A Tale of Two Audiences
Let’s talk about programming, shall we? Any music director of an American orchestra, when programming a season, is striving to create balance. What does the orchestra need to play in order to grow artistically? What does the audience want to hear? What do they need to hear in order to keep stretching? Which composers/pieces have been neglected? Which programs best serve the various facets of the community in which the orchestra is located? How many and which contemporary pieces fit into the program, allowing the orchestra to contribute to the future of this incredible art form? Having diligently attended to these considerations, the music director launches into the new season with commitment and passion, proud of the palate he/she has created.
Brace yourself. It truly is not possible to please everyone. While the vast majority of any American audience is going to be pleased with a wide variety of well-balanced programming, there will be complaints. Making peace with those complaints is difficult for any arts organization, of course, as we all want to please our audiences, especially our subscribers who are the backbone of our institutions. It’s doubly hard when the most vocal of these protests comes from people who love the orchestra most and support it generously.
Many American orchestras are diversifying their programming, with most of us in the industry agreeing that this is essential to the survival of the art form. On the fringes of that vast majority of happy listeners, two rather distinct audiences are emerging. One of these is made up of people who know what they want to hear; they have been raised with this music and have a firm idea of what an orchestra concert should look like. The majority of each concert, if not all of it, should consist of music that is familiar. Contemporary programming, indeed unfamiliar music in general, should consist of short pieces and be kept to a minimum within the season. The other audience to which I’m referring are those who are new to the orchestral concert experience. Most of them have not been raised to “appreciate” classical music and have very few expectations. Their orchestral sound world tends to be that of movie soundtracks, and therefore the contemporary programming serves as a window into the world of Beethoven and Mozart. This audience tends to love explanations during the performance, anything they can hang on to while listening that helps them experience the music at a deeper level. The other audience is sometimes insulted being talked to in the midst of a performance, feeling condescended to by the conductor/performers. They also prefer the concert to be no longer than two hours, whereas that other audience is overjoyed by being offered more music than they might have expected.
So, what’s a conductor to do? Of primary importance is making sure that her/his passion is directed to the music. There are many distractions – personalities, finances, etc. – which can pull one off course. A music director’s role is really the same on and off the podium: keep the focus on the music. That’s why people play, that’s why people listen.
Another important factor is that overall programming should stem from a solid philosophy. An orchestra needs to be tended like a garden in order to grow healthily. There must be a steady diet of core classical repertoire in order to keep the ensemble in shape. Nothing like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to train an orchestra and keep it playing well (doesn’t hurt from an audience’s perspective, either). The Baroque period also serves this purpose, of course, and needs more and better representation on our concert series. We conductors tend to love our late romantic and early twentieth century masterpieces, which the orchestra also loves to play and audiences love to hear. These larger pieces can stretch a growing ensemble and set landmarks towards which the orchestra can strive. For example, the South Dakota Symphony, where I am Music Director, is now halfway through a Mahler cycle. They have not played through this repertoire before, and we all are very much aware that the SDSO will be a different ensemble at the end of the cycle than it was at the beginning of the journey.
Now we come to the question of contemporary programming. There are several reasons to program living composers. First and foremost, it is the right thing to do. We must nurture our art form as it is a living and breathing thing, not just a museum piece. This of course requires familiarity with living composers by those of us doing the programming. I would also suggest that we should strive to give a fair representation of the best contemporary music available, not simply the barn-burners that make the rounds (Short Ride in a Fast Machine) and a sampling of local composers. Featuring local composers is very important, but if that is the only impression our audiences have of contemporary music we’ve neglected a significant part of our repertory. Second, the regular performance of contemporary pieces stretches the orchestra, makes us all better. I’ll never forget some of our SDSO players coming to me during the break of an absolutely exhausting rehearsal of Rouse’s Trombone Concerto with Joseph Alessi, remarking how comparatively easy it was to play Till Eulenspiegel (on the same program) after tackling Rouse. They did in fact play Strauss well, and better than they would have if it had been the most challenging piece on the program. A third reason for all orchestras to regularly program contemporary music is that it brings attention to the institution. Everyone expects us to play Beethoven and Brahms; we strive to play it at the highest possible level, but this is not remarkable as it’s simply our job to do so. Once an orchestra begins playing and interacting with living composers people tend to take notice. It raises the orchestra’s profile and the ensemble becomes noteworthy on a regional and national level. If positioned rightly, the institution can use this attention as publicity to garner support from a wider constituency. Fourth, when engaging with different ethnicities in its community, most of an orchestra’s outreach is necessarily focused on contemporary music. My last blog entry was about the SDSO’s Lakota Music Project, the centerpiece of which is a commissioned piece by Brent Michael Davids. As this project expands, new commissions are forthcoming. And fifth, for that younger/newer/uninitiated audience, this is their music. The sounds are not foreign to them. In fact, it’s the colors, rhythms and effects that are actually attractive to them. As I said before, this new music becomes their window into our beloved world of “classical” music.
Balance is the key: what the orchestra needs to play, what the audience wants to hear, what they need to hear. A unified message of balance – articulated from all facets of the organization (musicians, board, staff) – can quell most complaints and give perspective on the programming, provided the philosophy behind the programming is sound. Most audience members assume that what is presented to them is merely what the music director wants to play (which should not be true!). Having good reasons for our programming which are rooted in what is best for the institution, the community it serves, and the art form is the foundation upon which our offerings must be based. This is also the best way to address our two seemingly estranged audiences. They need to understand why we play what we play. They also need to understand that not liking everything on the program is OK. In fact, that piece with which they are not resonating at the moment, for the person sitting next to them, may be the most interesting piece on the program.