I was visiting the Knight Foundation website and came across the aforementioned article, “Smart Concerts: Orchestras in the Age of Edutainment” by Alan Brown.
It offers some interesting reading about the tension between offering classical music in a manner that is appealing to new audiences while adhering to the expectations of long time audiences. (Of course the lessons learned are applicable to all the arts.) The former doesn’t attend often, but constitutes the future of your organization. The latter frequently attend, donate much needed monies in the face of declining foundation support and sit on your board. All of which can make it difficult to innovate.
Brown gives a number of examples of innovations that orchestras are using, including Concert Companion with which readers of Greg Sandow’s blog may be familiar.
He also recounts the resistance that some of these programs have faced, including booing at the Minnesota Orchestra.
A little more about that in a bit.
Brown makes some familiar observations about arts attendance. One thing he notes is that consumers want a more intense experience in a shorter time because they have less time. Thus the prevalence of extreme sports and standing ovations. People want to feel that they have had a good time in the time they had.
Another observation is that while technology makes so many more musical options available to people with the ability to download opera as easily as the latest pop single, it also allows people to continue to reinforce their own tastes by providing them with so much material, they never get tired of listening and experiment with other options.
One section I found particularly interesting:
In his book “Who Needs Classical Music?,” Julian Johnson argues that classical music, fundamentally, is discursive in nature and requires careful and complete listening in order to be fully appreciated. Instead, he says, most consumers ‘use’ (or misuse) classical music to alter or underscore their mood, or just to fill empty time.2 Mass culture’s appropriation of classical music may be good or bad, depending on your point of view, but there is a larger idea here. Much of music’s allure derives from the relative ease with which it can be selected and programmed by the listener. In focus groups, music lovers describe how they listen to one kind of music for vacuuming, another kind of music for cooking, another kind of music for exercising, and so forth. Consumers understand what it means to be your own curator, and derive great satisfaction from arranging art around them to the satisfaction of their own aesthetic – especially music and visual art.
I really appreciate Julian Johnson’s views. The last artistic director I worked for wouldn’t recommend musicians to people who wanted live background music at parties and receptions. His feeling was that a musician works too hard at his/her craft to be ignored and spoken over. And it reinforces the idea that their product is worthless and disposable. He felt that it was better to get a good CD player and sound system.
I also like the idea though that consumers know the value of being their own curator. I am not quite sure how to execute it, but I sense there would be great value to an arts organization in a program that validated this sentiment and empowered patrons in some manner.
The four tactics that Brown says are being employed by orchestras are: contextual programming, dramatization of music, visual enhancements and embedded interpretation. Of these, I would imagine that dramatization and visual enhancement might be considered most sacreligious by long time concert goers.
Dramatization is “theatrically produced in service of a larger concept or purpose using some combination of narration, drama, dance, scenery, lighting and video. But the music remains the main attraction.
Visual enhancement, which he describes as the most controversial, “…can be divided into two categories: visual enhancements that add an artistic element to the concert, and visual enhancements that (literally) magnify the performers. It is not unusual for orchestras to introduce visual elements such as banners, flags, projections and ambient lighting to the stage, sometimes in service of a theme or special occasion.”
Since these programs try to “sex” the music up by adding new elements rather than allowing the music to stand on its own merits, I can understand why people might be upset.
Contextual programming he defines as “contextual programming as the practice of selecting programs, series and even whole seasons around unifying ideas – topics, themes, genres, idioms, artists and other constructs – however focused or oblique. Contextual programs have more conceptual glue holding them together.”
One thing he points out is that unless you are a long time attendee or a musician, you might be hard pressed to understand why a particular mix of music from different composers was chosen for performance. (Lord knows, I have always wondered) Contextual programming offers some sort of narrative that explains this. As noted, it could also be oriented to a theme like The San Diego Symphony’s Light Bulb Series program, “Can Classical Music Be Funny?” (Lord knows I have wondered that as well.)
Embedded Interpretation encompasses elements which are part of the performance itself, such as the Minnesota Orchestra where the conductor provided some explanation about why the pieces were put together (many loved it, some booed) and the Philadelphia Orchestra where the musicians share insights about music during their summer programs. Of course, there is also the Concert Companion which provides commentary synchronized to the music broadcast to a handheld PDA.
The whole article is worth reading because I only touch on some of the examples given and I think many of them can inspire programs for other organizations.