It needs to be about CONTEXT not URTEXT!!!!

At Cliburn last year I kept hearing “it has to be about the music”.  I’m sorry MUSIC IS NOT ABOUT MUSIC, it’s about everything else!  We spend so much time focusing on trying to get people to fall in love with music and with what we do.  This will only happen when we do the opposite first i.e It’s time for us to be into them!  Trying to tap into their pulse still puts us on the outside looking in, the goal should be to become part of their bloodstream…..

It’s easy to talk in abstracts and philosophical terms (I know, I do it a lot!!!), so what is it we can do to create a sustainable need for Classical music and the live orchestra performance?  I believe there must be a more grass roots approach to prove a need for what we do, not a hope that people will like us.  The mass marketing approach in our business fails time and time again.  To me that is like looking for a date, the grass roots approach is akin to looking for a marriage, and we only survive and thrive when people need us this way.  Simply put, a marriage wont survive when the partners are not equal!  Here’s an example I have come up with in how we might prove to a potential audience that we are into what they are into!:

In a Symphony orchestra’s recent season there were three programs fairly close together each of which had works that could easily be related thematically.  On one, Rite of Spring, on another Mahler’s Song of the Earth and on the last Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons.  They were not packaged together and the Vivaldi sold well, the other two tanked.  Each concert had a work that could be linked to one of the most talked about issues in the world today, the environment and climate change!  At the very least linking them this way and selling it as a package would in sense use the Vivaldi as leverage, but a far more profound impact would have been made by presenting  a festival with an alliance to an environmental awareness group, using their marketing and mailing list power.  On the surface one might think it might not get many more people there, however if the festival is one that celebrates a cause with events surrounding it such as say a lecture by an Al Gore or Robert F Kennedy Jr., a recycled paper drive, an environmental awards ceremony etc.., what you do is potentially engage many people who believe in this cause and who don‘t want to miss a major event that celebrates it.  The potential new audience is huge.  Here is the best part, the 3 concerts are on the season anyway, with an approved marketing budget, so it does not add on significant cost to do it this way (and might even help with finding sponsors who are also giving their money to this cause).  To go unorthodox, and to even further maximize the potential link, present the environmental talk as part of the first or second half of the program!  The point is to form an alliance with a new group that represents a current issue (and their membership), and if the orchestra is linked in as a cornerstone event on their calendar, then there is a much greater chance to achieve relevancy (bigger audiences)  i.e becoming part of the bloodstream and not just a drug that effects it once in a while!

Think of the many causes that stir people to march, vote, protest and celebrate:  literacy, health awareness, children in need, education, freedom, community history just to name a few.  With each of these there is so much music that is linkable, I repeat MUSIC IS NOT ABOUT MUSIC.  The grass roots approach of forming alliances and connecting to people’s everyday causes and dreams would make us a part of the conversation, and not apart from the conversation!  This without compromising and even enhancing the programming.    By giving the most important issues of our time an artistic component to further spread the message and awareness will bring loyalty, and also gratitude leading to patronage.   It will demonstrate to them that WE believe THEIR issues are important to US.

We are so good at programming and marketing what we are into, because we want people to be into those same things, problem is, they’re not, and it’s a very lazy approach! Nevertheless we keep beating the proverbial head against the proverbial wall!  Creative marketing and outreach does not benefit us by going mainstream, cute, fun and sexy, WE ARE NOT E*TRADE.  Creative marketing and outreach lies in the ability to base programming on people’s needs, their desires and their priorities and there are thousands of pieces that orchestras already perform each season that can be linked that way.  That approach I believe gives music the chance of becoming important to someone who might not previously have given it a thought.  Unfortunately, we still market to get people to come to “concerts“, whereas I want them to come to “events” celebrating literacy, veterans, freedom, health, the environment etc…It is essentially using music for it’s true purpose!!!!….

For instance, is Scheherazade a work that demonstrates the many colors an orchestra can produce?  Yes, but it’s also the fight of one woman’s life against one of the most powerful men in the world through story telling, i.e the musical example of the pen being mightier than the sword….isn’t that one of the most important lessons we all learn, along with the importance of literacy?  Her literacy saved her life!!!! I would say more people would be open to Scheherazade that way, and it doesn’t change the way it has to be performed either!  We take away the pressure of them having to ‘know” about music, and put the pressure on ourselves, to ‘know” about them!  Successful marketing is about making a true and lasting connection.

Appreciating our audience is not to simply play to them, but to try and positively make a difference in their lives with what we play to them, how it relates to them, to make them important.  To do that our programming needs much more CONTEXT and much less URTEXT!

32 thoughts on “It needs to be about CONTEXT not URTEXT!!!!”

