So I left off here writing about the need for our major institutions to go beyond dumbing down to reach the casual community. In support of that statement, I was at a dinner with a young black artist last month who has gone to some DSO concerts but felt she couldn’t appreciate much of what was going on. She liked my suggestion that orchestras need a series of Symphony 101 for casual new listeners at the same time as the typical pre-concert lectures for veterans.
My thoughts of what would best be included in this are proprietary, but you should use your imagination about what it could be to real-ize the symphony for the curious and casual. If it is specifically for the young adults who would attend over the course of the first season, the clients will be the number of non-traditional listeners showing up for it. We will have to discount the many veterans who will also show up for it. Many of them are also curious too to hear The Story of the Symphony told by a lively host or musician.
But what about the TENS of thousands of curious and casual young adults in our city who have no intention of going to some symphony concert? Who cares about them? Who believes these millennials could ever grow into future audiences if classical institutions welcomed them with answers to burning questions? Or if not paying customers, then at least influencing the future openness (or not) of the following generations. Discounted or free tickets to the symphony still have a limited appeal to the largest and most influential generation of Americans. But I believe that they want and deserve introductory services which speak just to them, to clue them into the traditional concerts orchestra perform.
This is where the young talent playing in our orchestras can come in, to connect their generation, and their non-classical friends, with their understanding of their work. Yes, many are already doing this… but there are three problems. They are not fully empowered with orchestra resources, they’re told to keep it high-class and they are not telling The Story of the Symphony.
Those resources come down not only to money (service fees, tech assistance, advertising, staff hours), but also to risking the “world-class” reputation of the orchestra. Orchestras, their musicians and boards work in mortal terror of being seen as dumbing down their brand. This might precipitate a crash of donor support which mainly comes from individuals who and corporations which only support high class organizations. And yet, these same individuals and corporations also want to see the orchestra build future audiences. They just can’t bring themselves to fund much that is a radical departure from normal, much less downright street. This dilemma is playing out right now in private meetings and conversations.
My second point may never have been uttered in these same conversations. But I can imagine it now, “What Story of the Symphony? How could anyone possibly explain the development of the symphonic form in an hour-long format? It would be inaccurate, oversimplified and utterly too controversial. We would be the laughing stock of the industry for even trying! Only an established historian from Europe would have the credibility to make it work.”
The beauty of the point however is to enlist brave musicians to develop their opinions of the development of symphonic music… starting with answering the burning question, Why is it called classical music. It’s true that we will talk to a concert hall full of elders very differently than we would a room of millennials. But that’s exactly what needs to happen… and neither as an academic course nor as Jimmy Fallon on late night TV… but as to a room full of casual new friends who are genuinely curious about what classical instrumental music is and why we musicians are so attracted to playing it.
As long as we share honest opinion, we can’t be wrong. We would demonstrate with phrases or licks from different periods on our instruments. We would talk about the innovations over time from what we believe to be true as masters of this music. What we say needn’t be factually verifiable by a panel of Oxford historians… we can actually have fun with history and the current program.
But understand why cultural institutions haven’t allowed its employees to play loosely with its credibility. Not only was there too much funding at stake, but it also seems offensive especially if delivered in a flip manner. No, anyone who was curious about classical music just had to settle for a book, a website, a traditional lecture or asking playing friends privately. There was NO having fun with anything HERE. With the orchestra’s name behind it, concerts could only be SERIOUS business.
I understand that the classical music industry sees itself as a pillar of civilized Western society. These demands in the name of high standards led me to wonder if the industry as a whole will realize it has painted itself in a corner, in time to stave off further disaster. Classical music can never be all things to all people… but it can become balanced by honoring the flip side of the fine art music coin. The pursuit of perfection is NOT the goal but only a means to connect and inspire.
The venerable late managing director of the LA Philharmonic Ernest Fleischmann famously said that orchestras are in the communication business. I’ve come to realize that we are in the INSPIRATION business. For me that means as broadly as possible. And yet, counter to the refinement classical cultivates, RAW truth and RAW energy also inspire; the shards of which can be left dangling without loss of impact. This is why some great stories are told without dates, citations or qualifications. They are communications that inspire an audience of listeners younger and darker than traditional concert-goers.
This is why building an artistic enterprise from scratch, with a mission to experiment in bold ways, is a valid way to build new audiences for classical. The Knights orchestra for example, or ETHEL, a string quartet are a good start, at home and touring to plant the seeds of relevance. CutTime is another, as it ramps up with touring, partnerships and its unique series currently under the name Classical Revolution Detroit.