The First Rule Of Modern Composer Club, Don’t Talk About Modern Composer Club

Conductor Robert Trevino had a novel idea of getting people to attend concerts by modern composers…don’t tell people what the program was going to be. Counter-intuitively, the concerts had full audiences.

He got his inspiration from a restaurant in Malmö, Sweden. When you go to have a meal, they ask if you have allergies and then bring you your courses without telling you what you are eating. In this way, you don’t prejudge your experience.

The experience of that meal made me realise that in some way or another we all are pseudo-connoisseurs – by which I mean, many of our experiences in aesthetic, subjective art forms are evaluated – even pre-evaluated – through highly formed expectations and preconceptions. We come to things with well-defined preferences, we don’t usually engage openly and directly with what has been presented.

He said he had proposed a program of modern composers and seldom heard works, but was told no one could attend. He said he believes that this estimation was correct. People would decide the concert was going to contain unpleasant, discordant music and would stay away.

So with a lot of cooperation from the musicians of the Basque National Orchestra, media and ultimately, audiences, all of whom conspired to avoid spoiling the experience for future concert dates, they kept the program a secret. All the concerts in the four states of Basque Country sold out despite all the mystery.

What occurred, remarkably, was a great trust-building exercise between us, our musicians, our audience and the media (who had to be complicit in all of this … The national news channels came and filmed rehearsal but broadcast in such a way that you didn’t actually hear anything identifiable, and I myself presented a promotional trailer for the orchestra where I jokingly promised to finally reveal all, but every time I was about to say a composer’s name we made it look like the signal had failed!

If you watch the video that accompanies the story, (I also include it below), you will notice the concert was a logistical challenge. The musicians come on to the stage at different times, moving into position while playing their instruments. Other times, they move around the stage. Trevino leaves the stage and goes to sit in the audience during the performance of a work.

If audiences are usually uncertain about when it is appropriate to clap, they were pretty much completely lost during these concerts.

But as I approached and saw all the people lining up for their tickets, I saw a look on their faces that you don’t often see in concert halls. It was excitement, blended with total uncertainty about what this experience was going to be like. The energy and curiosity in the hall was palpable. And once I stepped out on stage for that kinetic first sequence of works, the audience didn’t know quite how to behave – in the video you see me encouraging them to clap and celebrate the musicians at various points. When I went to sit with them during one of the pieces, people were shocked at the complete breakdown of the standard concert procedure and yet at the same time they were fixated and engaged and present for what was happening.

If you find yourself muttering, “we could never pull that off here,” because you don’t think your audience is adventurous enough, consider that you might be underestimating them.

Obviously, there was a lot of advance work that went into teasing audiences into being curious about the experience and then into providing an event that was both visually and aurally engaging. It is likely that few would have shown up if a conventional marketing approach was employed and they wouldn’t have been as engaged by a conventionally staged performance.  Everyone involved with the Basque National Orchestra, media and audiences made the effort to deliver on the promise that something interesting was going to happen.



About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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