Whether you support new practices in the performing arts, whether you encourage entrepreneurial practices amongst performing artists—we can all agree that for better or worse, the performing arts world is changing. It’s changing fast.
I think we are all conscious of how the changes in global culture, society, and technology have “some sort of” impact on our art. But part of the problem is that many are unwilling to analyze how change and growth in these areas can directly impact your artistic work. There is a reluctance with many performing artists to study these challenges and find ways to adapt to them.
Think of Brad Pitt’s line in World War Z when he says “Movement is life”. Of course, he’s talking about getting away from millions of newly converted flesh-eating zombies. However, that statement has a powerful corollary to the responsibility musician’s and artists have when trying to keep our art forms alive in the 21st Century. Similar to the world World War Z, our world has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous twenty, thirty, or 40 years before that. Everyday there is a new app or social platform that can change your life. Moreover, we interact with technology in a deeply more personal and distinct way. Technology has literally become an extension of the human mind. All these changes have come so fast that if you are standing still, you will simply be overcome by the hungry mob.
Evolution, flexibility and adaptation are the factors that will now insulate us against decline. In order not to be fatally bitten by the onslaught of social media, tweets, glutted market of free high-quality media, incredibly low cost of entertainment, etc.— we have to be able to adapt and change to each and every circumstance we encounter while staying true to our artistic mission.
My question to you is this: in what specific ways are you trying to adapt your art to the changes in culture? How are you evolving and changing to stay culturally relevant to your audiences? If you haven’t been asking yourself these kinds of questions, it’s never too late to start.
Some interviews are easier than others—but not my recent interview with Yoon Jae Lee, founder and conductor of Ensemble 212 based in New York City. I reached out to Yoon Jae a while ago because I admire his great entrepreneurial spirit and his ability to curate great concerts within Ensemble 212. It’s no easy feat to establish a successful chamber orchestra in NYC. So I thought, if anyone has had to grapple with some of the “big” questions surrounding engaging performance today, it would be Yoon Jae.
I asked him for his take on the culture, environment and challenges surrounding classical music in the United States. Here is what he had to say:
“I believe that the challenges facing “classical music” are numerous and extremely complex. Like most social issues in the US (immigration reform, health care, etc.) there are no easy answers can which solve all of classical music’s problems with the snap of a finger. However, there are many things that our generation, the young professionals, can and must do to make classical music a part of our everyday culture and at the same time enjoyable as well.
I often find myself asking this rhetorical question: What is “classical music” anyway? Is “new music” (defined as a sub-genre of classical music “classical”?!? Yet, aren’t The Beatles “classical” to most in the general public? What about Phillip Glass? Labels can be convenient but also limiting and harmful as music often defies categorization. For example, is Gershwin jazz or classical?
I think the single most problematic issue with “classical music” is that for the general public, it is something of a “fringe” interest and definitely not mainstream. We need to change that and make it relevant.”
Classical music as a fringe element? I’ve got to admit that even I hadn’t thought the general consensus was that classical music was considered to be that irrelevant. However, it is an interesting point– perhaps even a truth that all of us who love and cherish this form of art need to acknowledge. It cuts a little close to home, but isn’t the first step to correcting a situation to know and understand its full scope and breadth? Yoon Jae makes a great point, one with which I completely agree, that bringing classical music back into the scope of what is culturally relevant with audiences of today should be our first priority.
So where does this shift begin? Who is going to lead the change, and who will take responsibility for it? (I told you– all really big questions.) Yoon Jae had some powerful viewpoints on these issue that are worth sharing:
“I feel that music education in general needs a radical reform at all levels. I think the concept of having separate concentrations of performers and educators is fundamentally wrong. How many “performance” majors are going to be just performing and not teaching? I believe that most conservatories leave their graduates ill prepared to face the challenges described above. For me, it was only after I got out of school I realized what a perilous situation classical music and its professionals faced.
