In my last post, I showed videos from two European orchestras hoping to attract young concertgoers with irony, energy, and lighthearted panache. Easy to claim those attributes, less common to really offer them at a symphony concert. Which may be why the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s recent high-octane, high-volume performance with Kid Rock has gotten attention in a classical music field worried about its contemporary relevance. (That, and the fact that the concert raised $1 million for the DSO in one night.)
The Detroit Free Press critic, Mark Stryker, who resembles the typical Kid Rock fan about as much as I do, sounded exactly the right note in this piece:
It would be silly to pretend that Saturday’s concert will convert a bunch of Kid Rock fans into DSO ticket buyers. But that’s not the point. The fundamental challenge facing orchestras is that the threads that once linked classical music to the broad fabric of civic life and popular culture have been severed. Saturday was about re-stitching a connection.
That’s an argument I’ve made in many of these posts, and it’s something other bloggers — notably my friend Greg Sandow — have been advocating for years. The idea isn’t to supplant classical and contemporary music with pop, nor to turn our astonishingly skilled symphonies into backup bands for rap and rock stars. By all accounts, the DSO Kid Rock concert was a real musical partnership. (And by no means the first of its kind, of course. Orchestras have done this off and on for years, with everyone from Radiohead to Ben Folds.)
This is about celebrating the collapse of the walls that used to neatly divide artistic categories, and embracing the mixtures that are going on all over contemporary culture (and not just in the arts). It’s about creating promiscuous, comfortable contexts in which fans of one performer or genre get a glimpse of what’s great about another:
You can’t witness thousands of rabid Kid Rock fans rewarding the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a roaring standing ovation and breaking into chants of “DSO! DSO!” without recognizing elitist stereotypes about classical music being put out to pasture.
Detroit’s music director Leonard Slatkin apparently understands that a legendary orchestra like the DSO is a tool that can be used for many purposes — and playing Beethoven is only one of them.
The usual question in these hybrid performances is whether the musicians will merely “go along to get along,” whether their participation will feel halfhearted. But I wouldn’t be the first to point out that their participation in a subscription concert playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time often feels halfhearted — so 'professional' that any sign of human enjoyment and passion is missing. So the real news here is that, by all accounts, the DSO musicians looked fairly into it at the Kid Rock concert, and Slatkin himself was smiling and relaxed. (His own post about the event is here.)
This seems to me a particularly good sign for an orchestra whose players battled management in a recent, bitter strike over (among other things) the role that musicians should play in community-building, education, and outreach to new audiences. The DSO players often sounded like stubborn purists in those days. But what was the Kid Rock concert if not community building and outreach to new audiences? It may have ‘educated’ a few thousand newcomers that what goes on in our historic, gilded concert halls, and what a symphony orchestra is all about, isn’t what they thought...or at least, isn’t only what they thought.
It may also have shifted the perceptions of some DSO regulars, including Stryker himself:
When Kid Rock unleashed a blitzkrieg of expletives in “Devil Without a Cause” it occurred to me that you don’t typically hear that many F-words at the symphony. Also, I never before smelled reefer smoke at Orchestra Hall...
In my last post, I asked where the consumers are in the Colorado symphony’s new “customer-driven” business model and promised a few examples of ways arts groups are getting audiences into the picture a little more creatively. It’s about not thinking of them as consumers or audiences in the first place, but as collaborators.
Take the street-filmmakers of Germany’s Gob Squad, whose recent film starring passersby in New York’s East Village, “Super Night Shot,” was screened at the Under the Radar festival only minutes after it was shot. (The last scene was filmed in the lobby of the theater, so the crowd watched themselves watching for the arrival of the actors.)
The Gob Squad's Bastian Trost, in mask, with a passerby recruited as an actress. Photo Piotr Redinski for the New York Times
Or Martha Graham’s “On the Couch” video competition — actually more of a narration competition, in which you’re asked to imagine, write, and record the inner monologue of a Graham company dancer performing an evocative solo in one of two online videos.
Remember “reader response” theory from the ‘70s, that radically postmodern idea that the artwork is completed by the beholder? The object or “text” doesn’t exist as such until an audience engages with it. Well, that idea turned out to be just a foreshadowing of what’s going on today. Viewers are quite literally completing the art. And it doesn’t even feel particularly radical when they do.
Or think of the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection,” which crowdsourced the selection of objects for a permanent collection highlights show. (Apparently even the most progressive practices at art museums still involve a colon in the middle of the title, just like a PhD dissertation.)
