Tuning the Concert

Gold Arts Award Portfolio

My issue in the arts: the classical concert experience November 14, 2010

Filed under: 1D: issues — concerttuning @ 10:28 pm
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How do we transform the conventional classical concert experience to make it more engaging for a wider audience?

One word answer: Diversify

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Technology has allowed music to step into the C21st but the conventional concert experience is still stuck in the past. We need to diversify the concert experience to give people a choice in the way they interact with classical music.

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Today, live concert experiences are not the only way we can hear music. Music permeates our everyday lives. At the click of a button we can hear it on an ipod, instantly download it from the internet or even hear it played in public spaces such as London underground stations. The way we interact with music, including classical, is thoroughly modern. The exception to the rule is the concert experience. This tradition has remained relatively unchanged since the C19th.

For the listener who is accustomed to having technology and all its benefits at their finger tips, stepping into a concert hall can either be a welcomed or mystifying step into another world. For the vast majority of the population, their reaction tends to err to the later. If cultural institutions want to attract young and diverse audiences into the concert hall, they need to recognise the way the modern person chooses to interact with classical music.

Problematically, transforming the conventional classical concert experience is not a straightforward task. It is all too easy to criticise the current format of concerts, but it is not so easy to put forward a successful new model. However, I would argue that the main step we need to make is to diversify. We need more variety in the types of concerts that are promoted and more variety in the music played.

How do people want to listen to live music?

The Arts Council’s current slogan is ‘great art for everybody’. However, the traditional concert format only caters for a small proportion of people’s preferred listening modes. It suits those who are happy to listen, sat still, surrounded by hundreds of people in often uncomfortable rows of chairs. It entices in those who already know what to expect from the names of the composer and pieces. It suits those who think that wearing tails is practical and/or normal and who know exactly when to clap. While it caters for those you can concentrate for extended periods of time or who are otherwise happy to drift off to sleep.

In short, many a traditional concert is ritualistic, formal and/or nostalgic. While I do not entirely condemn these traditional concerts as there are many people who enjoy listening to music in this manner, there needs to be alternative ways of experiencing live classical music. Listening habitats have changed, for better or for worse, and the traditional concert format does not take this into account.

Today, people expect choice, short bursts of concentrated activity and a mishmash of musical styles, to name but a few. Crucially, it is important to note that not everyone wants to engage in live-music in the same way. While some want the musicians to talk through what they are doing on stage, others want to let the music speak for itself. This is why it is necessary to develop a portfolio of concert experiences that can appeal to different listening habits. Allow audiences to move, drop in and out when they want or let them vote on which piece to play as the encore. Consequently, the word ‘concert’ would have a broader meaning describing a variety of ways people may encounter performances of classical music.

What do people to want to hear?

As well as the way the music is presented, what is heard on the classical concert stage doesn’t often take the modern audience into consideration. This certainly does not mean only staging popular works such a Handel’s Messiah but again giving the consumers a variety of music relevant to the modern listener.

Classical music is in its own little bubble, oblivious of the world changing around it. Today, the performance canon is very narrow with frequent repetition of ‘great’ works. Concerts all follow the same basic structure of: overture, concerto, symphony and are dominated by the Romantic C19th repertoire. While the connoisseur will look at the different interpretations of pieces and delight in classical music’s constancy, for the new comer the music scene appears stagnate with its music sounding much of a muchness.

Though classical music’s roots may be in the past, its branches should still be able to grow. Repertoire, not just interpretation, needs to continue to evolve. Concert promoters need be as open-minded as composers, such as Bartók, who were heavily influenced by different styles of music such as folk. They should help continue to break down this wall between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music allowing a contemporary dialogue of music in our concert halls. This means giving concert programming a bit of a re-mix, by encouraging C21st compositions, non-classical works and hybrids of styles.

Concerts for the future

Encouragingly, there are many concerts that do not conform to the stereotype. Off the back of audience development initiatives opening concerts up to family and student audiences, there is a strong movement of concerts becoming more accessible. I have identified some factors that I believe should be taken in consideration when planning concerts and examples of good practice that I have come across within the industry.

