Younger fans' cheers show symphony a road to the future Still, 'Dance Mix' was a costly success that's hard to follow

April 24, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony's "Dance Mix" concert earlier this month did not achieve the BSO's salvation, but it took a step toward addressing some fundamental issues faced by orchestras.

In the "Dance Mix" program, music director David Zinman -- purportedly in the hope of attracting an audience mostly under 30 -- presented 12 short, rhythmically driven pieces rooted in the pop music idioms of baby-boom and post-baby-boom America.

Skeptics suspected the "Dance Mix" program, performed only once in public, was an excuse to prepare the orchestra for sessions in the succeeding two days to record the pieces for the Argo label. But the concert suggested there is indeed a potential audience much younger than the one that usually attends BSO events.

The average age of the typical BSO audience is about 55. It's an audience that sometimes rustles restlessly through performances, and when performances conclude, often stops applauding before artists are completely off the stage. The average age of the 1,700 or so people who attended the "Dance Mix" -- so named because Zinman modeled it on the way dance club DJs weave several tunes continuously into a single fabric -- was about 25. It was an audience that listened silently and responded to pieces it liked with sustained and unrestrained cheering.

This thrilled the BSO's management. Orchestras periodically need to reinvent themselves, and some of the things that excited BSO audiences several years ago -- such as a new concert hall and a new conductor -- long ago ceased to be novelties.

Like orchestras everywhere, the BSO worries about shrinking and aging audiences. In fact, American orchestras -- including the BSO -- are playing to larger audiences. The reason the audience seems to be shrinking (on some nights, Meyerhoff Hall is only about two-thirds filled) is that orchestras give more concerts than ever. The size of the audience simply can't keep pace.

Moreover, audiences for orchestral music have always tended to consist of older people. Such folks -- those whose children are grown and living away from home, and those who may be retired -- are most likely to have the leisure to subscribe to symphony concerts.

But this has never kept the classical music business from lusting after what jingles in the pockets of the young -- and sometimes going to absurd lengths to get it. There were the ridiculous ads for classical records in the 1960s that described composers like Berlioz and Liszt as if they were the equivalent of the sex 'n' drugs frontiersmen of the Age of Aquarius. And in the 1970s, orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic marketed "rug concerts," in which seats in Philharmonic Hall were removed and younger people -- at reduced prices -- were invited to sit on the floor and listen to the groovy sounds of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and John Cage conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Audiences in the 1980s experienced yet more attempts to change the concert format -- efforts that included the BSO's "Discovery Concerts" of new music and its "Casual Concerts" on Saturday mornings. None of these innovations seems to have changed the late-middle-aged constituency that supports orchestras when they perform their core repertories.

One suspects the "Dance Mix" concert will be no more effective than earlier efforts.

This is not to say that it wasn't a terrific concert. The living composers represented -- many of whom were there to talk about their pieces -- read like a Who's Who of younger composers. And there's no question the audience had what Zinman, in an earlier interview, called "a sense of ownership" about the concert.

Most of the composers were young enough to have grown up listening to much of the pop music the audience knew; some of them -- such as Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty -- had themselves played in rock bands. What the concert probably told the audience is that contemporary classical music is not as far removed from music they already love as they may have thought.

And this was an audience with taste. The two most enthusiastically applauded pieces were the best: Rouse's "Bonham," a tribute to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham that was an endlessly inventive, rock-driven study in perpetual motion for eight percussionists; and, Aaron Jay Kernis' "New Era Dance," a frenetic pop-inflected etude for full orchestra that characterized life in New York today as colorfully as George Gershwin memorialized a visit to Paris 70 years ago.

But even if the audience were willing to come to another concert of this kind, such a concert is not likely to be repeated any time soon.

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