    • Now ACD over at Soundsandfury trashed what I wrote (and me), so I am supposing that we should like it when numbers continue to fall, let’s not change a thing then? Well since they don’t accept comments, I will give some numbers but first from their post (linked above in their comment) I quote:

      The perversity and wrongheadedness of all the above is positively breathtaking. None of it will work to make classical music “part of [the] bloodstream” of the masses, much less will it work to build new audiences for classical music. Such concert “events” are doing nothing more than trading on classical music’s reputation for being culturally lofty and high-minded, and one’s attendance at such concerts made not for one’s love of or curiosity about classical music, but as one’s lofty and high-minded sacrifice for the sponsoring cause.

      But all the above’s perversity, wrongheadedness, and ineffectualness vis-à-vis classical music aside, we can say only and most emphatically that any classical musician who thinks “[classical] MUSIC IS NOT ABOUT [the] MUSIC” should never be permitted closer to the concert stage than front row orchestra.

      I will wear my “perversity” like a badge of honor, and because was I “permitted” to lead the Springfield Symphony, here are the numbers over the past 5 seasons (I can’t and wont claim all the credit of course, we have a dedicated and brilliant orchestra, staff and board) but using ACD’s words I think the numbers are “positively breathtaking”:

      Springfield Symphony (MO) In the 5 seasons before this one (not over yet):
      Audience – Increased 105% – yes more than doubled and even in this last difficult economic cycle, our audience numbers have not dropped!
      Renewal rate – each year runs between 92 – 96%
      Our total events: concerts, outreach, everything: 2004 – 24 events (none outside the city) —–> 2009 – 84 events! (6 outside the city)
      Budget between 2004 – 2009 – 5 straight seasons posting a surplus and over 80% of our events are free to the public

      Bottom line, yes I want to do Rite of Spring, but being plugged in to a community’s priorities whilst doing it might mean that twice as many people might be there for it! If someone’s reaction is “cool” and another is an erudite analysis of nuance achieved, they are both equally relevant to me, because otherwise we are using music to discriminate. All audience members are equal to me in terms of whatever reasons they have for being there and their reactions to what we do. I am trying to bring more people into the hall and “come hear what nearly started a riot in 1913” is not going to cut it anymore. The numbers across the industry prove it! We need to live and work in 2010 and attract people to music by what it could mean to them NOW, not in 1913, and my comment that Music is Not About Music, is that music that is timeless can and should have a relevancy applied to the times, that is what makes it great music. We will still prepare and perform it exactly the same way, that wont change at all, the lights go down and it is still the Rite of Spring….wasn’t that Beethoven’s 9th being performed to celebrate the Berlin Wall coming down….what would Beethoven say? I suppose he would be upset at the masses not quietly listening to the great masterwork and instead watch a wall be destroyed in the name of FREEDOM? …wait now what was the Eroica Symphony about anyway? He would be elated I am sure to know that nearly 2 centuries later his music is still current and making a difference in people’s lives.

      An eye center here has been trying to recruit a top young surgeon from Kansas City. He came to our April concert, and told us it sealed the deal, he is now in the process of moving here. The power of a live orchestral performance helped recruit a surgeon, so it’s not just about “for one’s love of or curiosity about classical music”, in this case music (albeit only one of many factors) may in the future save someone’s sight so that they can continue to see thanks to this surgeon moving here!!!!!! This happened with another doctor (neurosurgeon) who moved here some years ago. These I think are two of this orchestras most significant achievements going a long way to help prove of our relevance to this community.

      Call it pandering, call it perverse (?), call it wrongheaded, call me out, trash me, pan me and try to ban me, the numbers don’t lie and there are now more than twice as many people listening to live classical music in this city then there were 5 years ago. Whether you think the reasons are right or wrong (maybe we should do an audience curiosity survey to see if they “qualify” for season tickets! Yikes), they are still coming back! By trying to attract them with a typical mass marketing “in the know” elitist/cute approach, we give them reasons to stay away….and in many places they are…… in droves!!!!!

  1. Community engagement is very important to our long term health as an orchestra. Three years ago the city we are in asked our composer-in-residence to create a fanfare for a major outdoor celebration of arts and culture. It was a great success and ticket sales in the fall when up. We have had our brass section perform the national anthem at our local hockey games. During our 2008-09 season we collaborated with two groups. A saxophone duo performed for our February concert. One did tai chi while the other played. We put the word out to the local tai chi group who came on mass to the concert. They even performed a set during intermission. Our regular audience loved it. Our final concert of the year was on International Astronomy Day and we performed Mars, Venus and Jupiter from Holst. It ended a week long celebration by the local astronomy society and they came and set up telescopes outside the hall so people could look at the moon and the rings of Saturn. The President of the society even came dressed as Galileo and spoke as Galieo just before the Holst performance. Again all the local star gazers came we had lots of free publicity in the paper and our regular audience loved it.
    If video games can co-opt classical music why can’t we co-opt what is going on in the public. We have to be relevant or we become irrelevant.