  • Informality – A common strand through interviews was a criticism of the unnecessary formalities and rituals of concerts. While it can be nostalgic and comforting to those who are familiar with the concert format, it can be very alienating for those who are not. There is a need for informal concerts that put the audience at ease. This would help take away some of the fear that new-comers experience when going to a concert e.g. am I going to clap at the wrong moment? A good example of an alternative are Alasdair Malloy’s Family concerts
  • Length – Not everyone want to sit still for two hours. The length of concerts can be an off-putting factor. More concerts should be shorter – even only 1 hour long. This would allow for a short burst of concentrated listening and would not be so overwhelming for new comers. E.g. Opus 60 at with RPO. Also it can do away with the awkward period of filling the 20mins of the interval if you are attending a concert on your own. Additionally, it allows people to partake in a number of activities during the evening whether it is a dinner, arts exhibition or nightclub. e.g. OAE’s Night Shift series starts at 10pm allowing time to get back from work, eat and then meet friends before going to the concert.
  • Seating – How the audience watches the concert affects how they engage with the performers. Standing up encourages more freedom whether it is to respond to the musicians, move with the music or come and go as they please. In contrast, sitting in rows of chairs forces the listener to stay still in one place and creates a more formal atmosphere. It would be nice to see more variation in the seating layout. I would personally encourage seating where people are able to come and go freely as well as it being comfortable e.g. Proming at the Proms or Beanbag Proms with Sinfonia Viva.
  • Marketing – Promoters need to realise that not everyone can match the title of a piece with the music. Therefore, just marketing a concert by the repertoire is not enough to encourage some people to attend. They need to use something that people can relate to or are familiar with to market the concert e.g. Yankee Dodddles concert by the Aurora Orchestra
  • Dialogue – There is a fear about talking about classical music, due to the academia and snobbery that surrounds the topic. The programme notes frequently make this problem worse, using technical language only a DPhil student would understand. This does not mean dumbing down, but writing about things relevant to modern-day life. Ultimately, it should help encourage a dialogue around the music where people feel able to speak plainly about the music and why they value it i.e. how it emotionally touches them. Allowing the musicians to speak directly to the audience is a much more immediate way to directly engage the audience. e.g. Nicholas Collon at the Yankee Dodddles concert by the Aurora Orchestra. It also gives the audience the sense of getting to know the musicians better (or at least understanding where they are coming from).
  • Musicians – There is nothing more off-putting than an orchestra of mind-dumbed and bored musician without a smile amongst them. We need to see enthusiasm, passion and energy on the stage such as that of the Venezuela orchestra, who unsurprisingly have captured audiences globally. This means that musicians need to love what they are playing and love performing it. Instead of the MD and admin team deciding on the programming, musicians should have a greater say in what they want to perform and how they want to present it. e.g. London Syphony Orchestra
  • Programming – Today, it is not uncommon for people to have eclectic musical tastes. What with the ability to put your music library on shuffle, people are used to hearing the most discordant things in succession. Listeners has grown to like this discord and constant variety. However, this is missing in concerts where the whole programme is very similar. To match modern listening habits, is would good to have some concerts where there is a large contrast in the music such as by incorporating different music styles e.g The Sixteen combined Monterverdi with jazz or mixing together lots of different music e.g. Stringfever history of music in 5 mins.
  • Cross-arts Most culture lovers interests don’t just lie in music, but they are interested in other art forms. Incorporating another art forms into a concert not only opens up the concert to a new audience, but also introduces the regular audience to something new. I personally, favour visuals at concerts, as visual patterns help organise my auditory experience. e.g. Aurora orchestra and Central St Martins collaborate on Carnival of Animals

What’s stopping this change?

Though a music graduate and active performer, I never knew there was an alternative to the traditional concert experience until I started conducting research for my Gold Arts Award. While there are several blossoming new concert formats appearing on the scene, I would argue there are not enough to counter-balance the stereotypical perception of the concert experience. At present these alternative concerts are a niche of a niche. However, the number of alternative events needs to increase before a fresh new perception of classical concerts can be formed by the general public.

