Attention-getters can detract from music's mission

Critical Eye


As another season gets under way, you can count on vexed musicians, administrators and impresarios once again lamenting the decline in attendance and appreciation for classical music. You can also count on those folks to hatch more and more ideas aimed at reversing that decline.

The effort to snare new listeners -- especially younger listeners -- is obviously essential to the future of the art form.

Since most schools stopped caring about introducing students to classical music, or any of the arts, ages ago, it's not surprising that the under-30 crowd stays away in droves from symphony halls. It's not much different with the under-40s. Come to think of it, the under-50s aren't exactly packing high-art temples, either.

It's fascinating to watch all the stuff being tried out to woo new ticket-buyers.

Cocktails figure prominently in this. (If recreational drugs are ever legalized, things could get really interesting.) Our own Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Symphony with a Twist series, for example, features martini bars dotting the lobby.

Former BSO music director David Zinman has gone all out in the hipster direction at his Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, offering concerts that don't even start until 10 p.m. Afterward, the audience is treated to an array of enticements -- "Electro-Party, Dance Floor, Chill-Out Lounge, Bar" (as the ensemble's Web site describes it). The hall becomes, in essence, a new destination for late-night clubbers.

Some orchestras throw in free food (this presumably attracts every age group). Several bring in visual extras -- large video screens that show close-ups of the performers or project imagery related to the music being performed. The MTV generation, it is widely assumed, expects, even demands, as much activity for the eye as the ear.

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, faces this visual element in his new summer job as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the huge Hollywood Bowl, which seats 19,000. Several cameras are onstage to feed video screens with live shots of the action, just as at arena rock concerts.

"One of the changes I will make next year is to use them less for some pieces," Slatkin told me the other day. "The audience is now drawn to what is happening on camera, what the cameraman is doing, instead of what is happening on the stage."

Slatkin worries that people will lose the essential point of a classical concert -- the connection of music to listener. That connection was never supposed to be visual, at least not primarily, but emotional, intellectual, spiritual.

Spicing up concerts with bells and whistles may very well engage the short-attention-span set, but those folks may then expect the extras every time they enter a concert hall. And this could keep them essentially stuck in one kind of experience, patronizing only one kind of orchestral product.

That wouldn't matter as long as all the other products are doing well. But orchestras have been suffering mostly from lagging sales for the traditional, just-the-notes-ma'am subscription series, which play to an orchestra's base and usually do the most to shore up the finances.

With all of the attention being paid to folks who don't usually come into a concert hall, some organizations may be forgetting all about the people who do. After all, how many of those who turn out for martinis or dancing in the lobby or programs with rock stars will turn around and write the hefty checks every orchestra so badly needs?

"I think we're getting completely off-track," says Slatkin. "The audience for classical music has never been more than 3 or 4 percent of the population. Our job is to re-secure our base. We need to target that audience first. Once we do that, we can move out to other areas."

Theoretically, classical music can appeal to anyone. In actuality, it doesn't. "Should everybody come to a symphony concert? No. Not everybody goes to Shania Twain," Slatkin says. "Is it ephemeral? Yes. And this needs to be driven home."

There isn't anything very sexy about just plain classical music-making and -listening (that hasn't stopped classical musicians from taking suggestive promotional pictures of themselves, though). Unadorned concerts are not easily "branded," as marketing mavens would say.

But at some point, orchestras trying so hard to make people think that a classical concert is just like any other form of entertainment may develop the courage and the imaginative means to sell the truth: It's not.

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