Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Paying Attention to the Audience

There is a corollary I neglected to mention in my recent examination of the growing neglect of the performing arts on public television. It stems from the premise I had postulated that public television used to provide a vehicle for expanding the reach of the performing arts. The focus of my discussion was on how more people could be part of the experience of a performance through the virtue of a broadcasting medium, but this is only part of the story. If, through the exposure of public television, more people developed an awareness of being an audience for the performing arts, then that awareness could then translate into ticket sales for "live" events: The translation from "virtual presence" to "physical presence" would be facilitated.

I raise this point because I doubt that there is any performing arts organization in the United States that is not currently having trouble maintaining, let alone growing, its subscriber base. At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the extent to which the 2008–09 season of the San Francisco Opera seems to have been designed by General Director David Gockley to address this problem. Gockley well understands the need to steer a safe course between Scylla and Charybdis: On the one hand he cannot run an opera company without a revenue base to support that company's budget; but, on the other hand, providing that revenue base has a lot to do with determining and satisfying the needs of current and potential audience members. One cannot steer that course without taking risks. Gockley will be taking some interesting risks; and I, for one, shall be very curious to see the sort of impact they have.

I write all this today by way of a response to Ivan Katz' latest blog post on The Huffington Post, which is basically an attack on the strategic planners of the Philadelphia Orchestra to steer a course of their own. Katz has provided an interesting yardstick for measuring the sorts of decisions taken by not only the San Francisco Opera but also the San Francisco Symphony, both of which face the same problems with their respective subscriber bases. The question, however, is whether his yardstick provides effective measurements, because some of the assumptions that Katz makes about audiences (and possibly performers) may be off the mark.

By way of disclaimer I should explain that I spent many formative years in Philadelphia. For many of those years, my parents subscribed to the Philadelphia Orchestra; and I listened to many of their concerts on the radio. When I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, I had an apartment whose living room provided a wonderful view of the entrance to the Academy of Music. I never subscribed, because I could always go out and walk a couple of blocks to pick up tickets for any performance that interested me. However, my interest in the Orchestra dissipated quickly after my parents moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to my brother (who plays in the Pittsburgh Symphony); and I know virtually nothing about what has happened since those Philadelphians left the Academy of Music.

Having gotten any lurking biases out of the way, let me now cite the key paragraphs of Katz' argument:

The traditional manner of programming orchestral concerts has involved giving audiences a balanced diet of mixed cuisine. John Adams' The Chairman Dances appears on a program with a Mozart Piano Concerto and perhaps a Rachmaninoff symphony. A large, gaudy Vaughan-Williams work follows a Rossini overture and it in turn is followed by a Haydn Symphony. The general rule seems to be that giving the audience what it wants must be balanced in some respects by a desire to give the audience music that it needs to hear. You "sugar coat" the pill of Schnittke's music (widely deemed box office poison) by surrounding it with something comfortable and familiar -- like Brahms, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

The mighty Philadelphians, however, have heard the Siren Song of the consultants and have decided to go in a new direction. So one of America's most storied orchestras is now offering, in addition to the traditional subscription plans, a whole host of options. One can opt for the "Masterworks" series, described by The Inquirer as "warhorses" with the music "prefaced with spoken explanations from the stage" - presumably for those too lazy to read the program notes. The "Connoisseur" series is "the traditional night at the orchestra" without the spoken commentary. (As though tarting it up with a French name is going to make it a hotter commodity.) The "Odyssey" series is said to be "...a bit more adventurous, with live-image projections of the onstage action and postlude recitals after the concerts". Finally, there is the option of the "Celebration" series which has "...Saturday night gatherings with other listeners and musicians, along with live-image projections and spoke introductions."

First of all, while I have no idea if that second paragraph is meant to be the first attempt by the Philadelphia Orchestra to break with that "traditional manner of programming" cited in the first paragraph, regular readers probably know by now that the San Francisco Symphony has little truck with that particular tradition. Furthermore, my current impression is that programs are set by the conductor; and even the guests have a hand in choosing what they will perform (while management tries to make sure that this fits in with the other concerts in the season). The result is that an evening at the San Francisco Symphony usually has some over-arching theme, which can then provide a point of departure for the pre-concert talk. That theme may involve multiple perspectives on a single composer (such as Tchaikovsky), an examination of a particular "window" on music history (such as the twentieth century), or an attempt to find a connection where others would find only contrast (as in Michael Tilson Thomas' "Vertigo-connection" between Mozart and Mahler). I have always approached this as an exploration of means to help audiences become better listeners; and, given the many attentive faces I often see in Davies Symphony Hall, I would say that the strategy seems to work at least some of the time.