However, there are a number of hurdles that need to be overcome: financial, logistical & mental.

  • Financial It is financially not possible to re-build all our concert halls with flexible seating nor is it also possible to finance the additional equipment required for cross-arts collaborations.
  • Logistical It takes longer to organise a new format of concert particularly if you are having to collaborate with more artists. In stretched organisations this can be the least of their priorities.
  • Mental There can be a fear of the new due to its risk of failure. Those in power in organisations may be comfortable with their present situation.

To be able to achieve diverse concert experiences, the music industry needs to be open-minded and support each others artistic ventures. I look to the future when attending a classical concert will be an anticipated activity for myself, friends and family.


14 Responses to “My issue in the arts: the classical concert experience”

  1. Tom Says:

    Hey Lal, I really like your essay. Btw I like the cross media idea, are there any examples of people doing VJing to classical concerts?

  2. Aart Vark Says:

    Excellent! We have been following this portfolio, very well presented!

  3. Kate Comberti Says:

    Great! Nicely put and some really interesting points that I hadn’t thought of. More like this please.

  4. Andrew Says:

    well done on the project – my personal view is that the programming is essential – I’ve just taken Annabel to “A Dog’s Life” at ENO – it was fabulous in staging and execution – any young person would be bowled over – its a bit like Warhorse set to classical music – well worth you getting a cheap ticket if you can.

  5. Louise Says:

    Just read the article and I think it’s very thought-provoking. I can see another obstacle in the expense of having the different “types” of musicians around for an evening – but I love the idea of mixing repertoire.

    I agree that I would only have gone to concerts because my parents thought it was a good idea and there was no concession to being young in the audience then! I just learned to keep very still…

  6. Michael Says:

    I think you make several useful and insightful observations. The idea of cross-modality is particularly interesting. One could say, of course, that opera is an example of music, vision and acting – some have added the adjective ‘bad’ in front of the latter two I always feel that unfair. Another example of cross-modality is in the form of music written for film. In fact, music for film seems to be particularly important – at least judging from the programming of music in Classic FM. Perhaps what we need are new forms of musical cross-modality, i.e., something in addition to opera and film

  7. Becky Says:

    Thanks so much for sending this over – it’s a truly fascinating and well thought out project, and I look forward to delving further into it! I found your final summary points incredibly strong and thought provoking, and think it’s definitely the responsibility for all of us who work in the arts to think seriously about these issues.

    I’m sure you’ve already found this in your journey (I might have mentioned it myself!), but if you ever do try to put on your perfect concert (which sounds a great idea!) Cafe Oto in Dalston is a really interesting venue for this sort of thing – I’ve played in a number of contemporary/experimental classical concerts there, and it has a very different vibe to the traditional concert hall.

  8. Adam Says:

    Great article with many excellent points, all of which I agree with! Your suggestions would certainly enliven the concert experience and provide some much-needed diversity. I fear, however, that although audience numbers would increase, their makeup would still be somewhat restricted to the older generations and the educated middle and upper classes. I have some additional thoughts of my own on how to attract a younger audience, I hope you don’t mind if I share them here…

    1) More young, hot celebrities –
    The classical world shouldn’t be afraid of cultivating ‘celebrity’ performers. There are some already I know, but I think more could be done to get the top soloists into the mainstream. If you’ve ever been to a Lang Lang concert, you’ll know that audiences are sigificantly more youthful and energetic, which I’m sure is down to the fact that he’s young, exuberant, handsome, and a household name, more than anything special about his playing ability. I know a lot of ‘purists’ despise performers like Lang Lang, accusing him of being too flashy, and hate the idea that classical music is being dumbed-down to cater for the masses, but the fact remains that he drawns in huge audiences to listen to great music they wouldn’t otherwise go to hear. And if it inspires young people to go listen to more classical music from performers who aren’t so flashy, well then surely he’s doing a good thing for the classical world as a whole.

