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.

  • I agree that misleadingly advertising classical music concerts as universally thrilling and accessible isn’t doing anyone any favors. My hunch is that the best long-term strategy for classical ensembles is to diversify their programming to draw new audiences in with compelling content, then building bridges for those new audiences to connect with more traditional fare. It’s an open question whether established ensembles are nimble enough to accomplish this, but I think that the increasingly adventurous programming at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is providing a great example of how a big organization can please its longstanding conservative constituency while also attracting new audiences.

  • akadams

    I think that “dumbing down” either programming or marketing in the name of making something so grand as classical orchestral music more accessible… is a huge mistake, one we’ll be regretting for generations.

  • foreseer2

    Just what we need – an expensive cultural organization aimed to please the traditional classical audience – the wealthy patron. This is just another form of Mitt Romney’s argument that you don’t really have to worry about 47% of the population because they are not deserving and don’t matter.

    The author assumes that orchestras have also made significant changes in their musical offerings to attract new audiences. Oh yes, they do special programs for children – with music designed to educate and entertain – and they play concerns that are “pure pop,” but they haven’t realized that all music has merit and that changing some of the basic assumptions would help.

    First, if you look at the board of the Minnesota Orchestra, there really is no evidence that professional musicians are involved – or artistic leadership from other arts organization. One example of what is missing (on a board of about 80 members) is any representative from Minnesota Public Radio – the most successful musical organization in the state, and one that has grown exponently through more stations, supurb classical music, alternative music for the younger generation and a strong news operation – which highlights. Lots of bankers, CEOs and lawyers, but none with real career expertise in the arts. One must assume that they are there not for their musical knowledge or even knowledge of what kind of music is most popular in the community, but for other reasons.

    Second examine their basic concert structure, which probably hasn’t changed since the orchestra started playing. Typically, two shorter classical pieces, an intermission (soon to be in the grand new lobby) and a longer classical piece. The whole evening is the commitment. Here are two ideas that I’m not aware are being consistently being used. Break the concert in half – selling tickets for the first half, for the second half and for the entire concert at a cost less than the total costs of the two halfs. It better fits modern lifestyles. Particularly on Friday night, some people enjoy music earlier – maybe after a quick dinner or maybe to get home early to relieve the babysitter. After the first two pieces, they have had enough. There are others who perhaps would enjoy having a leisurely dinner downtown and then come in for the single last number – a complete evening with the music as desert. If the orchestra wanted to adventurous, it could have a third shift for the young people who like to start their “party” a little later. That could involve just a few players and let younger musicians soar musically. Basically like three church services – stating at 7 PM, intermission at 8:00, restart at 8:30, intermission at at 9:30, third shift at 10, finishing up at 11. It would have to be the standard 2 intermission 1, but could be a mix of things (including non-classical) and include smaller groups of players, particularly for the night owls.

    The idea of pure classical and pure pops concerns diminish audiences by just providing the expected rather than the musical surprise. After an extreme dull period of composing during the late 20th century, we have new composers from around the world who are composing very engaging music. Program that – and do it as an extra mystery number. Cheap trick admittedly, but why don’t you think about of the box.

    Frankly, I see no way that your current mix of board members or administrative leadership that is so dismissive and disrespectful to the orchestra’s loyal music. Here is a deal. For every musician who assigned or is laid off, ask 2 board members to leave the board. How does it make sense for the board to outnumber to musicians. The composition of the board betrays the indifference to what is going on the great world that some many companies are benefiting from.

  • Mark Carter

    Philip Kennicott’s piece is right on the money. American Orchestras salvation lies in presenting fine music superbly played. Aim high and avoid the lowest common denominator. Leave to others the trivial trite and profane.

    Good music will restore financial health, ghastly pop music will not.

  • Jon

    Orchestral music is the extreme example of a creator having tremendous control over the outcome of a performance, by virtue of making a score. The beauty of this medium is that while the notes remain fixed, there is something interesting in how every performance is different, and yet still carries the message of the composer. Popular music (like jazz, etc.) is great in that the performance of it adds so much to the creativity, because it isn’t usually written down in score to the extent that classical music is. To make things more interesting, the way popular music is delivered to the public usually puts precedence on the visual element. Successful pop music has to “look good” because the audience has become accustomed to “movie-like” experiences – where the actual composition of the music is second to the visual show (i.e. Lady Gaga). There’s a corollary in what has taken precedence in opera in recent times, and perhaps even in the way people experience musicals. So, we are burdened with showing the public that beautiful sound and visual beauty RARELY are the creative process of one person, and that in the sound alone, there is much to communicate. That is the challenge of classical music as a whole, but orchestral music is the “extreme” example because of how complex the score gets for so many instruments.
    The orchestra is therefore arguably the best case for the survival of classical music, and it should be there for people to realize the various ways music can be expressed. As the movie “Fantasia” demonstrated, we can imagine something visually from sound – and the audience should have these experiences of allowing the music to touch their emotions and envision whatever is or isn’t possible in reality. That’s the beauty of music, and especially classical music. It also helps if people start listening to classical music at a young age (along with as many other genres), so that these sounds are something they have experienced during formative years, and they can later relate to.
    So, I’m for diversity of music, but understanding the true value of classical music is very important, and should be reinforced.

  • MN123

    This whole stalemate has reached the point where it appears that the Orchestra under its current organization may not be salvageable. Perhaps it is time to just throw in the towel, and set up a Kickstarter type of program to begin anew. New board, fresh start. Dissolve the current board. Set up a board with a more representative outlook, including musicians and MPR-type private citizens, hopefully with some younger representatives. Rehire former Minnesota Orchestra Musicians under a new, but more hopeful salary structure. Transfer the Orchestra Hall contract to the new organization. Try to convince Vanska to stay on for a couple of years to see if it will improve.
    The Board started this whole mess by instituting a lockout without any real appreciation for the consequences or plan for a stalemate. Start over.