OMG. A surfeit of thinkpieces on the late, lamented near-death of classical music clutter the endless tubes of the interwebs and here’s another one. What’s a youngish lad interested in turning new listeners on to the ecstasies of classical music to make of this rattle and din? (Perhaps he forgoes them all, watches some Ben Zander videos, reads some Greg Sandow, then assembles this, this, and even this?)
And whither the role of institutions in this climate; is there another American city with a cultural scene more dominated by stalwart, venerable institutions than Boston? We’re home to not only the nation’s oldest (continually performing) performing arts organization, but a bevy of other outlets who not only perform, but count their tenure, in scores. It’s fascinating to consider how these large, storied behemoths in culturally-conservative-yet-tech-savvy Boston cope (or flat-out choose not to cope) with the demands of cultural sustenance particular to the 21st century.
To this end, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose first concert was held during the rip-roarin’ reign of Chester “The Walrus” Arthur, has undertaken “Casual Fridays,” a venture aimed in part at Solving The Grand Dilemma of Modern Classical Music Presentation: how does a large orchestra maintain its essence—more than likely hopelessly embedded within a 19th century, Eurocentric model of cultural presentation–and still, somehow, appeal to a younger demographic who didn’t grow up (shoutout to you, arts education cuts!) with an ingrained assumption that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are inherently and unabashedly good for you, and worthy of your time, attention, and most importantly, ducats?
By piggybacking off of the now-common practice of companies allowing employees to ‘dress down’ on Fridays, the BSO makes its appeal on the level of lifestyle: encourage youngish patrons (40 appears to be the cutoff) to come to Symphony Hall straight from work (what, no showers or changes of cravat?), reduce ticket prices, throw in a pre-concert reception with plentiful free drinks, free food, and a post-concert shindig with even more booze, even more food, and live music. (Did I mention drinks?) Further, muck around a bit with the performance ritual itself by including an irreverent pre-concert talk by a young, engaging member of the orchestra, offer a specially designated seating area equipped with video screens livestreaming the orchestra’s view of the conductor, and supply access to cool, enhanced technology in the form of iPads pre-loaded with biographical videos and scores. Oh, the kids will love it!
Such efforts, one supposes, are admirable—if, let’s be honest, a somewhat fogeyed attempt to combat fogeyism—and the BSO’s marketing arm was successful in creating sufficient buzz in Boston’s arts community to the degree that “What did you think of Casual Fridays?” was a common refrain of artsy cocktail parties this past weekend.
Most youngerish attendees I spoke with rated the venture a mixed bag, based on the fact that the tech (specifically, the iPad add-ons, seemingly a central component of the experiment) was too unwieldy to implement. This futziness has to do not with the content of the tech itself, but with the logistics of how one experiences a concert. As BSO communicator Kim Noltemy stated, “We’d prefer people watch the iPad podcasts before the concert and during the pre-concert reception. But, as you can imagine, we have no control over that.”
Which leads to the obvious question: why would the BSO hold a pre-concert reception aimed at courting young people, and yet simultaneously hope these same young people skip the reception to watch some videos? I understand the artistic wing and the marketing wing of large institutions at times operate as entirely separate entities, and yet it seems to me that regardless of its size, an institution “having control” over its own artistic product (which includes conceptual experiments well-funded enough to garner radio buzz) is crucially important. If you want certain members of your audience to view something because you see it as part of an essential aesthetic whole, put them in a room and make them view it, rather than hope they’ll (maybe, if the beer line is too long) view it. Otherwise, the experiment feels like an optional throwaway.
Case in point. Prior to the start of the music, my date and I wandered around the storied corridors of Symphony Hall, peering at dated photos of the orchestra and its series of conductors. This is, after all, a rare and magical building, redolent of an earlier age and Boston’s rich musical history. Even having been to Symphony Hall countless times, one stands in awe in this setting. And thus, when exploring Symphony Hall is an option (never mind the numerous, chatty reception rooms crammed with food and drink), the idea that one would instead choose to sit in a slightly cramped chair to watch videos seems odd. By the time we made our way to our seats, the concert was set to begin and there wasn’t time to fuss around with our iPads, unless we wanted to watch videos during the performance, and who does that? (The intermission between the two pieces was also too brief to accomplish this.) I did, however, follow along a bit with the orchestral scores provided on the iPads. (This idea is nothing new, given that reserved sections for score readers have been a longstanding fixture at many opera houses. I suppose it was neat to have instantaneous access to them.) And I’ll admit that this sudden imposition of personal solitude to view the extra content, given the general hubbub of the hall, may have worked for some more introverted folks—I witnessed a literal handful sitting dutifully staring at screens prior to the start of the concert—but it seemed logistically wonky to me. [Readers can perhaps decide about the content itself after viewing an example here.]
