Sunday, June 20, 2010

Level 4

At last week’s League of American Orchestras conference in Atlanta, participants were polled on the need for symphony orchestras to change the way they do business and connect with audiences. The poll was on a sliding scale, from level 1 (status quo "with a few tweaks") to level 5 ("dramatic change as soon as possible"). In a show of hands, most chose level 4 – somewhere between significant and dramatic change.

That response roughly corresponds to the degree of battering that orchestras have taken in this recession. They’re not in the worst shape among performing-arts groups – more opera companies have shut down, radically cut back or sloshed through deeper pools of red ink; but most every professional orchestra in the U.S. is running a deficit, cutting costs (especially, lowering or freezing musicians’ wages), raising ticket prices, and seeing its audience and donors age and/or dwindle from one year to the next.

Even more alarmingly, orchestras sense that their art form is losing its relevance even further and faster in a culture that is growing more diverse, interactive and participatory. In a cultural environment that, more and more, thrives on conversation among artists in various disciplines and media, and between artists and audiences, the symphony orchestra makes statements – increasingly dated and culturally insular ones – to an audience that sits in the dark and listens in silence.

Contemporary society is experiencing a "fundamental realignment of culture and communications," Ben Cameron, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s program director for the arts, told the conference. The Internet, on-demand cable and satellite TV, make-your-own-playlist music devices and other electronic media enable people to see and hear what they want, when they want.

There’s a parallel shift in the entertainment-culture market "from consumption to participation," Cameron noted. Perhaps the most visible sign of that trend is that computer video games now generate more sales than recorded music and movie and TV videos combined.

Cameron’s address, and other features of the League of American Orchestras conference, can be found at:

* * *

Symphony orchestras and other "high-art" live-performance groups stand athwart this on-demand, hands-on culture. They perform at set times and places, and their product is ephemeral – once it’s done, it’s gone. Their audiences are largely passive onlookers. Their performances have a quality of "re-enactment rather than creation," Eric Booth, another speaker at the orchestra league conference, remarked.

Classical concert audiences "have essentially solitary, inward experiences," Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, observed earlier this year in a talk to London’s Royal Philharmonic Society. "Where listeners once spoke of being swept away by music, to the point of gesturing or crying out loud, they now [speak] of music sweeping over them, like an impressive weather system over which they [have] little control."

Can this kind of experience survive in a culture increasingly driven by participation and feedback? Can it – should it – be adapted to accommodate an audience that wants in on the act?

Orchestras and other classical performing troupes have been trying for years to involve audiences more actively. Sing-along "Messiahs" and orchestral-choral Christmas concerts are fixtures of concert calendars in many communities, and some groups are trying audience-participation performances of more challenging choral repertory. A growing number of orchestras are scheduling dates in which their members perform alongside student and amateur musicians.

Orchestral and chamber-music programs, especially those in which new or unfamiliar music is performed, more frequently feature preparatory talks, onstage commentary with musical excerpts and/or post-concert question-and-answer sessions. Musicians make more and more effort to mix and mingle with audiences in receptions or less structured encounters. Some troupes have made tentative steps toward engaging audiences through text-messaging and the like during performances.

Theatrical or quasi-theatrical stagings and multimedia "experiences" – typically, music with video or lighting enhancement – are increasingly common components of orchestral and other classical concerts. That trend is sure to continue.

For all that, classical music remains "largely about contemplation, emotional surrender, sensory captivation in a non-verbal world," as Cameron put it. Any attempt to engage senses other than the auditory risks distraction from – even pollution of – the essence and singularity of the musical experience.

* * *

As orchestras and other classical presenters anxiously consider "significant" or "dramatic" change, mulling possible innovations and shopping for bells and whistles to effect that change, here’s a counterintuitive – maybe conservative, maybe conservationist – thought.

Classical concerts are one of the few remaining chances people have for contemplative spiritual or inwardly emotional experience in a public gathering. (You don’t even get much of that in church anymore, unless you go to Quaker meetings.)

Classical music is the last oasis of live-performance experience that is largely free of visual and ambient distraction, the last show that can be as enriching with eyes closed as it is with eyes open.

It’s you and the music – a real-time, not to be repeated, close encounter with a work of art.

Is that a salient – or, more practically speaking, sellable – commodity in today’s cultural marketplace? Is there enough difference between hearing a Beethoven symphony live and listening to a recording or broadcast or online audio stream of it at home to warrant spending more for the ticket and driving to the concert?

I would like to think so. I’m not a marketing guru; I haven’t concocted a slogan or designed a brochure or scripted an ad to pitch this concept. It may defy pitching in a cultural and media environment obsessed with novelty. Except in one sense: This product is quite unlike any other. Is uniqueness still a selling point?

* * *

One more point: As orchestras view with alarm the aging of their audiences, will somebody please check the actuarial charts? People are living longer. If you’ve got a clientele in its 60s, much or most of that clientele will still be alive, mobile and in the market for your product or service for another 20 to 30 years. And these people have, and will continue to have, more disposable income, and more time to spend it, than younger segments of the population.

With the exceptions of healthcare, travel and a few other industries, the marketplace, including the "new media" that everybody is so excited about, under-serves or ignores older consumers.

Symphony orchestras have captured these people about as well as any outside-the-home cultural entity. If orchestras lose this audience, they will not find a new one to take its place.