IN: News & Features

Will Symphonies Survive?

by

 Jared Hackworth

What barriers bar the uninitiated from classical concerts? Could the BSO maintain its Big Five prestige and remain accessible to new audiences? To investigate, I attended all three of the BSO’s January concerts: a sold-out presentation of León, Ravel, and Stravinsky; a concert production of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mitsensk District; and a “Casual Friday” concert of Stravinsky. I found dwindling audiences entirely enraptured by the music of one of the world’s best orchestras.

Covid had placed performing arts in freefall. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said this week that “For most people, the pandemic is over. For arts institutions, we’re still in it,” reporting the need to “withdraw $40 million in additional emergency funds” due to a capacity rate of around “73%.” The New York Philharmonic’s audience is 62% over 55. During the pandemic, these attendance rates plummeted—in 2019, the Pittsburgh Symphony sold around 70% of tickets; in 2022, that fell to 37%. The Cleveland Orchestra still hovered between 54% sales in the fall of 2022 and 67% in 2023. These data suggest that not only are classical music audiences often older, but they are also, in large numbers, not returning to the concert hall after Covid.

The BSO’s attendance tells a similar story of recovery from Covid; while not providing 2019 data, they have seen a 45% rebound in attendance from 2021 to 2023. Concerts with big-name soloists tend to sell very well, with recent full houses for established stars like Yo-Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn, and Seong-Jin Cho, and emerging performers like Yunchan Lim, who sold out four houses at Symphony Hall this month. The audience is getting younger, lowering to an average age of 50.5—6% below 2019 pre-covid numbers.

Orchestras in the U.S. fall into two tiers: “The Big Five” (Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York) and everyone else. The “everyone else” orchestras are scrappier, with part-time staff and players who usually teach at nearby colleges and have other performance gigs. These orchestras are constantly innovating, seeing what sticks, and are often unable to secure A-list soloists. The Baltimore Symphony has a lauded after-school initiative, which as of 2018 had over 1300 students; Kentucky’s Louisville Symphony is committed to performing in free outdoor venues and commissioning new music. The BSO still has discounted tickets; I am a BSO subscriber through one of its access programs, a College Card that is $30 a year for unlimited concerts. But the BSO, like many of The Big Five, sees its work as prestigious and international. It sees itself as the upright beacon of the tradition, not the watered-down introduction to it.

***

Boston’s 2,625-seat symphony hall was packed at the first concert I attended: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The widely believed reports that a riot broke out at the first performance may well be urban legend, but there was still a heated reaction to the arrival of this avant-garde work. When the BSO performed the piece in the 1950s, over 200 ticket buyers stormed out of the hall, demanding refunds and protesting what they heard—a 30-minute, polytonal, often dissonant ballet score with staggering rhythms and clashing notes. That the choreography depicted village elders choosing a young virgin woman to dance herself to death in a fertility rite only intensified the outrage. And Stravinsky could still provoke a near riot at Symphony Hall in 1982 when the orchestra canceled infamous subscription concerts of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Actress Vanessa Redgrave’s support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasir Arafat  provoked internal angst, and external threats of protesters interrupting the concert.

For my Rite Music Director Andris Nelsons chose a slower-than-standard tempo, allowing the piece to breathe. The opening, a lone bassoon solo, danced with lyrical beauty, softly reverberating and lilting, while the rest of the orchestra waited, seemingly in breathless anticipation. Suddenly, the entire ensemble entered, and with Stravinsky’s calling card of surprising string accents matched in wailing brass, the audience experienced the expertly crafted havoc—Stravinsky’s controlled lack of order and harmony—that could inspire riots.

***

Symphonic music is enveloped by years of murky traditions, a cultural heritage it seems unwilling to let go of. Why can’t we clap between movements without being shushed by a neighbor? Are there official dress codes and technical languages?