If we are not given the tools to teach properly or more specifically, have the ability to relate to the general public about what “classical music” is about and why we do it, how can we expect them to truly appreciate what we do and why? The recent derogatory articles on the SF Symphony’s strike is a clear example of writers who have no understanding about our profession. I don’t blame them 100% though, I think we musicians are partly at fault for not relating what we do to the general public.
I experienced difficulty relating to non-musicians once I left conservatory, especially working in a teaching capacity. We need to do a better job integrating our performing and teaching skills while still in conservatory so that when we go out into the real world, we can better relate to the general public and help them understand what music is about, especially for those who are willing…”
I believe in what Yoon Jae Lee is doing with his Ensemble 212. The orchestra’s stated mission ” to propel the careers of young professional musicians as they develop into the finest performing artists of their generation” is aptly suited to meet the demands of a changing arts culture. Ensemble 212 does not shape the careers of performers of past generations, but rather, shapes the careers of performers in this generation.
You probably follow the Tuxedo Revolt Blog because you support innovation in the performing arts. (If you don’t then you are on the wrong blog!). You probably also recognize that orchestras and performing arts organizations must work around the clock in order to come up with fresh audience engagement ideas. I talk a lot about how “good enough” or half-hearted efforts won’t cut it in today’s culture. If it doesn’t hit the bullseye of what modern audiences find accessible, then it misses the mark totally. I understand that is a rather harsh perspective. Yet, one of the greatest delights I have when I write posts for you is when I get to report on an organization who gets it right.
I just came off of a very busy week of playing in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra (Allentown, PA). I was doing a lot of commuting and performing which prevented me from writing. I knew as soon as I was able, I would write a post about the innovative performances in which I was able to play. “What made these performances innovative?” you ask. It was the use of original film to accompany Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique that I found so fascinating and effective. Steve Siegel, a contributor to the Lehigh Valley Morning Call said the following of the performance:
“There was something to intoxicate everyone at the Allentown Symphony Orchestra’s “Psychedelic Dreams” concert last weekend…With the added feature of a full-length surrealistic video accompanying the Berlioz, about as high-inducing as one can get, at least legally, at a classical concert…[ASO Conductor, Diane] Wittry’s video, projected on an enormous screen above and behind the orchestra, combined still and moving images that complemented the music marvelously without detracting from it in the least. Just as we hear the beloved’s theme throughout the work, first sweetly on violins and oboe and then, in gross caricature on a clarinet, we see her haunting image float before us, hovering through smoke and clouds. The film’s creative imagery included shots of instruments being played, eerily in synch with the actual score. There was a dizzying sequence of a spinning chandelier during the sumptuous “Waltz” segment, frightening views of a guillotine in the “March to the Gallows,” and a “Witches’ Sabbath” sequence haunted by blood-red skies and flaming skulls. Adding to the surreal effects were the faces of the ASO musicians themselves, which, illuminated only by light reflected off their sheet music – there was no stage lighting other than the lights from the music stands – seemed to hover above their instruments.”
From Siegel’s description, you can create an image for yourself of what the performance was like. I have to agree with his description, and add that the ASO musicians did a great job collaborating with the conductor to meet the unique technical needs of making sure that the music aligned with the film as planned. Symphonie Fantastique is an incredibly complicated work. I have performed it in the past and also have attended performances of the piece by major orchestras and never have I seen so much effort put forth by an orchestra and its artistic planners to ensure that the audience would be able to relate to the music. If you are a classically trained musician, then you probably know the story and origins of Symphonie Fantastique by heart. If you don’t or would like a refresher course, click here.
Modern audiences don’t have the patience or desire to read through a verbose narrative in their program notes. The ASO artistic team boldly realized and accepted the fact that their audience needed another way to experience the narrative Berlioz defined for his music. Film was the obvious choice, but the film’s content could have proven fatal to the impact of the performance. The ASO should be applauded for rising to the challenge to create a film that both provided a point of understanding and a loose framework for the narrative, but yet, was still abstract enough to allow room for much individual imagination in the minds of each audience member.
