008. A further decline to 8.8 percent in 2012 was not considered statistically significant, though significant declines in those years occurred in the 35–44 and 45–54 age bands.

But while symphony musicians might be looking out on countless empty seats, clubs and outdoor venues continue to  draw millions of people every year. Despite facing many of the same realities as the orchestras do, revenues have been rising in recent years to record levels — jumping around 20 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to one source.

The people spending that money are the same ones whom modern orchestras, and in fact all contemporary musicians, need to lure into the seats. I think one key in doing that is focusing on an important revelation of that recent evening:  While traditional concerts are typically played to lots of gray-haired (and almost totally white-skinned) people and empty seats, special events — everything from the orchestra playing live scores to projected films to rock/symphonic mashups (orchestral Led Zeppelin, anyone?) — were actually doing very well in drawing crowds. That doesn’t surprise me.

The popular concerts are  events, just as going to a local club or weekend festival is an event not to be missed. Without an effort to make every classical performance rank high on the FOMO scale, there’s no rush to head out to hear a 150-year-old piece this year when quite likely it will be played again next year.

Orchestras know this, which is why they bring in superstar musicians as often as possible. But even beyond that, there are ways to make any concert an event. In fact, the concerts I’ve seen my local orchestra play that stick in my mind were indeed events — John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, with music blaring from all corners of the concert hall; over-the-top performances of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with multiple choirs; a Tan Dun piece with projections; a Philip Glass piece with stunning visuals from the Hubble telescope; a set of short “dance” themed pieces interspersed with live tango dancers and followed by dancing to a DJ in the lobby. (The last performance to a packed house of very young people, many of whom undoubtedly picked up the CD that was recorded that night.)

While not every piece in the classical canon can be treated this way, orchestras should make the effort to get some of that magic into at least a small part of every program. I know that doing so would get me back into the seats more often.

What would it take to get you into the concert hall?

(A big thanks to Mark Sullivan for helping me sort through my thoughts while working on this.)

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5 Comments to “Making Listening an Event”

  1. Steve Scribner says:

    I’ve been to several Seattle Symphony concerts in the past three or four years, and every time the hall was full to capacity. What has happened is that the new conductor, Ludovic Morlot, has “updated” the image of the symphony without sacrificing any of the old pieces. Here are some of the things that I’ve noticed:

    “Event” concerts, as you noted. They’ve played the soundtracks to “The Matrix” and Disney’s “Fantasia” live, while showing the movies. They performed Holst’s “The Planets” with pictures and graphics from NASA (the same concert included works by Ligeti and R. Strauss, both of which are associated with outer space because of the movie “2001”). Also, every year they do a “Celebrate Asia” concert with taiko drummers, gamelan, or Bollywood bands, etc., and contemporary works from China, Japan, and Korea (along with traditional fare, both Eastern and Western). At least once a year they do a large-scale piece as well, with multiple choruses and/or orchestras, and soloists: Berlioz’ “The Damnation of Faust”, Verdi’s “Requiem”, Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

    Contemporary concerts: avant-garde concerts late at night in the lobby (often following a more traditional concert), and “Sonic Evolution” concerts with DJs, rappers, and electronica. Symphonic Zeppelin would fit in here, though I don’t know if they’ve done it.

    Promotion: interviews weekly on local radio station(s) with conductors and/or instrumentalists, and flashy brochures that look like pop promotionals.

    “Day of Music” – a free short concert (once a year), with other musical groups and bands playing elsewhere in the concert hall. At these concerts, they sell discounted tickets for some of the upcoming concerts.

    These “events” draw in the crowds, like you said, but then the crowds seem to come back for the regular concerts. Those “regular” concerts have also had a shift: along with one or two older, well-known compositions (Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, etc.) they also include at least one contemporary and/or lesser-known work. The last concert I saw, last year, was Dvorak’s cello concert, Varese’s “Deserts”, and Debussy’s “La Mer”. It would be hard to choose any three pieces that are more different. This year I’m planning to attend one that has Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto and Berio’s “Sinfonietta” (a collage of symphonic music, Broadway, and avant-garde).

    Anyway, those are some of what I’ve seen and heard. They seem much like what you’re writing about.

    • Thom Lieb says:

      Thanks, Steve. Sounds like they really are tapping into what’s today audiences want.

    • Azamat says:

      Wow. This saddens me a liltte. Everything these days is revolved around the television. I have been to a few concerts that are all preformed by computers. The visial part of them is very interesting, but the music that is being performed i don’t like. With the whold videogame music, i guess it would be alright if it was not performed all by computers. If the music was being performed by the classical concert orchestra/band, then i think maybe once every few years that would be a nice change to see a concet like that. Getting the sheet music might be the difficult task

  2. On the news the other day was a piece on the Darwin Symphony Orchestra (who knew there was one? Not me; I’m from Melbourne over 2500km away) teaming up with a Zeppelin cover band. Popularism gone mad? It actually looked quite fun.

    I guess the elephant in the room here is the contemporary relevance of the ‘high’ arts and whether they should continue to be subsidised (often substantially) if no-one cares. Maybe the seats are empty because the traditional canon of composed music just doesn’t connect any more. About the only thing that would lure me to a Tchaikovsky concert, for instance, would be real cannons destroying something. Joking, but the point is that the competition for excitement and engagement is fierce indeed. The mash-ups Steve mentioned are perhaps the way forward. Saint-Seans and circus, Bach and basketball, Webern and wine-tasting.

    • Thom Lieb says:

      Ah yes, that elephant. I agree that’s a big part of the problem. In a sense, seeing a performance of a classical piece is like hearing the works of a classic rock group performed by a cover band. At some point, there just won’t be an audience for that.

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