The most important point of this approach is that it is not a strategy of "sugar coating." When MTT wants to serve up Charles Ives, then Ives is the focus of the evening; and, if the program ends up coupling him with Felix Mendelssohn's violin concerto, then it is no surprise that at least some aspects of listening to Mendelssohn end up informing our listening to Ives. The only time I have seen MTT frustrated in this strategy has been when he has tried to program the six short orchestral pieces of Anton Webern; and I suspect that the problem there has more to do with what I have called "the unbearable being of silence" than with Webern being too opaque for listeners unfamiliar with him. The nervous coughs that greet Webern are no different from those that always tend to descend upon those Wagner operas that begin on the brink of silence, such as Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde. Yes, this is the sort of thing that separates the experienced from the newbies; but it can only be resolved through increased exposure, rather than "sugar coating."

Having said all that, what are we to make of the new Philadelphia strategy? Personally, I feel that the most important thing that a performing arts organization can do is provide audiences with informed expectations of what is going to happen when the lights dim. This is why I have always been in favor of pre-concert talks, even if I do not attend all of them myself. When I lived in Singapore, the General Manager of the Singapore Symphony told me that her biggest problem was that most of the people in the audience did not know what to do when attending a concert. I introduced her to the concept of the pre-concert talk and then found myself accepting responsibility for preparing a series of these talks. It did not take long for these talks to build up their own audience of "regulars;" and, since they were coming regularly to the talks, presumably they were sticking around to hear the music more regularly than they had previously done.

On the basis of both the talks I have attended and those I have given, I have never encountered one that was "for those too lazy to read the program notes." Most important is that the talk provides opportunities to listen to portions of the music that are beyond the scope of the medium of the program book. Also, while those talks tend not to involve a Q&A, they provide opportunities for conversation, whether by coming up to the lecturer after the talk or by talking with friends about what the lecturer said. Remember, the prize on which we keep our eyes is an audience of better listeners; and these talks can do a lot to bring us closer to that prize.

Then there is this matter of "live-image projections." I have always felt that this was the "secret ingredient" that made Evening at Symphony on PBS such a triumph. All direction of camera shots was informed by the score being performed. This was such a serious matter that the camera crew would rehearse in Symphony Hall with a stage on which all the chairs were in the right place, each labeled with the name of the performer; and all the camera work would be executed against a recording of the performance. This whole process was the brainchild of Jordan Whitelaw, who supposedly once said, "If you don't see it, you may not hear it!" This is far from a trivialization of the listening process; it is one of the best strategies for cultivating that process. Of course it only works if it is properly executed; and, if it is poorly executed, it can do far more harm than good.

Finally, there is that "platinum-level" status that allows for socializing with other listeners and performers. This was part of the way in which the San Francisco Symphony planned their "Bloggers' Night" last summer. As a strategy for making special people feel special, it tends to be a good one and therefore should not be dismissed if it works for the revenue base. Whether or not it makes those special people better listeners is a harder call, since the quality of a conversation has a lot to do with who is actually doing the conversing. Living composers like Steve Reich and John Adams are very comfortable in talking about their work, and the result is that their clarity of speech does a lot for the listener's clarity of perception. Similarly, at the "Bloggers' Night" event the young up-and-coming pianist Gabriela Martinez did such a good job of talking about Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto that I titled my blog post in her honor, "Taming Rachmaninoff's Monster." Between such examples and my own efforts to prepare pre-concert talks, I have come to the conclusion that people want to talk about their concert-going experiences; and giving them simulating opportunities to do so is likely to contribute to their attending more concerts.

Having said all this, let me conclude by suggesting that, for all its merits, my argument may be a "tale of two coasts." Katz described the Philadelphia Orchestra as "without doubt one of the finest symphony orchestras in North America and, arguably, the world." Well, skeptic that I am, I tend to doubt everything! I am sure that for many years the San Francisco Symphony lived in the shadow of the "big five" (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago); and anyone serious about performing in an orchestra would view it as a stepping stone to a better place. I do not believe this is still true. As I have remarked many times, the San Francisco Symphony performs by virtue of a passionate bond to most of their conductors, not just MTT and former Music Director Herbert Blomstedt but many of the visitors, such as Kurt Mazur and Ingo Metzmacher. Perhaps there are some musicians who would leap at the opportunity to perform under Simon Rattle in Berlin; but I doubt that we have to contend with any serious case of "Philadelphia envy." Furthermore, radio is making it possible for serious listeners to experience more and more live performances from more and more concert halls; and the result is that those listeners are developing a better sense of diversity, rather than getting overly occupied with who is at the top of the pile. Since different conductors have so many different ways of approaching each of the works in the repertoire, that "pile" is a fiction; and all that really matters is that the opportunities through which we can be better listeners continue to grow. All I really wish is that public television would get back on board in facilitating that growth process!

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