Should orchestras stop trying to appeal to the masses?

At a time when the core supporters of classical music are dying off, and the general population is increasingly diverse, it might seem logical for orchestras to reach out to new audiences by performing concerts that meet them at least half way. Think “pops” concerts, jazz sessions and the like.

But Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott says that’s precisely the wrong move, and it’s what has led orchestras across the nation to be in the crisis they face today.

As they scramble to maintain audience share, orchestras lose goodwill among their traditional audience. Today, it is essential in only a very few cities to know what the local orchestra is performing, who is conducting, who is the soloist, and what new pieces have been commissioned.

A visitor to a midsize American city will get a better sense of the place by visiting the art museum, strolling downtown, taking a bus, sitting in a park, and suffering the nightly newscast than spending two hours with the local orchestra. This is the real crisis, according to some veteran orchestra leaders.

Over the past decade or so, “the idea of an orchestra and its conductor representing something began to dilute,” says Tom Morris, who led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1987 to 2004.

To be fair, orchestras may have few options, and much of the battle was lost decades ago. Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and as not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies. They talk about education but have in many places done away with program notes.

Marketing material uses a hyperbolic language of emotional engagement to oversell the concert experience, implying that one has only to pull up a rug and surrender to the music. That musical appreciation takes work, and that its greatest rewards are cumulative over a lifetime rather than immediate, is not much discussed.

So what can we take away from this? I think my colleague Euan Kerr said it best after reading Kennicott’s piece.

“When the two sides in the Minnesota Orchestra find a settlement is when the hard work really begins. They have to work towards cultivating an audience which is not getting much exposure to classical music beyond hearing it under commercials and in movies.”

You can read the rest of Kennicott’s piece here, and the latest on the Minnesota Orchestra labor strife here.