Tuning the Concert

Gold Arts Award Portfolio

Taking it into his own hands September 16, 2010

Filed under: 1B: research — concerttuning @ 8:25 pm
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I met up with Peter Fender, conductor of Philharmonia Britannica to learn about what inspired his audience development and how he would like to ‘tune the concert’.

Originally a freelance violinist and teacher, he has conducted on and off over the years. However, attending a conducting course 4 years ago inspired him to form his own orchestra, Philharmonia Britannica.

During the set up process, it made him think of all the things he had ever wanted to do. In particular he was interested in mixing different art forms, for example the use of videos with music. It was personal interest rather than audience development that initially spurred him on, as he is also a bit of a Thespian and enjoys chatting to audiences. For example, for a film concert he dressed in a Darth Vader costume to conduct the orchestra!

Thinking about the audience though, he thought that if he combined two art forms, he would have a greater chance of attracting a larger audience. He would be appealing to two sets of people, those who are interested in music and those for example in film. Consequently this broadens the potential audience base. In reality this hasn’t worked quite as well as he hoped, as typically it is the music lovers that attend his concerts. However, he hopes that if someone ever did attend the concert due to being predominately interested in the other art form,they may, in a ideal world, start to also like the music.

He has had a good response so far to his experiments with the orchestra. However there are always some who dislike mixing music with other things such as videos or speech, feeling that it gets in the way of the music and can be distracting. Using political charged videos alongside Beethoven’s 5th Symphony provoked some negative responses but Peter argues that this is a good thing. Even if someone disliked it, at least it solicits a reactions from them. He argues that it is better to do something wacky and stir people up to get a reaction, as this way you can get some feedback from the audience.

Furthermore, having a visual dimension means that it is more likely to be memorable, as our visual memory is better than our aural. Hopefully, this means that the audience will be able to take something away with them. One of Peter’s most memorable experiences as a student was playing in an orchestra for the entertainer Donald Swann (of Flanders and Swann fame). 25 years later he can still remember the humour (as opposed to the music). Consequently, he argues that combining two art forms can make the event more significant.

Additionally, it is something that sets aside the orchestra. Amongst the London orchestras, everyone tends to play the same repertoire and often keep to the traditional concert format of: overture, concerto then symphony. Consequently, there is always the option to see a conventional concert, but Peter wants to be able to provide a different experience. However, things are starting to change, as there is greater variety and artists are starting to collaborate with unexpected people. For example, he recommended checking out the ensemble, Red Priest.

Peter admitted that he finds concerts dull. A concert has to have something special to catch his attention. He also fears that many people (especially the young) feel similarly (though people are often too polite to say anything). Do people really enjoy the seriousness? He likened it to a to sermon after which people just say “Nice sermon vicar” whatever they thought!

His children have very eclectic listening tastes, but only one of them would choose to go to a classical concert. He argues that the format is partly to blame. While regular concert attendees may not realise it, the concert is is like a ceremony. The musicians dressing up as penguins, going on and bowing and then the audience applauding at appropriate moments can seem very foreign to one who is new to the concert. The music would still be there if we stripped down some of the formalities. Wearing tails today is quite anachronistic though it was the common dress years ago. As a conductor he gets very excited when he see kids at a concert. However a 80 minute long piece is a hard ask for children as well as adults. In previous eras concerts were often frequently broken up with songs and light pieces. Consequently, they were a form of all round entertainment, rather than ‘pure’ autonomous music.

Peter also identified the need to change the way concerts are marketed. Peoples reasons for attending have perhaps changed and it we want to attract a new audience we have to communicate with them differently. It is no use advertising the title of a piece, such as Beethoven’s 9th, when some people don’t associate the title of the piece with the actually music (though it they heard it they may recognise it). It would be better to use things people could relate to such as TV ads, film music or music quoted by more popular genres e.g. Deep Purple use Mars from Holst’s The Planets.

I asked what his ideal concert would be.

  • · Peter explained he would rather attend a concert similar to that of visiting a cinema – having a bar/cafe at the back where you can buy drinks or cakes and then take them to your seats.
  • · He would also always like to link concerts with education whether it is doing a project in a school where the children paint in response to a piece of music or where the musicians go in to talk to the kids.
  • · Venues for concerts are one of the biggest problems. He’s in favour of an open venue. Something that doesn’t give the wrong message, with no religious or traditional concert undertones. He would like to perform is a power station – for its neutrality.

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