I was incubated thoroughly within these customs in a middle school band room in the early 2000s. My mom was a music educator who had worked all over the state of Ohio. Every time my sister and I were sick, we didn’t stay home but instead set up shop in my mom’s office, waiting through the rehearsal, hearing “Hot Cross Buns” on repeat with a squeaking clarinet and the drummers who learned “Heart and Soul” from a YouTube video. On the other hand, my dad was the type of musician I wanted to emulate—a hobbyist. He’s been in some kind of band or another my whole life, usually on the drum set. Music was an integrated part of our family’s life. Technical terms like meter, triplets, time signature, and crescendo weren’t a special language to me growing up; they were just a part of my language.    

Going to classical concerts has never felt like a tedious chore. Instead, it’s been engaging, restful practice. It’s fun to see where the viola soloist shines, to give my mom a knowing look when the trombones are coming up, and to look for our favorite alternate cello while the orchestra is coming on stage. When I perform, I get excited when there is applause at the wrong time. When someone does something “wrong,” it means new people are coming to share in this experience alongside us nerds.

***

I decided to test my theory by bringing along the relatively uninitiated—a motley crew of three friends who had never attended an opera to Shostakovich’s 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I texted them on the morning of the concert to be ready for a long sit—at three hours and 45 minutes, the piece seems to hardly be for a first timer. One responded frantically, “How long is this concert?”, but overall they all seemed willing to take the experiment at face value. On the car ride to the concert, one said, “I hope I don’t clap at the wrong time,” and another responded, “I always look to Jared or one of the older people sitting near me before I clap.”   

The slow trickle to the stage began with a chorus in concert black also joining the ranks. As tuning began, I looked around the hall. Again, just like the Stravinsky concert, the audience looked to be primarily over 50. Yet it was far from the packed capacity house the previous week. One observed whole rows of empty seats in the back half of the auditorium, and this program only had two performances instead of Stravinsky’s three. Before I could continue observing the crowd, the lights dimmed, applause broke out, and the soloists entered with Nelsons.     

The orchestra let everything break loose, with 122 instrumentalists, 112 choristers, and 19 soloists. While the opera was full of many tremendous moments, two stood out: first, the scene in which Katerina and Sergei have sex for the first time. The music hit like a carnival, with striking cadences and off-kilter beats that made the piece feel like the room was shaking. Act Two’s Passacaglia, a type of song structure with a strong base line originating from 17th century Spain, was the symphonic highlight of the evening. Building as a repeated scale but slipping between major and minor, the piece packed an emotional wallop because of the players’ precision. The bass led into the brass resplendently and cascaded down together, reflecting Katerina’s descent into hell.

Afterward, in addition to appreciating the sonic brilliance, the drag-along friends could not stop talking: “It felt like binging a Netflix miniseries” and “It was so good—I never thought I’d like the opera!” The work itself played into comedy—when Sergei tries to sneak into Katerina’s room, his excuse is to borrow a book, to which she exclaims, “I can’t read!” and adds that her husband can but chooses not to, causing the auditorium to break out in laughter. Later, when Katerina murders her father-in-law, she explains herself to the police by claiming that he ate mushrooms at night and “everyone knows how that goes.” The officials agree, causing another burst of laughter.  

This gave me a taste of what the classical music world would be like if more people saw it for what it could be—fun—and not as intimidating high-brow drudgery.

***

The “Casual Friday” concert featuring Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and León’s Stride felt markedly different—the last 15 rows had been roped off for general admission views of the “conductor cams,” a live stream of Nelsons’s face from an angle the audience normally cannot see. All performers wore simple concert black, with no tuxedos or tails in sight. The hall was the emptiest it had been of the three concerts, with visible pockets of empty rows and seats, probably only about 60% full. But that audience was the most youthful of the three I had attended, consisting of young couples out for a date, parents with kids they brought for the first time, college friend groups, and young professionals. Despite this energy and optimism, the 40% of empty seats told another story of an unengaged Boston community which can’t imagine that this art form is for them; they would not have bothered to discover that tickets aren’t  expensive.

Nelsons nevertheless led a rousing performance of The Rite of Spring, polished to perfection, with striking engagement.