  2. I’ve linked your above response in an update to my original post. I’ve no further response except to say, like most folks concerned with putting butts into seats in the concert hall (or wherever), you confuse putting butts into seats with putting the *right* butts into seats; viz., those butts who are there for love of classical music, or for curiosity about the same.

    I stand by what I wrote.

    (BTW, the “we” in my posts is not the plural “we”, but the editorial “we”. There’s only little ol’ me at Sounds & Fury.)


    • ACD
      I’m curious about a couple of things, firstly are you a musician, administrator or have any position in the arts world, i.e do you make your living from it? I have many friends at different orchestras who are staring at potentially dire situations that might mean they stop getting paid, so you will stand by what you wrote that only a certain type of person should be coming classical concerts because selling tickets to the “right” people and keeping the others out to preserve it for the music lovers and the curious when those others actually help create income so that musicians continue to receive a paycheck to support themselves and their families? I know that was not the angle of my post (nor am I accusing you of wanting to create any hardship) but I got to thinking that lives are actually on the line here, and music doesn’t only feed the soul, for many it feeds their families. Ticket sales are in large part tanking everywhere, and so we should just do nothing and let it dwindle till the income dries up?. Besides my suggestions are to try and create that “curiosity”. It’s hard to do that when we can’t get people to come to the concerts, so we need to find ways to do that, and being relevant and current is in my view the best way. Right butts, left butts, butts are butts. Does it really effect your experience which butts are there after the lights go down? Also the more butts that are there, the more the advertising and sponsorship dollars flow….they like to be in front of a lot of people. I know (from experience) that the more butts, the more electricity in the hall also. Anyway just curious whether or not your livelihood is effected by the success of the Arts…

      Secondly do you have any suggestions on how to improve things? It would be good to comment on your blog sometime (if you started allowing comments)
      I appreciate that you are taking a stand, I am just trying to get people to take a seat!

  3. Ron:

    Although I’m a conservatory-trained musician (fiddle and viola cum master classes in conducting), I never made my living either as a practicing musician or on the administrative side of things, and have been out of the field for decades now.

    Listen, let’s be clear about our relative positions in this argument. I’m fighting for building new audiences for classical music; audiences that are audiences for the music itself, NOT audiences for something else where classical music is the sideshow, or a divertissement, or an entertainment, or an accompaniment like a band at a bar mitzvah or wedding. By all means do your “outreach” thing and your “festival events” thing to put bucks into the coffers, but NEVER, as you and others have done, confuse such activities with the building of new audiences for classical music. Those kinds of activities do no such thing — ever! — individual anecdotal exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding.

    You ask whether I have any suggestions on how to “improve things.” I’m not at all certain I understand which things it is you want to improve. If you mean improve the acceptance of and desire for classical music in our mainstream culture, then the answer is, I do. This subject has been a recurring one on S&F since its inception some six years ago, and my first salvo in the battle (“An Audience For Classical Music”, July 2004) was among the very first posts on S&F which post caused a storm of comment at the time. It can be read at the following URL:

    My most recent salvo (“The Three Fronts”, April 2010), a kind of broad summing up of all previous S&F posts on the subject, can be read at the following URL:

    The key lesson both those posts try to teach (which lesson is implicit in all the other S&F posts on this subject) is that there are NO QUICK FIXES POSSIBLE in building new audiences for classical music. As I wrote in my above linked most recent salvo:

    “This war [for gaining new audiences for classical music] will be a long one as, beginning in the mid-Sixties, the cultural damage that has been done (to all the so-called “high-culture” arts, not just classical music) is both deep and widespread, and therefore all battleground strategies and tactics will, ipso facto, be long-term ones. If that’s not in-the-bones understood and accepted, the war is lost before it’s begun.”

    I trust all the above will serve to answer your questions.


    • ACD
      I guess we will have to agree to disagree then, but first from your comment:

      NEVER, as you and others have done, confuse such activities with the building of new audiences for classical music. Those kinds of activities do no such thing — ever! — individual anecdotal exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding.

      I admire your confidence and bravado, however I wouldn’t call a 105% increase in listeners to the Springfield Symphony and no drop off from the growth in nearly 6 years “anecdotal”, I would call it PROOF (wow the all caps approach feels great!) that we have built an audience for Classical Music. Also 5 years of sustained growth is hardly a “Quick Fix”.

      Now your passion is for the music (I have passion for music also!) but you have never made your living from it. I think those who do rely on the Arts to feed their families would much rather find a way to spur ticket sales/sponsorship/donations now than risk their livelihoods for the so called greater good down the road. A north east orchestra in hiring a Music Director 6 years back made a determination that their sustainability should be linked almost exclusively to artistic excellence….that orchestra now does not exist! I might guess that they went down to defeat with honor in your eyes.

