Chamber Music America Conference 2015: Chasing an Audience

There he was again—ninety-one year old impresario Maxim Gershunoff , slightly more tired than last year, but still sharp in his business suit with a twinkle in his eye, promoting his latest hot artists at the Chamber Music America conference in New York last week.  I met Maxim last year where he entertained me with stories driving with Stravinsky in traffic to a concert Stravinsky was to conduct (Stravinsky: “Let them wait!”), helping a young Leonard Bernstein get past the CBS studio guards so he could meet with conductor Dmitri Mitropoulis, and promoting a 16 year old cellist named Yo Yo Ma. Maxim is a living example that a career in classical music is a marathon, not a sprint.

There is an endearing quality to this conference that draws between 500 and 600 performers, presenters, and even some composers each year. These are bright, super-talented people, the ones who present and perform the most artistically creative concerts in our country. Soloists, string quartets piano trios, and a huge variety of eclectic ensembles all gather here with agents, publishers, and marketers, in a siege mentality against the largely indifferent American culture. They are here to network, promote, support one another, and just to try to figure it out— how to stay relevant, how to reach disappearing audiences, how to keep from collapse with the ever–increasing time demands of self-promotion in our age of social media, how to just keep surviving so they can continue to do what they love to do, which is to make music on the highest level.

I was roped into this conference last year with a one-two punch from CMA Program Director Susan Dadian and talented composer and composer-advocate Alex Shapiro. They pitched the conference to me as an ideal environment to connect with performers. Without question, that first conference exceeded my expectations.  CMA is a truly caring and wonderful organization. Beyond that, it offers the empowering realization that all of us in the fine arts are essentially in the same boat, dealing with similar issues.

I sense that the theme of each year’s conference is actually the same, but with different wording. This time around it was “Making It Happen: Connecting with our Communities.”  Like last year, we huddled in conference sessions to learn from panelists who have successfully torn down traditional barriers using tactics from the pop music world to engage younger audiences and revitalize the concert experience.  With concert subscriptions conspicuously down nation-wide and the demonetization of music through the internet, we were all ears.

Cellist Austin Williman from the Spektral Quartet in Chicago told us how his quartet received enormous success and press presenting a concert just of ring-tones commissioned from dozens of composers. Others talked about letting audiences tweet during the concert and then projecting those tweets on a screen in the lobby during intermission. We learned that today’s audiences demand participation. The Isabelle Steward Gardner museum in Boston became “hip” by inviting people to play parlor games and create arts and crafts in the museum.  A ballet company in the northwest engaged a social media group called Teentix to make it “cool” for teenagers to go to the ballet. The Minnesota Opera partnered with a talk radio host popular with women who related opera stories to current TV soap operas.

We heard these ideas echoed by the surprising conference keynote speaker, none other than NEA Chair June Chu! There we were, just the few hundred of us, listening and asking questions to the chair of the NEA. CMA President Margaret Lioi pointed out that Ms. Chu is the first NEA chair she could recall that actually plays chamber music (she is a pianist).  Ms. Chu’s message to us was simple: the mantra “Build it and they will come” does not work in the arts. Instead, we need to first give the community a sense of ownership in arts projects. As head of the NEA, she talked about the arts not as individual projects, but as a nation-wide system of relationship-building enterprises geared to create win-wins between communities and artists. Ms. Chu dazzled us with her ultra-saavy, highly intelligent, consensus-building approach, along with her genuine compassion. Audience complaints cited the meager funding for the NEA compared to European countries. Ms. Chu turned it around. She pointed out that one thing that sets the NEA apart from many of the agencies in other countries is that while the NEA provides funding, it does not decide on the quality of art, instead relying on community panels to make decisions for awards. 

Despite all this infectious cheerleading, am I inspired to go out and compose a piece for strings and beat box artist to be performed atop a party limo of high school graduates as it tours various downtown clubs on a Saturday night? Not so much. Lost in this enthusiasm to capture teens, twenty, and thirty-year olds is an important demographic not discussed in the entire conference. Hello? Seniors! Yes, the people who actually go to chamber music concerts repeatedly, instead as a one-off “let’s try it once” experience. Shouldn’t we work smarter to accommodate them?

As Jim Eninger pointed out in my earlier blog (Classical Music Set To Boom), the number of seniors is about to double in size. These are the people predisposed to classical music. Let’s not undervalue them. Let’s not forget them. They may not require or even particularly enjoy a concert where the audience is encouraged to tweet and shoot pictures during the performance.  Heck, they might actually want to listen to the music. Can we discover new ways to welcome them?

By all means, let’s invigorate concerts away from an elite, stuffy atmosphere and stale repertoire. Performers should address the audience and provide helpful information about the program. New and unusual repertoire should be part of the experience, but given with a context for people to make a clear connection.  All the new media can be part of this as well, but integrated in a ways which enhance and don’t detract from the music. Discussion afterwards is another key opportunity too often overlooked. 

During one of the panels on audience building, I suggested that my experience is that audiences are really desperate just to know the ground rules for concerts. When is it ok to clap? How long is everything going to last?  Others at the conference agreed with this problem and added that audiences even have a more basic question: how am I supposed to dress? The stress of not knowing these basic conventions keeps many people away from classical concerts. People don’t want to feel like they don’t belong. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? If we work to make the “ground rules” crystal clear, we might find that we can attract audiences of all different ages that feel equally welcome and excited to be part of our events—just like it is at pop concerts. Imagine that!