Talk to Us

Another study, this one undertaken at concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra, London Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, has identified some reasons young people don’t attend classical music concerts:  the atmosphere; price of tickets; and discomfort with their own lack of knowledge. The resulting recommendations: talk to the audience; offer lower-priced tickets; create a more casual atmosphere for today’s less-formal audiences. (Oh yes, and offer a free beer with purchase.)

Excuse me, but aren’t these the exact same findings that the classical music world has been talking about for years now? My own reporting on the subject dates back nearly a decade, to release of research into audience motivation factors, and has filtered down to research done within the past couple of years on actual steps that can be taken to turn the tide of lost audiences. The latter even include free drink coupons, although the offers may swap wine for beer.

Guess we can’t expect things to change too rapidly in a centuries-old art form.

But change is taking place. Witness the near-instant success of Le Poisson Rouge, the New York City venue (once The Village Gate) that offers regular performances by classically oriented soloists and ensembles in a club setting: small stage; subdued lighting; table service for drinks; multiple performances in one evening. It’s become to classical music what Joe’s Pub, another downtown venue, has long been to jazz, cabaret and other genres—an intimate setting for both well-known performers and those who are just starting to make a name for themselves, the place for record-release parties and to debut new material.

New York has no exclusive on the idea, which has long been simmering across the country and in Europe, fueled (typically) by younger performers who enjoy the atmosphere and intimacy of club settings, and recognize how they can be effective for soloists and small ensembles that are often overwhelmed in bigger concert or recital halls. Not to mention that it’s a great way to gain recognition with new audiences, an important factor in a time when performers, by necessity, are taking more control over their careers. They’ve also discovered that contemporary classical, or new music (we can’t even agree on a name for music created by living composers—and by the way, does any other art form classify its artists by whether they are dead or alive?) plays better in small settings with audiences who are willing to experiment, given lower-priced tickets and the chance to sip a cocktail.

One assumes that all these elements—talking to the crowd, putting them at ease about their level of knowledge, etc. —work best with audiences that skew on the young side, the people who would be into clubgoing anyway.  But that’s not always the case, as I experienced at a recent concert presented by the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music. My good friend, saxophonist Brian Sacawa, was featured on the program performed at an historic church in the Fort Greene neighborhood.  Knowing Brian’s penchant for new music, I took one look at the program, another at the gathering audience of graying heads, and thought, “Oh, no. They are going to hate this.” I chose a seat on the aisle near the back of the sanctuary, fully expecting to see bobbing heads as audience members nodded off.

Wrong. The audience was fully engaged from the moment Brian welcomed them and spoke a bit about the first piece, The Garden of Love by Jacob ter Veldhuis, which included computer-generated bits of the William Blake poem on which it is based. Midway through the second work, David Lang’s Press Release, heads were bobbing, alright, but in time to the music. Brian and the composer of Walimai, Michael Djupstrom, put them at ease about what they were to hear, gave some background on the work, and offered tips on what they should listen for. They felt comfortable asking questions both pointed and general. “Is that really a saxophone?” someone wondered after Brian finished The Garden of Love on soprano sax.  And they were fully appreciative of the odd, yet compelling combination of saxophone, piano and accordion, the latter played by Lidia Kaminska, in transcriptions of Bach and Mozart, followed up by a rollicking set of Piazaolla tangos. Applause throughout was enthusiastic and sustained.

Granted, the audience was made up mostly of subscribers to the chamber music series.  But they came to it with open ears (even if there were some occasional hearing-aid adjustments).  And the intimate setting of a church, with the performers standing two feet away from the front pew, lent a comfortable familiarity that was not unlike a club setting.

The takeaway? Yes, the findings of all those audience studies are true. Tell us something about the music we’re about to hear, and don’t get bent out of shape when we clap spontaneously. We don’t want to hate classical music, we just don’t always know that much about it and all that ritualistic stuff in the concert hall ritual makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we don’t’ have a lot of money to spend on subscriptions, but we are willing to try a concert if it fits into our budget and offers the promise of an enjoyable evening out.  It doesn’t matter if our hair is naturally gray or dyed that color in the latest hipster fashion.  Just talk to us, already. We’re not going to wait around for another ten years while you debate whether it’s a good idea.