      Since I actually am “permitted” to lead an orchestra (and not just write about how it should be done), I value artistic excellence but I also equally value the impact my decisions might have on the survival of the organization, and the responsibility of helping to make sure livelihoods are not affected negatively by those decisions, but positively. There are always going to be forces beyond our control, I am only talking about those things we do control. In the 8 years you have been blogging, audiences have been declining (BTW I am not blaming you for that!). Making the pathway more narrow in terms of only trying to attract those interested in Classical Music will see it decline even further. The key to the growth of audiences for Classical Music is accessibility and relevance. In fact if we break down the doors so that concerts are accessible to all (the casual listener, the music lover, the musicologist, the cosmetologist etc…) we wont ever need a key! What difference does it make anyway who is sitting around you?

      By all means stick to your philosophy, and I will stick to the numbers and data! Or more simply I will agree to disagree!

  4. “I admire your confidence and bravado, however I wouldn’t call a 105% increase in listeners to the Springfield Symphony and no drop off from the growth in nearly 6 years ‘anecdotal’, I would call it PROOF (wow the all caps approach feels great!) that we have built an audience for Classical Music. Also 5 years of sustained growth is hardly a ‘Quick Fix’.”

    Proof of WHAT, Ron? It’s most assuredly NOT proof, or even an indication, you’ve managed to build an audience for classical music. What it’s proof of is that you’ve found a way to lure butts into concert hall seats (good on you!) by offering something that’s not classical music, but which includes classical music. That’s NOT building an audience for classical music. That’s building an audience for whatever shows you’re putting on that include classical music. Not the same thing, not the same thing at all.

    But you’re right. The only sensible thing to do at this juncture of our argument is to simply agree to disagree. On that, we can agree.



    • ACD
      Check out our web-site sometime, you will see a robust season of Classical Music (yes we do Pops also), and if you ever come to hear our concerts you will see about an average 90% attendance at EVERY ONE OF THOSE CONCERTS, but I am happy to split hairs with you. I will always think of them as the audience we built for Classical Music in Springfield MO, but more than that, the people who’s lives we touch by making music work for them the way they want it to work because we give them that choice. Thanks for being a guest on here, when you allow comments again I would love to be a guest on your blog….

  5. I must say that I was aghast when I read the reply to this post on “Sounds and Fury” and then the post itself (in that order). Now that the discussion has gone beyond the first couple of punches, I find it refreshing to witness a nice heated discussion on this topic. I live between the two worlds represented here, and find that, though I can disagree with both of you on some points, I can also empathize with both of you on other points.

    We (at least those of us who pay attention and acknowledge the existence of so-called classical music) live in a multitude of musical worlds, and I feel that it is very important not to alienate people who love music FOR THE MUSIC at the expense of increasing an audience. The musical world has become a kind of smorgasbord, and I have found that many people might be willing to “taste” something once, but the people who come back for more are usually people who have a particular reason for doing so. Nobody really knows exactly what that reason is–it is different for everybody.

    A small percentage of the people I encounter in my deeply-midwestern and rather rural music appreciation classes–perhaps one or two people per semester–continue to go to concerts after they finish a semester. The demographics out here in the corn and soyfields support Ron’s argument, and the demographics in A.C.’s world support his.

    As a performing musician, I would just like to have more opportunities to play (and make money doing it), and as a composing musician I would like there to be more opportunities for people to play the music that I write. As a member of a classical audience and as a critic, I want to hear music that makes me happy, stimulates me, and challenges me without the distraction of having it fit into a non-musical context so that people who are new to what they would call the “genre” are not too bored by it. As a teaching musician, I want people to be exposed, engaged, and not bored; I want those people to be there. But I also want to be able to go to concerts FOR THE MUSIC, and I do feel very disappointed when “the music” isn’t the focus of a concert.

    • Thanks for your comments, I do appreciate what you say and agree music is the focus. I just want it in a wide angle lens so it captures the most people, and promote the idea that if it is a stretch to try and get people to relate to Classical Music (and it quite obviously is), it is important to try and relate Classical Music to them. The majority of my concerts, the lights go down as in every other concert hall, and we play as if music is the only reason to play with nothing else attached, but that is the end of the process (not all of them have attachments anyway, it is just something we need to seriously think about doing ). We have to be thinking of getting people to that place by giving them multiple reasons to be there, and it is not a gimmick to relate issues, causes, history etc… to pieces of music, as many were written with those same ideas in mind! I don’t want to leave the world outside when in a concert hall, I want to bring it in there with me, and as many people in it as possible!

  6. Ron, thank you so much. I’m a founding member of a contemporary music group whose audiences are growing rapidly but which growth is outpacing the level of funding/donations (International Contemporary Ensemble/ICE). I’m also a fairly new member of an excellent symphony orchestra whose audiences for ALL concerts–classics, pops, and anything else–are appallingly and frighteningly sparse (Syracuse Symphony Orchestra).

