What Do Classical Audiences Really Want?

Blue Pool Concert, playing and discussing hidden resonances:"Swinging Bridges" with slideshow accompaniment , Santa Monica Playhouse June 23, 2016

Blue Pool Concert, playing and discussing hidden resonances:"Swinging Bridges" with slideshow accompaniment , Santa Monica Playhouse June 23, 2016

Concerts with multimedia, concerts with pop stars, concerts combining world music, concerts with live twitter feeds, even concerts with after parties and during parties!  You can't miss it. The format for classical concerts is very much in play. Classical artists and institutions scramble to create unique vivid experiences to attract audiences. The conventional orchestra program—overture-concerto with virtuoso-intermission-symphony—is on the defensive. But what do classical audiences really want?

Forget the mantra that classical audiences are too old. Classic Rock audiences lean to the senior side too! A more important issue is that today's classical audiences lack a common base of musical knowledge. Some listeners are ultra-sophisticated, equally familiar with Lassus and Nancarrow. Others don't know the Beethoven symphonies. How do we create a context that can accommodate diverse listeners? This is a different order of problem than being unfamiliar with concert rituals (listening quietly, when to clap, etc.—read Classical Concerts—What Are The Rules?)

One thing classical audiences do have in common is that they are smart—highly intellectual, curious, opinionated, and quick. They don't want to feel self conscious about what they don't know, but they also are wary of anything "dumbed down." So while this current obsessive drive to create unique concert experiences is vital and healthy, classical audiences crave something beyond entertainment or diversion. Deep down, I believe audiences want to feel a strong emotional connection and gain a new awareness to the music they hear live. They want to be inspired!

Increasingly, performers realize this and often make an effort to talk to their audience, sharing musical background, context, and hopefully specific ideas to listen for in each piece. Invariably, audiences appreciate this prompting and in the past decade, many performers have become comfortable and remarkably articulate doing it. 

Felix Mendelssohn understood this problem and invented "theme" programming, still common today, where a concert series focuses on a particular genre of music or historic era. The theme creates an arc during a concert that engages all listeners, regardless of their level of music literacy.

The performer-audience relationship is much on my mind lately as I plan my own recitals on classical guitar and piano. I've given so many preconcert lectures, that I realize audiences really hunger for specific ideas and events to listen for during a concert. Engaging the audience to sing, clap, or listen to excerpts in piano reduction not only focuses their ears, but invites them to become active partners with the performers. What if I start to bring this pre-concert talk/collaborate process into the actual concert experience itself?

Last week I introduced a concert of accessible new pieces I composed for classical guitar inspired by Hawaiian slack key. My idea was to accompany the music with photos of special places on the island of Maui that inspired the music so that people could experience the feeling of being there. I struggled and worried it would feel more like an armchair travel experience than a concert. So I decided to go a bit farther outside the box—to reveal my compositional process to the audience and make that a parallel journey to the island locations. The theme of "hidden resonances" worked for both ideas—revealing the high overtones that give the slack key tunings such a distinct sonority and revealing my favorite "hidden" places on the island that impart such serenity and bliss. I also included standard guitar works that also played on overtone resonance. Rather than playing at or for the audience I talked/played to and with them, working towards an environment where we all heard and felt together. I noticed afterwards not a single "that was interesting" comment—a typical feedback in new music concerts. Instead, people talked freely about a journey we had taken together and specifically about new things they were hearing in the guitar. I think this idea of a unified theme and collaborative approach can be developed further. 

But what do you think? I want to know what drives you most to attend classical concerts. To be emotionally moved by live music? To be inspired? To hear music you already enjoy? To hear new music? To learn about the music? To hear a star virtuoso? To be entertained? For fun I've created a survey.I know you're busy. It has only one question! Let's see if we can all get a better sense of what we all want from classical concerts.

 Click to take a one question survey!