After the final notes of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the hordes filed out toward another noisy, packed reception room featuring long bar lines, gobs of decadent food, and an eager (if cloyingly perfunctory) college-aged jazz band, hardly an optimal setting for a consideration of musicological videos created for a concert already concluded. (If the videos were offered online as well, I spotted no mention of how to access them.)
I canvassed the room. One audience member confessed that sitting in the tech section (we might as well call them “tweet seats,” although TBH the evening was not mentioned at all except for this retweet of someone else’s content by the BSO’s Twitter feed, which itself seems odd) “felt like attending a birthday party thrown by your trying-a-bit-too-hard-to-be-cool Uncle.” Another offered, “We’re immersed in tech all day long, and attending an orchestral concert allows for some time away from that. Why would we come to Symphony Hall to stare at an iPad?”
All of that said! There were cool parts too last Friday! Bass trombonist James Markey’s words from the stage did in fact provide a refreshing departure from standard buttoned-down concert ritual. Markey’s admonishment that hearing recorded music versus attending a live concert was akin to “the difference between watching a romantic movie and actually being in love,” elicited a hearty roar of support from the crowd. And yet, is this not the crucial issue at hand?
The ritual of symphonic performance we often accept as immutable is hardly so; it emerged during a time when “hearing music” literally meant “hearing live music.” But those days are long past. Who’s to say the experience of listening to music allowed by a decent home stereo or headphone set-up (either of which allow the possibility of “rewinding” for extra-curious listeners), adorned with the comforts and spaciousness of home, or, for that matter, the ability to make otherwise dreary subway rides an exhilarating, personal cultural experience, are somehow inherently aesthetically deficient when compared with the experience of attending a live concert? (I recall a recent poignant aesthetic experience of walking around midtown Manhattan set to John Adams; the brutal, steel angles of the architecture felt a perfect match for the cool, pulsating sheen and distance of the sound.) A fuller discussion of this quandary exceeds the boundaries of this piece–and forgive the Devil’s advocate role I’m admittedly taking on here–but no less a musical authority than Glenn Gould famously found the confines of the concert hall inherently limiting as compared with the possibilities afforded by recorded sound.
I offer these thoughts not necessarily to take a side—truly, I also cherish the experience of “being in a room” for live music, although I’ll submit that I’ve experienced as many ecstatic artistic riches in the Boston area’s dingy pubs and breweries (for the admission price of zero dollars) as I have in its concert halls—but to explicitly acknowledge that the challenges faced by orchestras are far more complex than the simplistic panacea that all that needs to be done is “turning young people on to classical music.” There are, in fact, many young people who happen to already be fans of classical music (amongst other types of music) who, for reasons of budget or lifestyle, simply don’t attend many live concerts of classical music, unless, perhaps, there’s something really unusual offered in the manner of presentation. (Or, might I add, don’t adhere to a subscription model of programming which will almost certainly be extinct in twenty years.) Place matters. Vibe matters. I’m reminded of the national buzz surrounding the New York Philharmonic’s performances at the gigantic Park Avenue Armory, in which the musicians surround the audience in 360 degree panorama, or how a modern-music outfit like Bang On A Can used Mass MoCA as a roving concert hall. Or Sō Percussion. (The minute the BSO mounts a concert, say, underneath the Zakim Bridge, I’ll be the first to direct the posse to the ticket office.)
I also found (as did others) the experience of watching conductor François-Xavier Roth’s facial expressions on one of two large video screens unusual and surprisingly engaging. Conducting sans baton, Roth employed an effusive ebullience, shaping the music with a deft gestural specificity. Alternating between impish harlequin and grimacing ogre in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Roth’s smirking mug made for captivating viewing. (He shares this appealing physicality with BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons.) In its rich orchestration and shimmering tapestries of sound, Petrushka is already so visually evocative—“like sound paintings or pictures for your ears,” as Markey described–and thus watching a conductor’s face literally breathe life into the music added an extra dimension. (One wonders whether there’s more artistic potential to be mined via this relatively simple use of technology? Perhaps video artists could create real-time visualizations of the music? This work was initially a ballet, so a precedent for adding visual elements is entirely compatible with its genesis.)
I suppose what I’m getting at is this: using tech as part of the art will most likely ultimately produce more youngish fans of classical music for the BSO than will using tech as part of a marketing gambit. And yet, that will require some very real artistic risks undertaken by the BSO, who remain without question one of the finest assemblages of dedicated music makers in the nation.
Oh yes. The music. You’ll notice I’ve barely mentioned it. As usual, the orchestra played beautifully—I could single out the sterling contributions of Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs, whose rendition of the infamously knotty trumpet solo from Petrushka was cleaner and crisper than I’ve ever heard it played, or the compelling, conversational artistry of BSO Principle Flutist Elizabeth Rowe and BSO Harpist Jessica Zhou in the (elegant but somewhat snoozy) Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp, K.299—but this is really a piece about the present and future of classical music amongst the youngins’, amirite?