    I am by nature a pretty idealistic person, but what the current situation says to me is that we quite honestly and pragmatically DO simply need to put butts in the seats. “If you build it, [they] will come.” Put butts in the seats, do some creative programming, think outside the box, and perhaps some people who thought they hated classical music will start coming to more concerts. Handing out free passes to concerts when you know it won’t sell out? Brilliant. Having members of the orchestra interact with audience members, especially new ones? Fantastic. Most of all, it’s vital to keep track of the newbies and inviting them to come back to something fresher and less stuffy than they imagined.

    As a musician, looking out at a large, half-EMPTY auditorium is depressing at best. It’s unbelievably distracting to see so many un-filled seats. If they’re filled by people who are there for the visual presentation rather than the orchestra, the dancers rather than the orchestra, the flashy & scantily clad soloist rather than the orchestra, so be it. I’ll play better and be more energized if the hall is full. And those people are THERE. They’re a captive audience. If we play well enough, we’ll make them love it.

  7. Some context for this debate: most other kinds of music aren’t just about the music either, since the introduction of MTV what, 30 years ago?

    And the core repertory, the whole idea of what classical music is , was developed at a time when there just wasn’t as much sensory stimulation as there is today. A 19th-century orchestral concert was sensory overload for the time; today, just listening to music with no visual is a kind of sensory deprivation. I think that given that, I have to take Mr. Spigelman’s part in this discussion; not only classical music, but the very act of listening intently for long periods of time, is a hard sell in the greater culture, so anything that might perpetuate it is a Good Idea.

  8. Another fascinating article designed to make certain people howl, but has an important point.
    Of course when you say ‘music is not about music”, you mean “music is not ONLY about music”. (Stravinsky’s argued the opposite, of course, but I find his arguments unpersuasive, to say the least.
    Composers and musicians and audience members have always been connected to the larger community, and the music created is connected to the larger life of the participants.

    The real question, for me, is how you go about doing this. As Roger Ebert has said, “a movie is not about what it is about, it is about How it is about it” (paraphrased by me, I’m sure the original is a bit more zippy than that.

    As ron mentioned, you don’t wish to resort to gimmicks, and a symphony orchestra has limited expertise or sometimes capability to connect to other concerns.
    The kind of experience described here would be perfect for a university performing arts series. I have seen several examples of this. You can give a theme even to a whole season, and different performers and genres all illustrate different points of that theme, and possibly some panel discussion or academic symposium through into the mix as well.

    Slightly off the topic, I wonder if you worry about any potential downside to this approach. And important issue that people care about, march about, has people of differing views. I certainly can imagine a scenario in which a performance in conjunction with a an Al Gore lecture could be a turn off to some people, and keep some away. Im thinking of Michael Jordan, who explained that he did not use his name for political purposes (to be fair, in a different context, than what is described here) “republicans buy sneakers too.”

  9. Loved your idea about an environmental festival, Ron, and I agree with you that classical marketing suffers from terminal groupthink.

    But the reason partnerships like the one you described don’t happen more frequently is because that series of concerts has already stretched the underpaid, overworked staff of the symphony to the limit. Producing an event with another non-profit is an extremely difficult task that requires a great deal of hours spent behind the scenes. Most of that time is spent cultivating a relationship between the organizations. The partnerships that work seamlessly tend to be the ones where the non-profits have close working relationships.

    When you’re an orchestra on a shoestring budget with a shoestring staff, those kinds of relationships are very hard to establish and maintain.

    • Of course there are challenges, one of which is financial, but most of the relationships we have built here started small, sometimes with a comment from the stage, a meeting over coffee, a desire to make people’s lives better, and then the causes themselves drive you to want to do more and your payment is the satisfaction knowing that you are making a positive difference in people’s lives. For me this is equal or even greater than any compensation received.

  10. One of the problems with ACD’s argument is that he’s assuming that he knows why people go to concerts – that if there’s a full house at a particular program, people are there for one reason (they love the music) and that’s the only valid reason for going and the only valid basis for building an audience.

    Of course, not one of us knows why each person is there. I recently listed some of the reasons people go to opera performances in an email exchange:

    – They know a lot about music.
    – They subscribe to the organization’s performances.
    – They love the particular opera.
    – They love the composer.
    – They love one or more of the performers.
    – They love the conductor.
    – They love the theatrical aspects of opera.
    – They’ve never heard the particular opera being performed and they’re curious about it.
    – The work or production or performance got a great review and they were curious about it.
    – The work or production or performance got controversial reviews and they’re curious about it.
    – A friend took them or encouraged them to go.
    – They just moved to the big city from a rural area and they’re checking things out.
    – They know someone in the performance.
    – It’s the norm in their social circle. I saw Nancy Pelosi, George Schultz, and a few other famous people at opening night of SF Opera a few years back. I have no idea whether they’re opera fans, but there they were.

