*Disclaimer: In the following paragraphs, conclusions will be formed based on anecdotal evidence. Not statistics or audience polling, but the wholly unscientific method of looking around a concert hall and seeing what’s what. This is not the proper way to measure the health of an art form—this is speculation. Readers beware.
The desire to capture a youthful audience is the strongest trope in today’s classical music scene. Nobody really knows how to do it. Organizations throw everything they can at the under-40 crowd and hope some of it sticks. When an event attracts that ideal mix of hip-and-not-graying and older-but-not-coughing-horribly it’s a success, but most of the time nobody really knows why. A perfect cocktail of marketing, attractive programming, critical build-up, and engaging performers theoretically should do the job, but about half the time it doesn’t.
So I decided to see how Berlin, versus New York and Chicago, got it done. It’s a given that the classical audience here is a completely different beast from that in America. One of the most elusive American demographics (and one which orchestras tend to forget about) is the middle-agers (I use that term loosely), the 35-to-55 crowd who are too young to have grown up with Leonard Bernstein on television but too old have learned about Nico Muhly through Björk or Messiaen through Radiohead. In Germany, that’s not a problem—most audiences are equally divided among the various over-35 age groups, younger parents mixed in with the elderly. That’s probably a combination of their educational system with the deep sense in which classical music is ingrained in their culture; here, it’s just as natural for adults to attend the symphony as it is for adults to attend an art museum in the U.S.
And, generally, young people turn out for the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s an especially large surplus of the 25-35 crowd who dress well and seem culturally refined, more like the breakdown of the Met Opera than the New York Phil (the Staatsoper audience, based on the two performances I attended in their main theater, seems to skew older).
So the attempts to capture a young audience in special events don’t smack of as much desperation as they do in the States. One of my complaints about the CONTACT! concert I attended in New York last season was that it seemed like the Philharmonic was trying a bit too hard, going down a checklist to make sure they had done everything they could to create “buzz.” Live-tweeting, as Timothy Andres noted recently, is a silly thing to encourage. The event felt mostly self-congratulatory, a gathering of insiders who were glad to see that the audience was so young and so filled with insiders.* The model has changed in New York, for the better: Le Poisson Rouge, Q2, New Amersterdam Records, and the smart programmers at Lincoln Center and Carnegie have created a new, better classical scene. But it’s still a learning process, and most successful events seem particularly engineered for success, carefully planned so that every ingredient will yield a fresh-faced audience.
If the same was done for the Yellow Lounge I attended a couple weeks ago, it was not nearly as obvious. Deutsche Grammophon has been producing these concerts once a month for a couple years, in an attempt to combine nightlife and classical cultures. It’s a different approach from Le Poisson Rouge—each event takes place in a hip Berlin club and features a classical performer along with a DJ who messes around with classical music. Advertising seems almost nonexistent. I didn’t see a single mention of a Yellow Lounge among the deluge of classical posters which fill every Berlin subway stop (a feat unto itself) and only found out about the event through its website. And it wasn’t exactly easy to get to—it took almost an hour of wandering in Friedrichshain to find Berghain, the warehouse-turned-club which hosted countertenor Andreas Scholl and DJs Canisius & Terrible.
And then I saw the massive line of people out the door. Hundreds *anecdotal alert!* lined up to get in at 6 Euros a head. The audience was not just peppered with young people; it was almost exclusively 35-and-under, identical to the average Berlin clubbing crowd. These were people who queued every weekend at the Berghain to dance. It was astounding to see.
So, in all of these ventures, what marks success? That is, beyond the inherent artistic success—good music performed well. The most basic way of measuring the achievement of any concert is how well it fills the hall. But the goal for these events, theoretically, is also to attract a new kind of audience. So then the Casual Concert was probably not a complete success, assuming that their goal goes beyond just making a concert more casual (which would be an awfully modest objective). The crowd who went to the afterparty at 40seconds (with music provided by a brass quintet from the DSO) was on the older side, for the most part indistinguishable from everyone I’ve seen at the Philharmonie in the past month.
And then the larger goal is to sustain that new audience in the future. It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: hook the young crowd on the Yellow Lounge and the casual concert and hope they start coming to the Philharmonie to see some Brahms.
There’s also the idea that these concerts are valuable in their own right. Assuming that classical music is something inherently good that will improve everyone’s lives, it is worthwhile to get a few hundred people to hear some of it for one night. So if the Yellow Lounges don’t necessarily hook people on classical music, at least they give them an enjoyable evening—not a sustainable growth, but a worthy effort.
What is great, and what is measurable about all these concerts, is that they themselves mark the shift in the paradigm. That they exist and that they are well-attended means that the big institutions are awake and care. Hardly anyone anymore (besides maybe Riccardo Muti) is arguing that, in terms of classical music, “If you build it, they will come.” There is nothing inherent about classical music that will continuously renew its audience: you must bring the mountain to Mohammad.
*Weirdly enough, I wrote this post before reading Anthony Tommasini’s review of this season’s first CONTACT!, which glosses on some of these issues.