Look. We ought to assume that youngish audiences love music, and also, that they know a great deal about music. And though we might ultimately want them as patrons of classical music, we shouldn’t patronize them by treating their presence in the musical ecology like some accident we must unfortunately maneuver around. We all acknowledge by now, I should hope, that the cultural separators that once clearly differentiated high from low art are on life support, and in some cases for good reason. To youngerish audiences, a(nother) recorded cycle of Beethoven symphonies is not inherently better than the latest Björk record! (This past week, David Bowie was mourned not as a mere “pop musician,” but as an inspirational artist who changed the culture and the conversation about expression, much as Stravinsky did a hundred years ago.) Perhaps ‘classical music’ doesn’t need saving and it doesn’t need solving; it’s merely part of a new culture in which bold creative risks are rewarded. I mean, it’s already beautiful, and it’s like, SO TOTALLY NOT DEAD.
Jason McCool holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music in jazz trumpet performance and the University of Maryland in historical musicology. Formerly a music professor and arts reviewer in Washington DC, he currently is a doctoral student at BU in historical musicology.
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BSO’s Chief Operating and Communications Officer Kim Noltemy Talks with BMInt
How will you reach new audiences with this promotion?
We are doing a lot of social media, digital marketing, and grassroots marketing to young professionals groups and places where many young people work. We also send email blasts to lists specifically targeting a younger arts attendees.
Do younger listeners need more distractions? How interactive will the tablets be? In other words, can we choose from a menu of options?
Having the iPad available hopefully will keep people from using their phones, but who knows? We have the iPads set so people can click on one of three icons (and there is no wifi in the hall, so everything is loaded on the iPad). The three icons are podcasts, iBooks, and survey. The survey will not be active until the end of the concert. There are 11 short video podcasts, and in the iBooks we have the music scores and a PDF of the program book.
Cheaper is good for young audiences, but what makes this more accessible other than the encouragement to dress down?
I think the social components, with the pre- and post-concert receptions, make it appealing to a younger audience new to the BSO. There is also a group from Berklee performing in Higginson Hall after the concert. The shorter length concert with no intermission is another selling point. Finally, musicians speaking from the stage is something that is appealing to younger audiences (and many others).
Has the BSO ever had a dress code?
I imagine there was once one, but there has not been a dress code since I have worked here (starting 1996).
Is there a crisis in attendance? I gather sales by subscription are down, but one does not see a lot of empty seats.
In general, sales have been pretty strong between 80-90% net capacity attendance for most concerts. Friday nights have been very challenging for us to sell. So this seemed like a good night to try this new format.
Haven’t symphony audiences always averaged around 60?
As a result of the $20 ticket program for people who are younger than 40 and College Cards, plus a host of marketing activities over the past 10 years designed to attract Generation Xers and Millennials, our average age is 47 at this point. It starting dropping about 10-12 years ago.
Are the free orchestra concerts at NEC hurting BSO attendance?
I would say that in general the competition for classical audiences has increased in Boston, but that’s a positive because I think more people are attending classical concerts in general. Our attendance has been pretty steady if you take out extreme weather situations (last January and February).
Remind us about some of the other recent marketing experiments. I remember fashion shows and midnight movies. In the distant past there were sports exhibitions and auto shows.
Here is a list of some of the events and projects we have done over the years:
Three years of Fashion Events centered around Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, themed dinners with music (Spanish theme, French theme etc.), free post-concert receptions (one per week), Insights Series events, BSO101s, podcast series for the BSO, Online Conservatory (in Partnership with Northeastern) for designated programs, Classical Companion (online content for designated programs), Young Professionals Series, and the BSO App.
Will the regular audience be annoyed by the video screens and ipads? Will cameramen be crawling about the stage? Should I bring a selfie stick?
I am hoping that we set up the technology area in such a way that it will be unobtrusive to the rest of the audience due to the location and the relatively small size of it. I am sure we will hear from some of our regular patrons if that is not the case. No camera men will be moving around on stage, and please no selfie sticks (do you really have one?).
How do you determine whether this works?
After each concert, we will survey attendees to get their feedback. We will put all that information together at the end of the series and analyze it.
What can you tell us about improvements to the BSO web presence? The Media Center is a bit awkward to use- and it doesn’t always work on Firefox—even two years in.
We are planning to streamline the media center this year. When it was conceived our media focus was different and we need to update it to reflect our current focus. Every year we do some website upgrades, and try to make improvements to the general site. We take all feedback that we receive very seriously.
And perhaps your greatest recent marketing accomplishment is ending the empty seat drop by installing springs.
I cannot take credit for that, but I did complain about it a lot, so maybe that helped.