Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Connections and misconnections

The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports on a new venture in which the Philadelphia Orchestra and other Philly area ensembles transmit live simulcasts of their performances to residents of retirement communities:


Maintaining connections with the least mobile elderly patrons is one way to cope with an aging audience for classical music. So far, it's exceptional; but I wouldn't be surprised to see it become common practice. (Retirement community operators would love it, as pay-per-view/hear hookups are easier and cheaper than running minibuses to concert halls.)

* * *

Like every other provider of products and services, classical-music performers and presenters are concerned about, not to say obsessed with, making their offerings more attractive to a younger clientele. They see their existing audience growing older and older, and worry that as it dies off so will classical music.

It's a legitimate concern, especially as the latest contingent of the aging, baby boomers, don't appear to have developed a later-life interest in classical music to the same degree that their parents and grandparents did.

Musical instruction, even basic music appreciation, did not figure much in the education of the boomers, and has figured even less in the schooling of subsequent generations; so a lot of otherwise well-educated Americans under 60 are clueless about classical music. A lot of them are also indifferent, even hostile. Popular culture since the 1960s has used classical music as a totem or cultural signal, sometimes positive (baroque music as background sound in shops and restaurants suggests luxury, for instance), but usually negative – denoting stuffiness, undeserved privilege, belonging to the establishment, being boring and uncool, and worst of all, being old.

Boomers have been conditioned since adolescence to think that getting old is a fate worse than death. So they've redefined old: 60 is the new 40. That's not just wishful thinking. Fifty years ago, a 60-year-old could anticipate living another 10 years or so. Now, that 60-year-old can anticipate living another 20 to 30 years. Thanks to medical advances, the frailty of old age is being pushed further into the future, as well.

Highbrow organizations haven't adjusted to that new definition of old. (Neither have a lot of businesses, but that's another story.) A performing-arts troupe that plays to a crowd whose median age is 55 or 60 need not contemplate the prospect of oblivion a decade, or even two decades, from now.

Classical presenters, however, need to adjust their approaches to younger audiences. Currently, they pursue a two-tier strategy: To reach children and teenagers, in-school activities, youth concerts and youth orchestras, which attempt to replace the musical component that school curricula have dropped or degraded; and to reach younger adults, typically those in their 30s and 40s, bargain-priced, casual and/or close-to-home concerts offering bite-sized chunks of mostly 18th- and 19th-century classical repertory.

But as 60 is the new 40, 40 is the new 25, culturally speaking. Many 40-somethings, despite having kids to raise, mortgages to pay, lawns to mow and so on, consider themselves young adults, and perceive themselves to be part of the audience for "alternative" or "indie" pop-culture genres. If a boomer's nightmare is to be thought old, this cohort's nightmare is to be mistaken for boomers.

Post-boomers are potentially more receptive to classical music than boomers, because much of alt/indie pop music is more harmonically unpredictable, longer in form and more abstract than earlier pop styles such as hard rock or disco. Christopher O'Riley plays piano arrangements of Radiohead tunes; eighth blackbird and other contemporary art-music groups collaborate with alt-rock musicians. It's hard to imagine them making comparable connections with, say, Judas Priest or Donna Summer.

Playing Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky may not be the most promising way to make classical converts of the alt/indie generations; Bartók, Messiaen, Ives and Cage may be closer to their musical sensibilities. They may find chamber music easier to connect with than orchestral music. They may prove more receptive to organs, harps or percussion instruments than to conventional classical instrumental groupings.

* * *

The wisest strategy for symphony orchestras and other classical presenters hoping to make their art form a multi-generational attraction may be to give the old folks what they want – and not to worry too much about it, because the old folks are going to be around for a good while yet; and to give the younger folks what typically alienates the old folks. (Kind of like the bargain the pop-music industry struck with its audiences in the late ’50s and ’60s, when Tony Bennett thrived alongside Little Richard.)

And the boomers? Ah, the boomers. About all you can do is wait for them to realize they've gotten old, and grow up. Sort of.

Tongue dislodged from cheek, there's one encouraging factor: There are so many boomers that even if a small percentage of them wind up developing a taste for the classics, you're still talking about a lot of people.