18 January 2017

Off-Message Missionaries

How well do orchestras know their audience?  Having worked in the backrooms of several orchestras, I know there is a huge deal of effort put into attracting new audiences and devising innovative programming to lure in those who might seem repelled by the notion of sitting in a concert hall quietly listening to music surrounded by others who are quick to draw attention to individual solecisms of their neighbours.

Guides are issued, often in kiddie-language with cartoon-style illustrations, to tell you what to expect and how to behave, with much explanation of what to wear and when to applaud.  Such things are good and help to illuminate what, from the outside, appears to be a very elitist and secretive activity.  Orchestras try all sorts of things to widen their audience base; non-traditional programming, movie-soundtrack evenings in appropriate costume, entertaining events, performances in informal settings, dress-down concerts and concerts featuring actors and comedians.  There’s even a whole industry out there of actor/musicians who devise portable concerts which they sell to orchestras under the banner of attracting new and (invariably) younger audiences.

And, to a certain extent, it works with new and younger audiences coming to these special concerts.  I have yet to be convinced, however, that those new and younger audiences translate into regular attendance at mainstream concerts, but that’s another issue.

But in all this striving to find new audiences, how many orchestras really think about their existing ones?  Audiences are loyal and it takes a lot to drive them away;  whether they face up to the fact or not, too many orchestras take this for granted, pour their energies into widening the audience profile while exercising minimal thought on retaining existing audiences. 

The issue comes to mind following a request for clarification from my sister, who lives in a city which does not have its own professional orchestra but plays host several times each year to a regional one which does the rounds with classic programmes taken from their season programmes put on at their perfuming home several hundred miles away.  My sister has long since retired from her teaching post and, along with a coterie of friends, is a loyal supporter when the orchestra visits.  They relish the opportunity to enjoy a professional concert close to home and, since all of them have some connection with music (at the very least, they learnt the piano as children) they understand all the niceties that go with concert attending and which makes the experience, for those in the know, all the more enjoyable.

Recently, my sister tells me, they have noticed that when the orchestra visits, they do not bring a conductor.  Instead the leading violinist starts the performance off and then plays along with the rest of them.  Matters came to a head at the orchestra’s last visit when the solo pianist (in Beethoven’s “Emperor”) occasionally got up from the piano to conduct the orchestra.  “Are we being cheated?”, asks my sister, suggesting that because the orchestra is just visiting, they might be saving money by cutting down on the number of musicians sent and cutting out the star conductor?

I am happy to write back to my sister that, no, far from treating you with contempt, the orchestra is actually showing you respect by bringing to your city a style of performance which is considered correct amongst the cognoscenti. In the interests of historical accuracy, orchestral music pre-Beethoven is now usually performed by smaller-sized ensembles without a conductor, while it is becoming increasingly accepted practice to perform Beethoven (and other 18th century) keyboard concertos without a conductor and directed from the keyboard by the soloist.  Hopefully, she and her friends will appreciate that the orchestra is not treating them as second-class audiences and will continue their loyal support.

My sister’s concern, however, must be shared by others.  It is a potentially sore point in the UK.  The practice of a professional orchestra regularly going out from its home-base to perform in provincial cities as part of an outreach programme, can seem as if they are some kind of Cultural Missionaries, taking orchestral music out to the yokels in the sticks and implying a lower level of cultural receptivity amongst those in the provinces.  Orchestras have to be very sensitive to this.  I know with orchestras with which I have been associated, that tours to the provinces so often take programmes deemed as “populist” simply because it is believed that provincial audiences will not have the sophisticated tastes of those in the metropolis; but, perhaps, there is more validity in this argument in south east Asia where Western Classical music is less deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness of the general population.

Had I not been around to answer my sister’s query, I wonder whether, the next time the professional orchestra paid its visit to her neck of the woods without a conductor, she and her friends might have decided they had enough of being short-changed, and decided to choose theatre over concert.  And that makes me wonder how many other loyal supporters of orchestral concerts have been put off by a wholly unintended but genuinely perceived slight?

Orchestras will point to the efforts they make to keep in touch with their regular audience base.  Questionnaires get sent round (and hardly ever returned), occasional market-surveys are conducted by co-opted students whose presence during concert intervals is annoying when you are more concerned with catching up on old friends or getting served at the bar, and every concert programme gives you contact details offering you the opportunity to voice your concerns to some nameless person who will send a stock reply and leave it at that.  Pre-concert talks are not the way to go – especially when so many of the presenters are inexperienced as audience members themselves and often out of touch with what an audience really wants to know – and programme notes often concentrate on technicalities which seem irrelevant to the majority of an audience, who are just there to enjoy the sound of orchestral music.  Audiences just want to go to a concert and hear music; they do not want to fill in forms, answer questions, attend lectures or go through the tiresome business of post-mortem analysis; none of these attempts at two-way communication will ever succeed.

The mature, the retired, the elderly; they constitute the bulk of most orchestras’ loyal audience.  They have the time and the income at their disposal to be loyal.  They have the understanding and experience to appreciate the music.  They have the patience and tolerance not to be offended by the continual barrage of publicity orchestras put out aimed at the young.  None of us is young for long, but all of us get to be mature, retired and old, and often seem to spend the greater part of our lives in that state.  Orchestras should not forget this. 

How often does the leader, the soloist or the conductor come on to the stage before a concert and actually tell the audience why they are doing something, why they are playing this piece or why they are performing it in this way?  Very rarely in my experience.  Yet that simple gesture could ensure the continued loyalty of an audience who have long since become accustomed to the notion that they are largely overlooked by the people they pay to support.

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