Or all the ways that classical musicians are reinventing classical music “without the tuxes,” as one recent story put it. This alt-classical “revolution” (in, for example, the Pacific Northwest) isn’t news to anyone reading this blog, of course — some of you are the ones taking over bars and coffee shops armed with cellos. It may not be participatory in the same sense that the Gob Squad, Martha Graham, or Plains Art Museum examples are. But it shares their democratic, street-level ideals.
In an era when headlines like Salon’s recent “Can the Symphony be Saved?” are frequent enough to blur together, established orchestras will have to try harder to shake off the chains of caution, self-importance, and (maybe the heaviest shackles) nostalgia. Yes, it’s admirable that Colorado’s new plan was developed by the musicians and staff working hand in hand. That clearly took courage and leadership, and other orchestras should continue trying to tear down the same wall. ...
The orchestra’s new business plan, “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra,” is beingpositoned as a radical step toward relevance and away from the pieties of the past. But compared to some of what’s going on in the arts these days, it doesn’t push very far. Where are the consumers in this new model? Largely in their seats, where they belong.
Reading the plan, I was reminded of what a friend said after returning from the League of American Orchestras conference a year or two ago. “It’s a dinosaur convention,” he reported. “They all know the comet has struck, but they have no clue what to do about it.”
In the Colorado document, there’s much talk of new realities and the need for “redirection.” “The program content and existing format of the orchestra is no longer appropriate to adapt to a viable 21 century model,” the plan declares. But that big diagnosis is followed by a small, familiar prescription: the orchestra will “expand its performances through full orchestra, chamber orchestra, and small ensembles to venues around the entire area.”
The logic, presumably, is that what’s no longer relevant Coloradans when presented in Boettcher Hall will be relevant when presented in venues in their own communities. That makes a little sense, but only a little. Venues make a difference when they create alternative frames for the arts experience: new conventions, behaviors, participation, interaction, vibe. (Arts researcher Alan Brown has a terrific forthcoming paper about the role of venues, which I'll link to.)
Jeffrey Kahane leads the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Photo Karl Gehring, The Denver Post
There’s no mention of any of that in the Colorado plan. Instead, it reaffirms the traditional, presentational model of classical music (“uncompromising artistic quality presenting music that is timeless and fostering new music”) as well as a taste-making function that sounds painfully self-justifying in this context (“our artistic responsibility to be a curator of the great music, traditional and contemporary, as a service to our community”). Nobody seems to have noticed that values like those are what led orchestras to the relevance and support challenges they currently face, and which the new plan is supposed to address.
In other words, everything’s being questioned except the underlying assumptions.
I guess that’s a formula for incremental change, at least, and for the institutional stability that makes change possible. But it may also make institutions themselves—established, sizable, and reasonably well-funded arts organizations like the Colorado Symphony—vulnerable to competition from upstarts offering consumers more dramatic departures from tradition and more involving forms of relevance.
I’ve blogged about some of those upstarts before, and in my next post I’ll look at a few more who are getting consumers out of their seats and into the business (and artistic) model.
So these four opera singers walk into a food court... It worked beautifully in Philadelphia’s Reading Market last winter, as I blogged at the time. But a week’s worth of Chicago Opera Theater singers doing the same thing in Chicago suggests that it’s not easy to make this kind of public arts-grenade infectious rather than merely interesting.
The setting and the surprise are the same: a busy downtown food market at lunchtime, with diners eating, reading, and talking. Some music begins—in this case a pianist at an electronic keyboard—and one of the people waiting on line for coffee turns around and begins to sing an operatic chestnut in a big, gorgeous voice.
But compare the videos (Chicago and Philadelphia) and photos and you can sense a subtle but decisive difference. The bystanders—bysitters?—in Chicago don’t really get into it. They seem intrigued but not enlivened. Their faces have a slightly closed-off look, the look you get when someone's trying to sell you something. For the most part, they go on with what they were doing.
Whereas the faces in Philadelphia are smiling, energized, made happier. They pull out their smartphones to shoot video. Strangers talk and gesture to each other. A crowd gathers.
What’s the difference? Not artistic quality, at least in the usual sense. It’s something in the faces and body language of the performers. The OCP singers are clearly having fun, relishing the stunt and the connections it lets them make with people. This is classical music as a social practice.
The COT singers pull the same stunt gamely, but gamely isn’t the same thing as wholeheartedly or comfortably. Their smiles seem a little more stagey. Their eyes aren’t twinkling with the giddiness of the enterprise, the energy that turns a performance into a party. They're putting themselves out there, but they're not making a scene.
Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »
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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »