musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, February 14, 2011

Connecting, Part II

My last post focused on ideas for building a connection between the audience to the musicians.  This post deals with the issue of connecting the audience to the music.

"Everyone loves classical music..................
......they just haven't found out about it yet."
                                 -Benjamin Zander




In this video, the renowned conductor, teacher, speaker and author Benjamin Zander describes an experience he had while working with a group of street children in Ireland.  One day a boy approached him and told him how the Chopin piece (he referred to it as the "shopping" piece!) which Zander had played the night before had affected him even though he'd  never heard classical music before.  He went on to say that his brother had been shot a year earlier, and while Zander played, thoughts of his dead brother came into his mind; before he knew it, tears were streaming down his face.  It was the first time he had cried for his brother, and it was cathartic.  What a clear demonstration of the universal power of classical music!

(Do not listen to the statisticians who claim that only 3% of the population likes classical music!!)

My recent post about connecting with the audience drew many well-thought-out and helpful comments.  For example, commenter Travis Branam mentioned a blog post he had written on this subject entitled new years resolutions for classical music.  This is one of Travis' suggestions for classical musicians:

"Find someone who can “decode” your music for the general public.   Someone- a musician, a journalist, a blogger, anyone- needs to be appointed as our unofficial diplomat to the masses on behalf of all branches of classical music; someone who will not only carry a unified,  positive and specific message about what classical music has to offer people today but someone who can break down and analyze music in a register of language that someone who doesn’t have a music degree can understand and even enjoy."

Travis is proposing the idea of one individual who can have a far-reaching, international effect.  He goes on to say that we need someone to do for classical music what Oprah did for literature through her famous book club.  Leonard Bernstein is a past example of a classical music diplomat.  (How about having lots of musical diplomats?  How about one or more for each orchestra?)

I'd say that Benjamin Zander is serving as a present-day international musical diplomat.  He has the ability to reach every last person in his audience.  He doesn't do it just by playing the piano- he also speaks, in an enthusiastic and inspiring manner.  That's how an audience is created.  Chances are, everyone who has experienced one of Benjamin Zander's presentations will attend a classical concert in the near future!  

This reminds me of a recently viewed PBS documentary about professional baseball.  Pro baseball was not that big a deal in the U.S. until the games started being broadcast on the radio.  Why?  Because the radio announcers made baseball accessible!  Their explanations of how the game was played changed everything.  Radio announcers made baseball accessible to and understood by the masses.

After watching that documentary about baseball, I began wondering how orchestras might benefit from some sort of announcer who could keep the audience informed during the concert.  Of course, Peter Schickele thought of this a long time ago: 



But is there some way that orchestras can do this in a serious way?  At the very least, how about having a charismatic announcer (maybe the conductor) speak before the piece begins and between movements?  How about subtitles (commonly used for opera) being used to help the audience keep track of what's unfolding in the music?  Maybe twitter or a smart phone application could be used, especially for the younger audience members which all orchestras are currently seeking.

The Columbus Symphony is already using an announcer of sorts (a narrator, really) in a series of educational concerts we're presenting in elementary schools.  The narrator guides students through the concerts.  Sometimes she uses props, which I think is a great idea. She even asks students to volunteer to help her. In my opinion, the narrator could be doing even more- I see nothing wrong with her signaling to the audience when a theme is returning or when the oboe has a solo!  It's time for us to break free from our outdated molds and start innovating!  If the announcer is concerned about offending or distracting the musicians, then it's time for the musicians to let it be known that we embrace change!  (We do, don't we?)

During the past year and a half, the Columbus Symphony has been offering audio streams of our concerts on Instant Encore.  At first, some musicians feared that the availability of our concerts for free on the internet would result in a decline in ticket sales.  Those fears proved to be unfounded, since our ticket sales have been strong.  In fact, our internet presence has been extremely beneficial.  It's a way of putting our orchestra on the map, so to speak.  Several of my long-distance friends have told me how much they've enjoyed listening to our concerts on InstantEncore.  (Also, as an added benefit, the musicians in the orchestra, especially wind and brass players, can learn a lot about their playing from listening to the performances.) 

The Chicago Symphony has created an incredible series called Beyond the Score® which is designed not only for classical music aficionados, but also for newcomers looking to delve deeper into the world of classical music.  The first half of each Beyond the Score® program offers a multimedia examination of the selected score - its context in history, how it fits into the composer's output of works, the details of a composer's life that influenced its creation - sharing the illuminating stories found "inside" the music.  Actors, a narrator and moving and still images are used.  The second half features a performance of the work in its entirety. 



These productions are extremely well done, as proven during our Beyond the Score® presentation of Mozart Piano Concerto #27 here in Columbus, but they're also expensive to present - a problem for beleaguered orchestras.  I wish that presentations like Beyond the Score® were more affordable, because currently, the multimedia approach offers a huge advantage for orchestras which must compete with endless entertainment options, such as other local arts groups, a vast array of internet options, and more recently, videos of world class orchestras shown in movie theaters.

Next season the Columbus Symphony is offering some new options which hopefully will allow us to connect more people with the music.  For example, we will present "Rush Hour" concerts beginning at 5:30 - a great time for downtown workers who welcome an excuse to avoid traffic jams!  Also, the once-popular "Coffee Concerts" presented at midday on Fridays will be re-introduced, in a smaller venue than our regular hall.  These new concerts are sure to attract new audiences.  It totally makes sense for orchestra managements to seek new options (new times, new formats, new venues, new add-ons such as food and drinks) for connecting the music to the audiences.  The mid-sized orchestras most likely to survive are the ones which flex, offering presentations which are appealing and convenient.

Please add your comments and additional ideas!



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5 comments:

RWRoesch said...

With my upcoming recital including no music written for the tuba, your posts are giving me all sorts of ideas of how to approach the presentation. I really like the idea of breaking the performer-audience barrier and making things a lot more personal and involved.

Stephen P Brown said...

Some excellent points and I'm pleased this blog is making the rounds - we discover we're not alone in our creative pursuits! I recently attended a concert in Tampa in which the conductor has, for 25 years, been talking from the podium between pieces (and even acknowledges applause between movements). The hall was about 80% full. Another group, the Discovery Orchestra based in NJ, does a similar thing the CSO's Beyond the Score, but it's their primary reason for existing. They have even released DVDs of their Discovery Concerts. I'm intrigued about the midday weekday concerts, the rush-hour concerts and even Toronto's late-night concerts (I think one started at 10pm, or was it 11?).
This is a great conversation, Betsy - I hope all readers share it as much as possible!

Joe said...

This is a great event going on in London at the moment! http://www.oae.co.uk/thenightshift/

Amy said...

This is such an indescribable, immeasurable idea and movement in music. Personally, I believe it is an intrinsically valuable resource and redemption of what classical music is perceived by the lesser in-the-know audiences. And, as someone who tried to carve the instrumental music commodity out of nothing in a small, isolated northern town, I couldn't be on board more with such a concept, and would exhaust all outlets and forms of mediums and presentations just to make the music more accessible to even the rough-and-tough boys who worked underground at the mine.

I'm going to be posting this link on my Facebook. Thank you, Betsy!

musicalgems said...

As the others have said, you make some wonderful points. These are some wonderful ways to help audiences connect with music. There is so much richness that can add to appreciating and understanding music. I will be sharing your post with others.