    People go to hear performances for all sorts of extra musical reasons. And some of those people keep going, for all sorts of reasons. I’m not going to tell them they’re going for the wrong reason(s) – I’ll leave that for ACD. I hope arts managers will use whatever strategies that work to get people in the door.

    • Lisa
      Thank you for your clarity on this, two things that are important to me as a musician is that I use my skill to touch people’s lives with music and that we keep discovering new ways to do that. I have said time and time again that I don’t believe Music can change the world, it is people that change the world, but it is music is that it can change people. We need to stop focusing on WHY people are at concerts and instead focus on HOW to get people to concerts, and then trust them with the WHY i.e trust the power of the music

  11. To me the interesting question is whether classical music and the great operas will EVER be a medium of wide popularity. I just don’t think so. They both require a degree of focus, concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form and I don’t many have the patience. I also believe that aesthetic sensitivity is largely genetic.

    The appreciation and love of classical music will always be confined to a very narrow segment of the population. This is why attempts to draw in “new” audiences by using the same marketing techniques as are used for pop culture are not only doomed to failure, but are fundamentally pernicious because they usually end up misrepresenting or trivializing the classical culture they intend to promote.

  12. Matthew P wrote: “The appreciation and love of classical music will always be confined to a very narrow segment of the population. This is why attempts to draw in ‘new’ audiences by using the same marketing techniques as are used for pop culture are not only doomed to failure, but are fundamentally pernicious because they usually end up misrepresenting or trivializing the classical culture they intend to promote.”

    Quite right. As I wrote in a 2004 S&F post linked above in this comments thread:

    “During the past decade or so, one has read often of attempts made by various classical (or ‘serious’, or ‘art’) music entities — symphony orchestras, chamber groups, recital organizers, even opera companies — to gain a larger audience for their ‘product’, and it’s nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, they’ve all, to greater or lesser degree, pursued a model that’s not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People; or using less euphemistic and less generous terminology, prole pandering. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on in the world of mass entertainment, it’s an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn’t) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elite enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.”


    • ACD
      Believe it or not, we agree on this also. To be clear, I am also dead against the marketing approach aimed at the quick sales, which is why I believe connecting to real issues, and established community service organizations will bring far more sustained benefit that actually works both ways. We have a program that allows us to put small ensembles out there for the community free of charge, and so every year we do a program at a crisis nursery, a family violence center and at many other organizations. Forming alliances with such groups not only allows us to have music be a part of very distressed people’s lives (what is that about music soothing the soul), but the other benefit is the fact that those organizations supporters are now open to us asking for support for our other programs and regular concerts. That is more specifically what I am getting at with the grass roots approach, because the benefit will work both ways, and what we have in common with these organizations is that we wish to benefit the community and sustain our existence in order to do so. The whole gimmick cute sexy thing is a means to an end in our business, and if you just type in ASS in clASSical in the search on our blog you will see many articles both by Bill and me that excoriates (love that word) that approach. Here is one about the Modesto Symphony trying to attract people to a concert featuring a Classical Guitarist by using a Guitar Hero promotion…I don’t hold back!:
      When we do our free community matinees here, we don’t just throw it on and hope people show up, we actually call just about every community service organization in town (including assisted living communities) and get them to tell us how many tickets they need, then we announce what is left to the public, and we pack the place. From top to bottom what I advocate is that marketing always has to be targeted specifically (for Piano concerti we go to the Piano teachers to recruit their students for instance). It is cheaper, and more effective! However the allure of being “sensational” and getting an article in Symphony Magazine with some crazy scheme seems to be the focus for many groups. I just want people in the hall, and in the hall here, we have them!

  13. Matthew: do you think that “pop culture” music’s fans aren’t focused, concentrating, or subsuming themselves in the art form? To the contrary, many are beyond that — obsessive attention and consuming passion for an artist or a genre….


  14. I agree with Bill in Dallas about fans. And I somewhat disagree with Matthew, ACD, and Ron on the matter of classical music’s popularity. In the 19th c., there was much, much less of a division between “serious” and “popular” music than tends to be drawn today; there was a large demand across the middle class for new music of all kinds (and in some parts of the world for new opera across classes); symphonic music and opera was entertainment and spectacle, not high art; touring virtuosos were entertainers, not high artists.

    There’s no reason so-called classical music can’t have broader appeal than it has now. Classical music institutions do a great deal to make the style appear remote, upper-class, and only for the elect. This is a mistake; classical music is for everyone. I am NOT NOT NOT advocating Greg-Sandow-style “we should act like rockers” reforms. We just need NOT to look exclusionary and exclusive.