Throughout this third show I thought of all the new concertgoers I have initiated over the years who have been shocked that they enjoyed it—young people who have fallen in love and become enthusiasts as they attend more and more concerts. What more can the BSO do reach new audiences? This is a question that has been asked for 100 years. And hopefully it will continue to be asked for another 100 years. The music will always be there, and I hope that future generations feel welcome within it.

Jared Hackworth is an English graduate student at Boston College and a proud choral musician in the Back Bay Chorale. He studies the interconnections between cities, the arts, and humanities, and works with The School of The New York Times.
 

11 Comments »

11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you, Jared, for your spot-on observations and initiative in dragging along those friends! I hope to hear more such adventures from you. I was at the sparsely attended open dress rehearsal of the Shostakovich opera because that night worked better for me, and I became immersed immediately, then impressed, then overwhelmed with the orchestration and singing. Like you, I grew up with musical vocabulary and get to the BSO whenever I can possibly do so!

    Comment by Priscilla Williams — February 27, 2024 at 6:08 pm

  2. It may seem silly but I would ditch the formal wear. When the conductor feels free to wear what they want why can’t the players? And, horror of horrors, I would hang big screens showing the orchestra up close, the way it is done on the streaming channel. Above all, the BSO should be shown live on WGBH on Saturday night

    Comment by Rich Carle — February 27, 2024 at 6:35 pm

  3. Thank you Jared for such an appreciative and knowledgeable article. It brought back so many memories of when I started going to the BSO with my grandparents 77 years ago. I’ve never lived more than 25 miles from Boston, and I’ve never lived away from the BSO for more than a few years when I was totally immersed in chamber music.

    My wife Elizabeth and I have our favorite seats, which I won’t divulge–it’s like having a favorite parking space you’re afraid of telling people about. But I will say that this is where Bartok sat for the acoustics at the first performance of his Concerto for Orchestra. The performance of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve experienced in the Hall since my first concert in R J11 as a child.

    I feel that the BSO is doing an exceptional job in expanding its audience. More the pity that other less endowed orchestras don’t have this centuries long support and an endowment.

    Ron Goodman

    Comment by Ron Goodman — February 27, 2024 at 8:08 pm

  4. More of the “What ails Classical Music” genre Feb. 27th, 2024 installment. I will wait for someone to stage Lady MacBeth. “White Tie is the HIGHEST level of formality–a tuxedo is almost Going Casual so interesting point. But there has been much less of an opportunity to find/”bump into” Classical” for younger people let alone anyone nowadays. I was very fortunate to have had a large FM Radio “dial” available 60 years ago here and I remember when the Classical FM outlets (plus the days when we had TWO AM available (740 & 1330) before the onslaught of Rock took over the Boston Classical Network (now you know where wBCN came from!) and Classical was largely gone by the end of 1968 (OK the loss of 102.5FM is where a big chunk of BSO endowment came from I think!) Odyssey’s Poe opera is now almost entirely sold out but there is only one performance; I better check on BLO now! Culture varies and Boston has more culture per capita than New York; Boston is where Ben Zander’sMahler Eighth WAS being scalped. Now on to taking on Eurydice…

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 28, 2024 at 1:42 am

  5. Let’s not talk about “The Big Five” any longer. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has eclipsed most of the old-timers artistically and certainly in terms of income and community support. We need to include San Francisco as well.

    Comment by Clara — February 28, 2024 at 12:26 pm

  6. Thank you for your thoughtful article Jared. Addressing the topic: Symphonies and classical music will endure. But in what form? That is for the future to decide.

    A great American once said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” And, you, Jared, are doing just that to build upon the future of Classical Music by bringing your young friends to experience Opera and the Symphony.

    And, for that, we thank you Jared.

    Comment by Guest Conductor — February 28, 2024 at 1:20 pm

  7. I agree with Rich Carle’s comment that regular live broadcasts (or streams) would be useful, but beyond that, an orchestra like the BSO would do well to make much more use of performance video on all sorts of platforms, including even the likes of TikTok.

