Monday, November 22, 2010

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

*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 Bj√∂rk 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.

More astounding was the silence during Scholl’s tender, poetic renditions of songs by Dowland and Purcell as well as several English and Irish folk tunes. Placed on a stage in the middle of the club and sensitively accompanied by a pianist whose name I never caught, Scholl commanded the massive warehouse, receiving rapt attention. He made brief remarks between the songs which were informative but not condescending, treating the audience like peers and not pupils. In-between his two sets, the DJs spun a mix of classical hits—Brahms and Shostakovich symphonies, Beethoven piano trios. It was nice to hear a DJ for whom classical music meant the heavy classics, not just the Four Seasons and the Brandenburg Concerti.

My second alterna-concert was a bit more conventional. At the Philharmonie, the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin hosts three Casual Concerts per season, each a short program without intermission, followed by free admission to the nearby club 40seconds. The orchestra dresses down (which looks really tacky), tickets are cheap (10 Euro for students, 15 for general public), and seating is open. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a young audience. Last Thursday, the audience didn’t look all that different from the standard Philharmonie crowd, and the entire front orchestra section was filled with a graying, albeit casually dressed, group. Looking around and behind me, I saw a significant amount of young people, but not the youthful surprise of the Yellow Lounge.

Matthias Pintscher conducted the orchestra in his symphonic poem Osiris and Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnol as well as providing mini-lectures introducing each work. Inspired by the Egyptian legend as well as a Joseph Beuys sculpture, Osiris is a silvery sheen of unwinding melodies, a soliloquy of floating string eeriness punctuated by solo trumpet and contrabass clarinet gurgles. Though it sounds wholly modern, it relies on a fairly 19th-century concept: the solo trumpet represents Osiris, the strings his lover Isis, and the subterranean clarinet his jealous brother Set. We are not far from the character-based, programmatic music of Berlioz and Liszt. Each gesture is carefully composed and orchestrated, and the orchestra played with stunning clarity. Ravel’s Rhapsodie, written a century before Osiris, made a compelling companion work. Pintscher conducted with a broad, loving beat and the orchestra gave the shimmering score a gorgeously blended performance.

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.


  1. But what about....?

  2. Will,

    Why is it so hard for people to understand that classical music and opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity ? Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population.

    As an aside: the scientists who mapped the human genome say that 'aesthetic perception and sensitivity' is largely programmed in (genetic).

    In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through EXPOSURE... That sensitivity to music is almost like an aptitude, you either have it or you don't and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure.

  3. I agree with the last comment. Opera is never going to be of 'wide' appeal, and will always hold a special and niche market of fans. This is not to say the general public don't have any kind of interest in the arena though :)

  4. Thanks for your very interesting post. I myself was recently in Berlin, and I was struck not so much by a trendy youthful crowd at the Philharmonic, but a chic middle-aged crowd that tends to be lacking in American orchestras. I live in Chicago, and the typical Chicago Symphony audience is quite geriatric (though there's always a bus-load of students and some eccentric 20- and 30-somethings in the mix).

    There's one orchestra I've been to that really does buck this trend, however - the L.A. Philharmonic. I took in a concert of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony of all pieces, and the audience was a very diverse mix-up of ages and ethnicities. No doubt it's the Dudamel factor which accounts for it.

  5. I'm a student from London, and there are similar attempts to create the next generation of concert-goers happening here. In general, the most success seems to come from targeting students directly - specifically, offering an incentive like free alcohol and a cheap ticket. The LSO is very good at this, and they have the added bonus of convenience: you can buy tickets by sending them an SMS on your phone.

    In addition, I would say my friends and I enjoy contact with the players and conductors, which adds a slightly more human element to the experience. Once again, the LSO provide this to some extent through their facebook page, which includes tour blogs and photos and makes them a much more interactive entity than many orchestras.

    It is worth mentioning that everyone I go to concerts with has some musical training, and when someone brings a 'non-musical' friend, they seem intimidated by the whole experience, and aware of their ignorance of classical music. If more young people were well-educated in classical music, I am 100% convinced that more young people would be going to concerts.

    Finally, the 7.30pm timing of most concerts is very annoying. Later concerts would enable people to eat and get changed, not feel like they are in a rush, and is a more obvious prelude to an evening out.