    The fact is that most people who go to the opera and symphony do NOT have the depth of knowledge most readers of this blog very likely have: they like the pretty sounds and enjoy the theatrical spectacles.

    (And there’s nothing more purely beautiful or spectacular than the Ring, which is so often held up as the epitome of High Seriousness: if you don’t laugh at Siegfried’s captive bear, you aren’t thrilled when the door flies open on springtime in Die Walkuere, and you don’t love Alberich turning successively into a dragon and a frog in Das Rheingold, by all means, stay home with the recordings and scores and focus on the serious aspects of the piece.)

      • Lisa wrote:

        “Classical music is for everyone. I am NOT NOT NOT advocating Greg-Sandow-style “we should act like rockers” reforms. We just need NOT to look exclusionary and exclusive…”


        Agree completely with this but I still don’t think classical music is for ‘everyone’.

        Do you honestly believe that all people have the aesthetic sensibility to love and cherish, say, the great operas (i.e. ‘Pelleas et Melisande’, ‘Moses und Aron’, ‘Falstaff’, ‘Tristan’, ‘Boris Godunov’) ?

        Lisa wrote:

        “Argh. Symphonic music and opera WERE entertainment and spectacle…”

        Ok, but I still think art and music (especially opera) have reached a nadir in our culture. It has become a kind of mass spectacle geared to the stadium crowds. Modern theatrical directors often fall into this spiral of seeking attention and headlines by putting themselves ahead of the music for the sake of pride or fame. Opera productions have often become infantile and often have nothing to do with the music or the ideas and values expressed in the music. It has become all show to gain attention and generate discussion about the director, who thinks of himself as a creative genius greater than the composer. The worse the director is, the greater his inflated opinion of himself is generally.

        • Just getting back here – Matthew, I’m not going to accept your division into “great operas” and everything else. Every classical music niche (opera, symphonic music, chamber music) has some music with wider or lesser appeal. (Beethoven string quartets and Carter string quartets, for example.) That’s fine. I don’t care if people love and cherish Tosca more than Tristan.

          I’m a big fan of the Freyer Ring in LA, so you can guess where I stand on the rest of your comments. (It’s a great production – maybe you got to see part of it. I only saw Gotterdammerung, alas.)

  15. I am in my 60s but have a number of younger friends who are primarily interested in what I call “pop” music. (They think even using that term is quaint, since they have so many subdivisions which I am unable or unwilling to understand.) Nevertheless, a number of them have gone with me to classical concerts and operas and have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. However, they find the lengthy forms of classical music difficult to follow. “Their” music is provided in much shorter segments, contrasting with each other. Now, I hear this in classical music too, but this is an acquired understanding.

    I’m not sure what we in the classical side can do about this or even that we ought to, but it does act as an obstacle to some potential listeners.

    Bill in Dallas

  16. Lisa Hirsch wrote: “I agree with Bill in Dallas about fans. And I somewhat disagree with Matthew, ACD, and Ron on the matter of classical music’s popularity. In the 19th c., there was much, much less of a division between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music than tends to be drawn today; there was a large demand across the middle class for new music of all kinds (and in some parts of the world for new opera across classes); symphonic music and opera [were] entertainment and spectacle, not high art; touring virtuosos were entertainers, not high artists.”

    You picked the wrong century to support your argument (such as it is). In point of fact, the 19th century marked the beginning of when symphonic music and opera were NOT looked upon merely as entertainment and spectacle but as high art, and touring virtuosos were NOT looked upon as merely entertainers but as high artists. We have Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner, all of whom insisted on the matter, to thank for that.


  17. Conductor Robert Boardman had trouble posting a comment, so he wrote to me with it and I post it verbatim below

    Dear Ron,

    First of all congratulations to you for having the imagination, musical and administrative acumen for conceiving of an artistic and community-wide vision and mission and having the guts to make it happen. Bravo. Clearly you are having positive results reaching more people, expanding the presence of the symphony, and making what we do relevant in real time in 2010. And moreover, having attended your performances I know that your performances are of the highest order – you are not selling out as a musician.

    There have been a lot of different issues discussed above. However, I’ll just comment on one that I believe is at the center of this debate. And that is: modernism as hyper-romanticism.

    In graduate school I increasingly became skeptical of the ‘authentic performance practice’ movement being shoved down my throat, claiming it’s originality, purity, being the ‘real’ true intentions of the composer. Then entered Richard Taruskin’s book Text and Act and particularly his essay The new sound of early music. Taruskin book was a godsend.

    The very same spirit of puritanical thought exists in religious fundamentalism: I know this is true from intense personal experience. Because of the literalness of the text – context, history, conscience, and relationships be damned. And more recent the so called ‘Tea Party’ movement which claims it’s moral authority on hand-picked literal writings of the Founding Fathers. It is a way of thinking that pervades more than music.

