You can almost always tell when an orchestra programs music out of fear. The urgency and desperation to sell tickets to most familiar works often dictates a season. The understandable but predictable reasons are: fear of losing patrons, fear of offending newcomers, fear of turning away people, and fear of the unknown. But sometimes the opposite effect happens and people get a “been there, done that” attitude and tickets don’t sell as well.
When it came time to pick my first concerto with my relatively new concertmaster position in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, I was surprised and delighted that my first choice was supported and embraced so confidently. A new work could have easily been brushed off as, “It won’t sell tickets” or “Our audiences don’t like contemporary music.”
Violin Concerto, by Jennifer Higdon, was my first choice. I didn’t want to pump out yet one more exhausted performance of a Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn violin concerto. While they are fine works, they are ubiquitous and expected. I didn’t feel I could say anything more, better, or different than what’s been said and played by so many great violinists before me. Besides, I’d performed other Higdon works and had firsthand experience of how audiences reacted to her music. And that reaction has been stuck in my head since I first met her and played her works in 2010.
The Higdon concerto had intrigue and fresh spirit. It seemed to match my personality, my tastes, and my soul. The Chattanooga Symphony music director, board, and administration were eager to have it performed as well. Not only because Jennifer had roots in the area, but because they knew there was a decent chance the normal demographic of our audience would be boosted.
And boosted it was! Our normal Masterworks concerts typically pull in people from about five states. For the Higdon concert, we more than doubled that figure and found that people flew in from as far as California, Connecticut, and Michigan.
Age demographic and diversity was definitely much more varied than normal. Based on my interaction before and after the concert, people were drawn to the excitement of a newer work and the added excitement of the composer’s presence filled our hall on March 12th.
With risk comes responsibility
Because I grew up with parents who initially balked at contemporary music, I felt responsible for making this concerto as accessible and welcoming to them and anyone with reservations or preconceived notions about contemporary music. Here is a list of items that helped make ticket sales swift and audiences excited:
Be an ambassador. Not only is Jennifer enjoyable and supportive to work with as a musician, for audiences there is a distinct sincerity and a genuine welcoming feeling to her music. Without that passion of sharing, there would not be the following of fans that she has. People want to work with her, they want to play her music, and they want to experience and hear her music in live concerts. Jennifer routinely posts updates on her Facebook page and her website. Additionally, music director, Kayoko Dan of Chattanooga Symphony, posted frequently about the upcoming concerto. There were pictures, links, and personal thoughts that gave audiences a sneak peek behind the curtain some music directors try to keep hidden.
Get a metaphor out to the general public. This could be dangerous because any sense of placating or disingenuousness would devalue the point. But I got lucky with the partnership of Nathan Herron, bar tender at Easy Bistro, who listened to the concerto and crafted a cocktail to reflect the concerto so sincerely.
Involve children in the concerto. A violinist in my orchestra teaches music to middle school children and invited me to her school to talk about the concerto. But we didn’t just talk about the concerto at first. It was important to hear what the kids thought about the purpose of music. We chatted about what kinds of music were in their lives and how it impacted them; video game music, movie music, music while driving to school, etc. After opening a few minds on how music makes us feel, we listened to parts of the concerto and kids drew pictures and wrote stories depicting their thoughts. They discovered on their own that they really enjoyed Higdon’s Violin Concerto and they could tell me why.
Share music over dinner. I was invited to a dinner party hosted by CSO patrons Franklin and Tresa McCallie to share the Higdon concerto amongst friends. They host many gatherings of various people of Chattanooga from different backgrounds. The racially diverse, age diverse, economically diverse, and geographically diverse dinner party guests came together as simply humans who were interested in a shared experience. Franklin introduced me and I spoke about the work, about contemporary music, and then I played for everyone. We discussed and compared thoughts, but then we looked over the children’s drawings and stories I’d brought along. Seeing the children’s thoughts literally opened minds and doors even wider.
Participate in a staff meeting and watch the wheels turn. It was really wonderful to see the people who make Chattanooga Symphony thrive talk openly and excitedly about the upcoming Higdon Concerto. Ideas were tossed about, plans and itineraries were made, and enthusiasm was palpable. I never once heard, “we can’t”, but I did hear a lot of, “How can we make this happen?” During staff meeting, a donor luncheon, master class, open rehearsal, radio interview, and pre-concert lecture with Jennifer Higdon and myself were planned and meticulously organized.
Add some personal touches. About two weeks prior to the performance, I sent my friends a list of links to local restaurants, museums, and coffee shops. Friends I’d not met in person yet, but knew via Facebook, were also sent recommendations. Most people chose to stay in the hotel close to the Tivoli Theater which made introducing one another very easy.
Group selfie shots! One of the many great things about Jennifer Higdon is her personality. Watching her with her fans and colleagues take pictures reminds us all that accessibility, likeability, and kindness will stay in people’s minds far after a concert is done. Actions like these will remind people down the road that, “Hey, there’s a Higdon on the program, let’s go!” We had a number of those people in the audience, Higdon groupies, who came the distance.
Invite all to a fun post-concert hang. After the concert everyone was invited to the restaurant and bar that created the cocktail. It was packed full of people and everyone shared their take on the concert. Pictures were taken, food was enjoyed, stories were shared, and a concert became an event.