This is one element of programming that I haven’t spoken about enough. If you desire to tell a very specific story with your performance, it is your prerogative to do so. But for large works performed by many artists, or works that are best interpreted in a variety of ways by individual audience members (for example, orchestral music), you must leave room in your presentation so audience members can use their creativity and imagination to make meaning from the music. It’s a tricky process that takes trial, error, experimentation and refinement. This kind of creative experimentation is where so many arts organizations fall short on their promise to deliver dynamic performances to their audiences. It is in this experimentation and refinement that we begin to understand what our audiences need and want from us and how we can best deliver it to them.
If a regional orchestra like the ASO can be a trailblazer and go out on a limb with projects like this, then I ask– why aren’t we all? Truly, if we want to continue to fill our seats and perform our music or other art form for large audiences, then we have to keep our finger on the pulse of what our audiences need as well as what they like. We have to lose our fear of pioneering new experiences, or maybe I should put it another way. We should become afraid of what will happen to our art if we don’t learn how to connect with modern audiences.
To the ASO, I say a job well done. To everyone else, I say take notice.
As I was sitting in the LaGuardia airport last week, I realized that airlines and orchestras have a lot in common with each other, and that maybe that is part of the problem why orchestras are having a really hard time right now. I’m a major proponent of finding solutions to the problems we have with the way we present concerts these days instead of harping on them. But without a doubt, it is a good idea to take a look at the problems themselves and to clearly identify them.
You’d really be surprised how similar airlines are to orchestras and vice versa. So let’s break down some of these similarities and think about creative ways as to how we fix them.
In Orchestras and Airlines…
1. You pay more to fly first class (and receive preferential treatment), and less to fly coach (completely ignored except a brief smile and “thank you for flying with us”).
In orchestras it is often the same way. If you are a major donor, then you get all kinds of special privileges. If you are simply a patron and buy the cheapest ticket in the back of the balcony, your presence is rarely acknowledged, except for the brief thank you in your program located on the envelope that asks you for a donation.
I’m a full believer that orchestras, especially those that operate as 501(c)3 non-profit, are service organizations. A good service organization provides top tier service to all its patrons. Just playing excellent music is no longer enough these days. We need to think creatively how we can make the concert experience meaningful for everyone in attendance. If orchestras were for-profit companies, I would tolerate an attitude of “you get what you pay for”. But most of them are not, and this kind of attitude is counter-intuitive when trying to build new audiences.
2. You are required to behave a certain way, regardless of your comfort.
“At this time, make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Also make sure your seat belt is correctly fastened. Also, we advise you that as of this moment, any electronic equipment must be turned off. Thank you.”
How many times have we heard it? Yet, the moment they begin to speak you become bored, disinterested, and you may not even turn your iPhone off– you just switch it to airplane mode. You resent being told what do, and you especially resent being told what to do for the thousandth time!– What makes orchestra concerts so different? Applause only at indicated times as it might interfere with the performance (no electronic communication on planes), please only move about during the intermission–even if you are about to die to use the bathroom (seat belts fastened and don’t move about the plane until they are off).
What if we imagined a concert experience that first of all applause, when an audience member was so moved to, was acceptable– and exciting. What if people, having the option to move about if necessary, wanted to stay in their seats because they were so enraptured in the performance they wouldn’t want to miss it for even a second. What if— what if?
What would happen if we made our audiences as physically, emotionally, and socially as comfortable as possible. But better yet– what if this became a core focus of orchestras everywhere. How do you think audiences would respond if everyone, from the student rush ticket to the Maestro’s Circle donor, was treated like royalty and made to feel special along with being moved by a spectacular performance.
These are the kinds of things I think, scheme, and dream about almost everyday. I challenge you to champion ideas that put the audience members first and to make them a priority the next time you perform.
Until next time,