Engaging the Audience

It is a fact of life that most organizations think of programming largely in terms of marketing. While almost all musical organizations have some desire to do interesting things, there is always a certain amount of pressure to focus on “getting an audience,” which usually equates to conservative programming.

After many years as a music director, who knows that if you don’t have an audience you don’t have an orchestra, I’ve had to face the simple mathematical truth that, more often than not, Beethoven sells more tickets than Schumann, and Schumann sells more tickets than Haydn, and Haydn sells more tickets than Bartok. With most of my groups, we can predict with some accuracy what percentage our audience will tail off from 100% by having one, two or three relatively unfamiliar pieces on a concert.

However, the problem with this outlook is that it only focuses on the experience and reactions of the audience up to the moment they enter the hall. Conservative programming is programming designed to get the public to come, but is it programming that gets them to come back?

Of course, there is a false dichotomy, which everyone is aware of- it is very, very possible to construct a creative, interesting and unique program that the audience will enjoy. The problem is getting them in the door to experience it.

Fair enough, but I think one of the fundamental weaknesses of modern classical institutions is that we have settled for a passive and passionless relationship with our audiences.

Several times this year, I’ve been deeply struck that when you are able to do something that really challenges the audience, they come away from the experience more engaged and MORE PASSIONATE about the orchestra or the ensemble then they would have been for just another predictably bland concert.

Along these lines, it was very encouraging to get to meet so many audience members after the Ensemble Epomeo concert at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Our program was certainly challenging

Krasa- Tanec for Trio

Hovhanness- String Trio (1963)

Klein- Variations on a Moravian Theme (from Trio 1944)

Schnittke- String Trio

Beethoven- Trio in C minor op 9 no 3

(Encore- Kodaly- Intermezzo)

We’d been warned it was a conservative crowd, but from the level of energy in the room at the recession, you’d have thought we were playing for a new music festival audience. People were engaged, fired up, talking about what the pieces meant, about what they had experienced. As often happens, we had people literally jump out of their chairs in spots of the Schnittke. After a first half that mostly dealt with dire questions of life and death, the Beethoven could also be heard as the ferocious, imposing and revelatory work it is, not as something safe and mild-mannered.

The same thing happened with the SMP recently did Ives 3 and Shostakovich Chamber Symphony alongside Schumann and Mozart for our usually conservative Guildford audience, or, for that matter, when we did the Fifth Prokofiev concerto. In both instances, attendance was off a bit from our usual sell-outs, but I think more people talked to their friends about those concerts than would have if we had had just done Mozart. It’s another form of math- if 75% of your public show up for the wacky program, but 90% of them tell their friends about the experience isn’t that going to be better in the long run than if the hall is 100% full, but only 20% of the audience remembers the evening as anything other than nice, or mention it to anyone else?

Of course, we’ve got to get people in the door- sometimes that means working harder, sometimes it means making conservative programs and just doing a great job. When I started at OES, the idea of the orchestra doing one new piece a season was anathema. It took some time and a few well-chose bits of more accessible 20th c faire before we could begin to consider a commission, but by the time I left, we were doing them regularly, and patrons were FUNDING them. How cool is that?

I had one of those memorable 20 second conversations today after our Exeter performance on the Aliento Chamber Music series. Before the Schnittke, I had mentioned to the audience that the piece was written around the time of his first stroke, and that  the first movement does seem like a terrifying struggle for survival. After the concert a woman greeted me and said she had cried through the whole piece. Her daughter had a stroke last year, and when she began to get well enough to communicate, she told he mother in some detail about what it felt like and how terrifying it was. The woman said that throughout the piece, she kept thinking of her daughter’s stroke and couldn’t escape the parallels. “It sounded just like what she went throug.” She said it was terrifying from beginning to end, that she cried through the whole thing, and at the end, she felt somehow better, even a bit healed.

Wouldn’t you rather that than an under-rehearsed hack-through of the Trout?

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Engaging the Audience”

  1. Zoltan

    Perhaps I’m going to lean out a bit too far (and thus reveal my conservatism in that regard), but “modern music” seems able to express, more (too) often than not, only the terrifying emotions for me.
    Those emotions aren’t the only ones in our lives. That’s why Shostakovich or Peteris Vasks are more satisfying to me then, Boulez or Rihm. To drive my point even further: the terrifying chord in the finale of Mahler’s 10th wouldn’t mean as much if it wouldn’t follow that beautiful flute solo.

  2. rbonotto

    The Composers’ Guild of NJ used to have a series of concerts at the Trenton Museum, and had the happy idea of making most of the music modern, with a dollop of Haydn or Dvorak at the end. And the audiences for these was fairly good.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Robert-

    I think it’s great that a composer’s organization would curate the mixture of the old and new. Hopefully the goal is not to offer a dollop of desert as a reward for toughing out all the horrible new stuff, but to hear the old with the same freshness and lack of complacency as you’ve heard the new.

    Thanks for the comment!
    Ken

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