    2) More new music + amplification –
    You mentioned this already, but I really think this point should be emphasised. We need much more new music from young new composers – you will only attract a younger audience with young musicians playing new music. Young people don’t want to go hear Mozart just like they don’t want to go hear Cliff Richard, they’d rather go hear Justin Bieber because he’s young and new, and he’s singing new songs that speak to his generation. And we shouldn’t be afraid of electricity and amplification. When we go to the cinema or a rock concert, we’re almost blown away by the volume of sounds crashing against our eardrums. It’s an exhilarating experience, and the sheer loudness of it cannot help but grab your attention. Classical concerts can seem a bit dull in comparison, and it’s all too easy to phase out and drift off. There was uproar in the folk music world when Bob Dylan went electric, similarly with Miles Davis and jazz, but people soon realised that their concerns about sound quality were misplaced and that the benefits of using electricity (increased volume, access to new sounds and timbres) far outweigh the perceived drawbacks.

    I’m sure I had other points too, but I’ve forgotten them now and anyway I’ve rambled on for far too long. You may think that my ideas amount to heresy, but I truly believe this is the way to attract a wider audience, and of course there should still be a place for the non-celebrity, un-amplified classical concert for those that prefer it. But just like in pop music, where the mainstream is dominated by bright, flashy celebrities to draw people in, and then as people’s musical taste develops and matures they move away from the mainstream and start to broaden their horizons by listening to more ‘serious’ stuff, so it could be in the classical world. Ideally, we shouldn’t even be talking about the ‘pop’ world and the ‘classical’ world, it’s an arbitrary division that shouldn’t exist. The more the boundaries between pop and classical become blurred then the better both sides will become, and the whole will end up being greater than the sum of its parts.

  9. Naomi Says:

    Thanks so much for this, it’s a really intelligent, thought provoking piece of work. Well done!

    We’re definitely taking a lot of what you’ve expressed on board as we plan our projects for 2011.

  10. John Banther Says:

    Great article, would love to re-blog it on TheStoryBehindTheMusic . com.

    While classical music may remain a niche market, in todays business world that is still massive success with limitless possibilities! I think all of these ideas will come from younger/smaller ensembles. It’s not that the big orchestras can’t, I think it’s that their value is placed in the ability to play such massive works at the highest level in that format.

    Great stuff!


  11. Michael Says:

    The number of very favourable comments you have received show that you have struck a chord in many different people. I hope you take these ideas further, perhaps moving into music education.

  12. sangwookang Says:

    Makes me think of the Communiy MusicWorks, here in Providence where I work, where they’re trying to bring the concert experience to lower class people and settings… something really cool they do is having the resident string quartet play Beethoven, Schumann, or Bach on the sidewalk in the city.

    I definitely agree with you, this idea that the concert experience is for the higher class. Wearing tails? Sitting in uncomfortable chairs for two hours? I think many of us would find it laughable.

  13. themusiccube123 Says:

    Nice article! I find the silence of the audience uncomfortable. When I go to a concert (which isn’t often) I’m afraid to move in my seat because it might squeak or to look in my program because the paper might make a sound. And in between movements everyone shuffles and coughs and gets all their noises out before the next part starts and more silence is expected. Maybe if some of your ideas were put to use people wouldn’t feel quite so compelled to sit like silent statues.

  14. Tim Brosnan Says:

    This is a very well thought out essay. While I agree with most of what you’ve written, I do disagree with some of it. I’ve been a subscriber to the New York Philharmonic for about 8 years and have been attending classical music concerts regularly since the ’70’s. I very much enjoy the “ritual” of the classical concert and the opportunity to hear really great music for some reason other than it being hyped by people who’s primary goal is to sell a brand (with or without good music).

    One of the great pleasures at a live classical performance is to hear music that is uncompressed and full. The difference between that experience and what we get through our iPods is just incredible (at least for me). One last point related to this… there is an ongoing debate in live classical music is whether it should be amplified for younger listeners. I’ve been voting “no”.

    What’s wrong with sitting quietly and just listening?

    Thanks again for a great blog. Bravo!

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