Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What we need are virtuoso audiences


Both of these types of pieces are essentially contrapuntal and can be very demanding on the members of the audience requiring them to become at times 'virtuoso listeners' as they penetrate the interaction and winding ways of the musical lines.
So writes lutenist Hopkinson Smith about Francesco da Milano's Fantasias and Recercari which feature on the superb new Naïve CD seen above. And how right Hopkinson Smith is about the need for virtuoso listeners. So much futile effort is being extended today on trying to reach non-existent new audiences for classical music when, what is really needed, is to develop, extend and challenge existing audiences.

For an example of a virtuoso audience look no further than any Britten Sinfonia concert. This ensemble refused to play the celebrity music director game and instead poured their considerable talents into developing a virtuoso audience that fills concert halls for everything from the Tunisian oud to Handel's Messiah. When a critic of the stature of Richard Morrison writes in the Times of a Britten Sinfonia concert that 'this is the future of classical music', it is time to sit up and take notice.

The ears of a virtusos listener are open to everything from early to contemporary music, and beyond to world music and jazz. And that is the polar opposite of today's audiences where specialisation increasingly means dualism. I shudder every time I see initiatives like the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recently announced subsidised tickets for concert goers under-40. Quick fixes to reach new audiences are so yesterday. The way forward is imaginative and intelligent programming that will turn existing audiences into virtuoso listeners, who then create a virtuous circle as marketing ambassadors spreading the word that classical music is alive, kicking and happening. It's not wishful thinking. Who would have bet on a mainstream critic like Richard Morrison enthusing over a fusion of classical and world music?

I said earlier that today specialisation among audiences actually means dualism. Here, in conclusion, is a section from Steve Hagen's incomparable book Buddhism Pure and Simple. It is as relevant to classical music as it is to anything:

For those unfamiliar with the term as it's being used here, dualism simply refers to the world of left and right, dark and light, good and bad, pure and impure. It's the psychological backdrop for our everyday world of chasing after some things and running away from others, the world in which if you differ from me, then there's something wrong with you.
More Francesco da Milano here.
Hopkinson Smith CD was purchased from the invaluable Prelude Records. If I hadn't seen it on their shelf you would not be reading about it here. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

4 comments:

Scott said...

I shudder every time I see initiatives like the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recently announced subsidised tickets for concert goers under-40.

While I agree with your overall point about "virtuoso audiences," I don't feel the same way as you do on the above point.

With two daughters in their early 20's, the last thing I do is shudder as I take advantage of "under-30" or "family rates" at concerts or plays during the all-too-brief intervals when they are both visiting. From what I've read, they are a considerable success.

Howebver, my main point is that the two types of initiatives should be seen as complementary, not as antithetical.

Pliable said...

Scott, I don't think we are that far apart on this one.

But my point is to question if it is really the price of a concert ticket that is the barrier to attracting under-40s to classical concerts?

Like you I have two children in their 20s (boy and girl). When I look at what they and their peers spend on entertainment, clothes and electronic equipment the price of a concert ticket palls into insignificance. Price is not the barrier, it is the perception of the concert experience that is the problem.

Subsidised tickets for under-40s may be successful in terms of take up. But is there any evidence that the ticket buyers progress on to paying their way as committed concert goers?

In the book trade they call it the Harry Potter fallacy -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2006/10/rock-idols-and-harry-potter-fallacy.html

Scott said...

Side comment first - I agree completely with Smith's comments on the quality of Francesco's music and on the need to "give it a chance" if you're not yet a "virtuoso listener." I've enjoyed it since a 70's Julian Bream LP (which I've now transferred to CD), which may be his best lute recording. Except for "Lute Music from the Royal Courts of Europe." Or perhaps the 2nd Dowland recording. Well, it's a good one, anyhow.

The package title is "The Woods So Wild," and it only seems to be available used - see http://www.amazon.com/The-Woods-So-Wild/dp/B00000HZS6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1227726433&sr=1-1

You wonder "if it is really the price of a concert ticket that is the barrier to attracting under-40s to classical concerts?". I don't think the situation is that simple. That's probably one factor, but I'm sure there are others.

However, such programs may accomplish two things:

* Putting some bums in seats that would not otherwise have been there;

* Expand by a bit the audience you can now try to help become virtuoso listeners.

How can these outcomes be other than worthwhile?

As you say, we're not far apart at all.

Whatever works. The approach that I think is much more pernicious is to "popularize" (i.e. dumb down) too many of your offerings. I don't know if I'm a virtuoso listener, but I'm at least reasonably accomplished, and this is the single item that has caused a big drop in the number of symphony tickets I buy compared to perhaps 20 years ago. There is the occasional "new music" series which
stands as the exception, but there are few regular concerts that interest me very much, barring a particular soloist (the last example was Matthias Goerne singing Mahler).

Pliable said...

The approach that I think is much more pernicious is to "popularize" (i.e. dumb down) too many of your offerings - Scott, I couldn't agree with you more.