Any classical music enthusiast is beyond tired of hearing about the “death” of the genre (a term that has been rightly refuted). However, we can’t deny that the classical music community is not as flourishing as it once was, and that musicians, conductors, and administrators need to look to making changes.
Exactly what those changes need to be has been a topic popping up in music journalism as of late.
Phillip Clark, writer at Gramophone, gave a talk last week about the idea that classical music has an “image problem.” Clark argues that the problem is not the music, but the pressure to make the classical music experience conform to what is perceived to be societal ideals:
We live in a culture, I think, where visual stimuli are in the ascendant, sometimes at the cost of sound. Sound is no longer enough. That sound can be judged as sound – that music is a worthy pursuit in and of itself is, in the most extreme cases, being casually dismissed. Classical music now must aspire to offer spectacle – whether a particular piece can take it or not.
Instead of reinventing the performance, Clark argues that musicians invite the audience to more deeply explore the music itself. Instead of worrying quite so much about what the musicians are wearing, or adding gimmicks to the concert experience, stay true to the music itself. (Read Clark’s full talk here.)
Brigid Delaney of The Guardian Australia also wrote a piece this week about how classical music is perceived to be elitist and inaccessible. The average age of concert goers continues to rise – but young audiences shouldn’t be afraid to dip their toe in and give a classical concert a try. She says:
Classical music is incredible. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t brought up with it, or don’t know how to pronounce the composers’ names, or you’ve never sat still for that amount of time without checking your phone. None of that matters at all.
The best – like the Australian Chamber Orchestra– features performers in full flight, a pack of beautiful birds in formation. Experiencing this magic doesn’t ask much of you – just that you pay attention and surrender to it. You will be rewarded – it will stir you in ways that you can’t quite put into words. You don’t need to be posh to love it.
I can’t agree more — but how can we entice audiences, young or old, to venture to concert halls? That attending classical performances is prohibitively expensive has been dismissed — Andrew at The Passacaglia Test showed that opera tickets are far more reasonably priced than many other forms of entertainment (including sporting events and pop music concerts).
Perhaps what needs to happen to create interest in classical music is to program more works representative of the people we hope will fill the concert halls. It should not be a leap to consider that instead of more performances of the same music, ensembles should seek out new pieces, new composers, and new ideas to add to their repertoire. If, as Clark suggests, we should trust in the value of the music itself without trying to reinvent the concert experience by adding multimedia elements, then attract listeners by offering works that haven’t been so overly programed that they become a deterrent rather than a draw.
It seems as though many ensembles are taking note and working towards change – though, from my perspective, painfully slowly. In our look at the current repertoire of top US Orchestras for the 2015-2016 season (which was posted here) more ensembles have works programed by women than we typically see — though nine of the top twenty ensembles failed to program even one work by a woman composer, and none of the ensembles included works by historic women. It seems as though smaller ensembles are more willing — or, perhaps, feel compelled — to take more risks. In the 2014 Performance Grant cycle Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy was able to fund 32 ensembles from across the country who challenged themselves, and their audiences, to experience something new. And though it may be a challenge at first to learn new repertoire, or sell the idea of non-traditional programming to a Board of Directors or Artistic Administrators, the benefits of a more diverse, engaged, and enthusiastic audience outweigh the risks of not pleasing a handful of subscribers.