Addressing the orchestral crisis

Do we need to redesign the concert experience?


We would like to welcome Megan in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.


Fear of an ageing audience is no new phenomenon. It has gripped the hearts of arts administrators for many decades before the term ‘millennial’ was coined. Glance left and right at any given orchestral concert and you’d be forgiven for inferring that, like cruise holidays and gardening, the classical music concert experience is something one grows to appreciate later in life.

Facing an increasingly crowded entertainment landscape (and battling ageing audiences, decreases in concert subscriptions, and declining ticket sales), capturing the white whale of the younger market segment has become a more urgent task for arts organisations, and orchestras in particular. Part-‘get ‘em young, keep ‘em forever’ audience cultivation strategy, and part-genuine quest for relevance to wider demographics, orchestras across the world are expanding their digital and social presence, and diversifying their concert offerings to appeal to the elusive younger generations. Performances of movie scores and collaborations with contemporary artists can be rewarding for both performers and audiences: this year’s concerts with Kate Miller-Heidke and the first Harry Potter film come to mind, both as examples of millennial catnip programming and as superb productions. But for orchestras to schedule a handful of these concerts and call it a job well done on marketing to millennials, frankly, assumes too much. It underestimates the value of the masterworks that fill regular orchestral programs, and underestimates the appetite of younger audiences for this core repertoire – especially if it is presented in innovative ways that speak authentically to them.

Dizzying technological innovations of the past 15 years – the mp3, YouTube, the shuffle button – have revolutionised the way we listen to music, especially those in what The Guardian describes as the ‘post-genre generation’. Millennials, natives of the global online culture, have grown up with the entirety of music history at their fingertips and, as a result, are far less dogmatic about genre affiliations. Music consumption now is about how it makes you feel – cue Spotify playlists created to accompany a specific mood, a soundtrack to a social event. There is no reason why this generation could not be open to the genre of classical music – immersive, complex, passionate, dynamic, energising, heart-bursting music – if they can overcome whatever is stopping them from taking their seat at a classical music concert.

New research from the Orchestra X project of the California Symphony suggests, simply, that ‘the music is not the problem’. Conducted in late 2016, the project gathered focus groups of culturally engaged millennials and Gen Xers, those that ‘should go to orchestra concerts but for whatever reason don’t attend’. The result featured some thought-provoking findings about these patrons’ experiences of orchestral concerts – most strikingly, ‘every single piece of negative feedback was about something other than the performance itself’.

There can be great beauty in the traditional concert experience – the sense of occasion and ritual, the space for solemn contemplation. But for those who are unfamiliar with the orchestral world, the experience can be intimidating, even tediously formal. Unwritten codes for behaviour, program notes filled with technical jargon rather than the stories behind the music, limited opportunities for connection to the musicians performing the music – the experience is not always as powerful as the music is. It’s little wonder that some fail to be convinced of the value of their concert ticket.

The challenge for orchestras, therefore, is to redesign the concert experience to meet this feedback. This may require looking a little further afield for inspiration than to their immediate neighbours in the classical music industry.

I’m sure I am not the only CutCommon reader who has spent the last month or so making the heart-eyes emoji face while watching the Netflix documentary series Abstract, which delves into the lives of creators – an architect, a sneaker designer, a photographer, and so on. While not doing much to dispel the myth of the creative genius, it’s an excellent, aesthetically pleasing series. The episode focusing on stage designer Es Devlin, in particular, led me to consider stage design as a metaphor for the modern orchestra seeking to evolve the classical concert.

The episode details Devlin’s use of conceptual staging and technology in theatre and for pop music, transforming the live shows of artists such as Beyoncé and U2 into immersive experiences far beyond the ‘four men and their amps’ origin of rock shows. Her innovative set design for the Barbican’s blockbuster 2015 production of Hamlet was highly regarded for laying bare the emotional wasteland of the text. (Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role may have also had a small impact on ticket demand.) Hamlet, though as familiar a piece of our cultural heritage as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, continues to reveal itself anew to audiences with the design and direction of each production.

Accepting the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw, watching the episode I couldn’t help but wonder: if live pop music and theatre can reinvent themselves to evolve performance practice, why not orchestras? Thoughtful presentation can transform an audience’s emotional connection to a work, or simply offer a different perspective and an enjoyable experience. This idea of ‘stage designing’ an orchestral production is not limited to the musical performance itself. It encompasses everything about the experience: from ease of ticket purchase, to the patron’s navigation of the concert venue (i.e. how long is the wait for a) the bathroom and b) a glass of wine?), to how the music is explained in written communications, to how musicians interact with audience members. This may require changes to the orchestral status quo and is by no means a quick fix, but it is worthy of the effort to sustain our artform.

The zeitgeist for creating new orchestral performance experiences, as well as embracing digital and virtual reality projects, has been led by the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox series, which began in 2014 and is definitely worthy of a Google when you have a moment. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas explains how SoundBox uses sound and video technology ‘to create these kinds of environments that lead the audience to a different experience and a different understanding of the music…the SoundBox audience is different in that they’re not there to respect the music. They’re there to be amazed by the music, surprised by it, discover something that they never knew inside of the music’.

Closer to home, many Australian major performing arts organisations are experimenting with releasing the orchestra from the concert hall and performing in alternative venues, such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Secret Symphony program. The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s collaborations with visual artists and cinematographers have been featured in their main touring program for many years. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s #Remastered program gives ticket buyers aged 18 – 30 years a full evening’s experience, and social opportunities to meet with the musicians. Myriad smaller ensembles and opera companies are creating unique performance experiences (which is a feat more easily achieved with fewer members than a full-size symphony orchestra!). These are encouraging first steps for the Australian majors, and we can look forward to further new programs and inventive ways of encountering music through orchestras in the future. However, as more organisations begin to move in this direction, they’d do well to not assume that classical-ish music + unusual venue + craft beer = guaranteed ticket sales to millennials. Well-meaning but tokenistic events will be ultimately unsuccessful, unless the connection between the audience, the performers and the music is considered paramount.

The charge for orchestras is to listen to their audience – and especially listen to those who are not yet ticket buyers. To investigate how they can set the stage for performance experiences at which audience members are inspired, learn new things and simply have a great time. As the Orchestra X research shows, classical music, whether centuries old or newly written, is holding its own. It is now this generation of artists’ turn to contribute to evolving live music performance practice, to ensure the beauty of the music will continue to be revealed into the future.


About Megan

Megan completed her Bachelor of Music Performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She has since crossed into the area of arts administration, and has spent the past decades working with, listening to, and writing about orchestras. She now works for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

Image: Geoffroy Shied.

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