    All of these attempts to distill the music and the experience of the music into a vacuumed space are a form of modernist, maximalist romanticism. They ignore the multi-factorial nature of why music is created, performed, enjoyed, means and consumed in fear of it being soiled with humanity.

    Human beings matter.

    As you said initially: It is not about the urtext, it is about context.

  18. Mr. Boardman’s comments (referencing Taruskin) access a contemporary current of thinking that locates meaning in the context surrounding music-making in its various human activities. While persuasive in some regards (I’m thinking of Monelle), it seems that, philosophically this leads to an evaluation of art that is solely dependent on human participation.

    That is: regardless of what music is being performed/written/written about, the fact that humans are doing it makes it worthwhile and meaningful. In a seductive and populist kind of way, this is attractive. However, the necessary corollary is that any objet d’art will serve this purpose, and that in our analysis one is as good as another, as long as the primary meaning-generating condition is met: that humans are doing it.

    At this point, all distinctions–or evaluations–of quality are rendered pointless, or perhaps at best a matter of individual taste, and that the work of [name of composer one hates or considers a hack] is, really, just as good as [revered composer of sublime transcendent genius].

    This implication rings false. While anyone’s estimation of any given work or composer as magnificent and another as poorly-executed derivative tripe may indeed be radically contingent and arbitrary in an existential sense, it is not a useful criterion for programming, analysis, performance, and a host of other practical issues surrounding and attendant to dedicated music-making.

    Of course human beings matter; naturally context matters. Context always matters. But the Urtext, as you say, is part of the context, too, and not a trivial one, but indeed vital to the whole program. If it’s not, the point of the whole enterprise, and especially of the importance of new music, is significantly diminished; it disappears in a postmodern relativist haze.

    • There are so many comparisons to make! As a musician of course urtext is important to me, analysis is paramount in order for me to be able to perform great works old and new. All aspects of style, performance practice etc… have to be delved into in order for me to present a sincere interpretation, but like anything else the receptiveness to my opinions whether based in knowledge or not is subjective, as it should be! Our battle lies in the perceptions that what we do is somehow too lofty for people to understand and the breakdown in attracting audiences occurs when we focus on the art itself without any attempt to connect to our current world. It’s as if we are scared that this somehow devalues the art when in fact it proves something very profound and that is that great works are timeless, taking on new meaning according to our times. My hope is that we can attract any type of person to be able to receive what we can offer and so context is simply the connective tissue, the elevator or the stairs i.e the accessibility. Another comparison, a surgeon operates with encyclopedias of knowledge, tremendous skill and inspiration but the patient is told this as a reassurance that they will get well, not as a lecture that in order to be qualified to be operated on, they should take the time to understand and know all the intricacies of the procedure! We have to get away from this notion that our goal is to create music lovers, and think much bigger and that we present music to improve people’s lives and to inspire them to improve other people’s lives. Love is the ulmitate subjective feeling and for me falling in love also means not just being in love with someone, but falling in love with life and my purpose in life. The love of Music for me has this same meaning, I am wanting it to have purpose to create and/or coexist with that meaning so it self perpetuates and leads people to many conclusions of what it is, and what it means. Being qualified to present music is very specific, and we must always do our due diligence and prepare to a fault, but we should never put any qualifications on how people should receive what we do but instead find a way to help them form their own opinions and meanings by being equally sincere in wanting to touch their lives. Bottom line though, is that we can’t do any of that if we can’t get them there!

  19. Sorry to be a Johann-come-lately to this stimulating colloquy, but as an arts education professional I know (as do many here) that preparing students to be life-long learners who have the potential to experience fine art in a meaningful way (at home, in the car, in the concert hall, theater, museum, etc.) throughout their lives, is about maintaining into adulthood the attitude almost impossible to suppress in children – “Goody! It’s all there for me to appreciate and enjoy! It’s mine!” I’ve witnessed too many of my colleagues (teachers and musicians alike) doing their best to suppress the euphoria, most often in the name of “concert etiquette”, but it’s alive!

    Around the onset of the turbulent middle-school years we begin to stitch together the creature we call our identity and embrace certain aspects of the rich pageant of life, jettisoning others as “not our thing.” Sadly, many choose fine art as a tool to bolster their sense of self – by roundly rejecting it as anything for which they have a use, awkwardly making fun of it to further cement the relationship. Unfortunately, we artists play into this by giving the self-aggrandizing impression that fine art is not for everybody (an obvious conclusion – really?), sealing it away in bleached sepulchers, surrounding it with incense and mumbo-jumbo…

    It is by maintaining (or re-establishing, if that’s possible) the connection between real life and the art inspired by that life that we might reach a reasonable goal of as many people as possible possessing a welcoming awareness of the value of fine art (right along with popular art), for some at a remove, for others on occasion, for others as their life’s blood.

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