    The NBA discovered years ago that their product thrives when their content is freely and widely available on social media platforms, etc. (If I read an NBA game recap, I can almost instantly find relevant highlights. If I read a concert review, I have not much hope of seeing/hearing for myself what the reviewer heard.) It attracts interest to the product. In the case of the NBA, it’s not always clear if that translates into ticket sales or viewers of games on commercial TV or cable, but it definitely raises the profile of the game, which also raises sales of merchandise and the like. At any rate, I trust that those in charge of these billion-dollar entities are not just letting free video show up everywhere if it’s not helping them. (Of course, “free” in this context usually involves exposure to advertising, but access is still pretty frictionless.)

    And whereas one could make a compelling argument that it’s more enjoyable to watch a Celtics game on TV than in person, few would argue that a livestreamed broadcast would match the thrill of hearing a live concert in Symphony Hall. I think more (much, much more) free video content would lead to more people being interested to be there in those seats hearing the real thing. As it stands, it doesn’t seem that BSO marketing is effectively much different than it was decades ago (“come hear these famous composers and this famous soloist and enjoy this colorful still photo”), even though multimedia possibilities have increased tremendously.

    Obviously, the biggest obstacles (very big!) have to do with unions and copyright and other limits on what can be filmed and shown. Especially for new music, it’s probably very difficult for the BSO to put out rehearsal clips of copyrighted music. And yet, if the grim Facebook ads with meaningless canned drivel (“don’t miss this inspiring performance!”) were replaced with enticing clips of real music-making that teased the viewer – I think this would do so much more to attract interested parties.

    Because of these major obstacles, I have no practical suggestion for how this could be done, but I feel sure that the availability of much more video (excerpts and full performances) would be about the most effective way of making people think, “I want to be there for that.”

    Comment by Michael Monroe — February 28, 2024 at 1:25 pm

  8. It is quite wrong to refer to Stravinsky’s Rite as atonal. It is dissonant; it probably makes greater use of dissonance than any major work before it. But dissonance is not atonality. Indeed, the power of dissonance to shock depends on the presumption of consonance. In atonal music there is no such presumption, and consonance and dissonance are equals. The dissonance has been emancipated. In the Rite, dissonance is reckless, savage, powerful, but it is not free.

    Comment by SamW — February 28, 2024 at 6:09 pm

  9. SamW- Agreed and corrected.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 28, 2024 at 8:03 pm

  10. “The Big Five” (Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York) and everyone else. The “everyone else” orchestras are scrappier, with part-time staff and players who usually teach at nearby colleges and have other performance gigs”.
    Jared is ill-informed. Some would argue now there is The Big Seven (with San Francisco and Los Angeles included).Regardless, there are at least 12 2-nd tier orchestras. They are full-time, and the musicians don’t need to do free-lancing on a side. They don’t have a problem with getting the best soloists whatsoever. Then there are numerous regional orchestras with 35+ weeks of employment. And only then there are orchestras in smaller cities (40,000 or so) which perform once a month. They are “scrappier, with part-time staff and players who usually teach at nearby colleges and have other performance gigs”.
    “These orchestras [besides The Big Five]are often unable to secure A-list soloists”. Wrong again. Any soloist would perform with practically any orchestra if the fee is right.

    Comment by Greg Kuperstein — February 29, 2024 at 12:16 am

  11. Hackworth’s very strange take on US orchestras would have been objected to 50 and more years ago, and in fact was.

    SamW’s nice point may be slightly overstated, at least for most lay listeners, who correlate atonality with nearly nonstop dissonance. (I myself always find it helpful to think back to a term proposed by some music teachers in the 1960s which never caught on: atonical.)

    Some interesting links for those interested in details of Stravinsky’s methods:

    https://symposium.music.org/index.php/32/item/2094-harmonic-behavior-in-the-rite-of-spring
    https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/apr/12/rite-of-spring-rude-awakening

    Comment by David Moran — February 29, 2024 at 5:28 pm

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