Well let’s start with what isn’t a secret: Many orchestras are trying to reach out to future audiences (young people) and convince them that an orchestra concert should be on their shortlist of exciting weekend activities. An increasing number of orchestras (and other concert music organizations) are creating programs and concerts specifically catered to younger generations. A couple of recent examples caught my eye because of their similarities and apparent success. First, the London Evening Standard ran a story on October 10 about the innovative program “The Night Shift” by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The article boasts that The Night Shift “has created rules-free concerts…complete with student tickets that cover the price of a beer.” The concerts are scheduled for later evening starts such as 10pm, open with an introduction by the conductor, and applause is encouraged throughout.
The second story ran in the Montreal Gazette on October 18th and profiled a performance of the Montreal Symphony at…wait for it….”a big Molson-Coors warehouse.” The innovative concert format drew over 1,700 young people. Yes, you read that correctly. 1,700 young people ventured out to hear a symphony orchestra play in a warehouse. The concert was part of the MSO’s new Concert Eclates series, and featured Molson lager on tap, a night-life atmosphere, electronica music on the second half, and fantastically bold programming. Conductor Kent Nagano introduced the concert to an enthusiastic audience, followed by Pierre Boulez’s Messagesquisse, which the article claims “…was a hit.” Nagano led the MSO in a performance of Mahler’s first symphony, complete with applause between movements (sound familiar?). The second half of the concert consisted of electronica, with several MSO musicians joining in for part.
So, the secret to engaging future orchestra audiences is…(drum roll)…beer? Playing in warehouses? Mixing classical music with popular music? Encouraging applause? Well, I don’t think we have found any secret yet. Both of these organizations are taking innovative approaches, and their efforts overlap in several places. I think the key thing to take away from these examples the idea of removing boundaries from concert music. These cutting-edge programs are stripping away the “rules” associated with most orchestral concerts – “rules” regarding venue, dress, applause, content, and more. Studies have shown that many young people feel alienated by classical music concerts – the formality and elitism is intimidating, and often they don’t feel like the concert experience is relevant to them. However, a concert like Montreal’s seems to have succeeded on many levels, inviting young people into a less-formal environment, providing down-to-earth explanations of the music, and showing the connections between classical music and popular art forms. A concert like this may not immediately convert an electronica fan into a Mahler scholar, but it provides the opportunity to enjoy and understand this music without rules and boundaries. Perhaps this welcoming invitation to experience classical music on your own terms is a model that should be seriously considered by orchestras looking to build their own audiences of the future.