Find classical concerts boring? Fix the venue, not the format.

Classical concerts are not dead. They just need to be part of a bigger picture. Aftenposten, 3rd January 2015

What about: Just as we’re easing in to a new year and fresh projects, the old chorus of gloom appears padding along beside us like the stray dog we hoped we’d shaken off on the last corner. Audiences, we are told with some emphasis, are aging, diminishing, bored and boring. Radiohead´s Jonny Greenwood loves classical music but hates concerts. In last week´s Bergens Tidende, BIT20 director and top conductor Baldur Bronniman suggests ideas for a hipper experience. James McQuaid, in the UK Guardian accuses arts leaders of being ’too in love with what they´re doing… wanting audiences to be like them: open, forgiving, giving’.

Russell Willis Taylor, the UK´s National Arts Stategies CEO weighed into the debate, suggesting that arts marketers should learn lateral thinking from IKEA. She cites the old story of the employee who screwed the legs off a table to fit it into a customer´s car: the loveable/unloveable flatpack was born. Willis Taylor states that we need – and here the language becomes sticky – to ’discover how our value proposition relates to the communities to which our audiences belong’ i.e. we need to position audiences as partners and ponder the nature of our mutual relationship. Lateral thinking apart, Ikea´s message is potent: pick a product; look, here´s a picture of its smiling designer. Now it´s a flatpack. You have to participate – take it, make it your own.

The fashionable line, is, of course, that the classical concert in its present rigid form – audience in a darkened hall listening in silence to musicians in formal clothes playing music by a mix of dead (or living and unfathomable composers) – is doomed. Suggestions range from video screens, allowing in mobile phones for tweeting and filming, drinks in the hall, less ’us and them’ between audience and platform and a more Mediterranean attitude to children. It all surely points to a yearning to break down the intimidating etiquette imposed by a past generation.

Well-intended antidotes are practised by us all: we commission rock musicians to write operas; we put string quartets in shipping malls, opera in pubs, late-night contemporary music concerts in clubs (the adult daughter of a well-known composer told me recently that every time she heard anything atonal she felt exhausted. She put it down to a childhood of only ever hearing new music after 10pm). There are excellent projects with orchestras, opera companies and the wider community – Sir Simon Rattle´s Rite of Spring project with the Berlin Philharmonic and the city´s ethnic communities; Graham Vick´s massive site-specific opera projects in Birmingham. Neither, however, now drives such communities to their concert halls for Beethoven.

I´d suggest that it is not the classical concert which is the problem, but the venue. It´s not new to suggest that we are continuing to build and to perform in spaces which were designed for previous centuries. Long before the digital age, before anything recorded, tweeted or projected, before six channels of TV and Netflix in the days when choice was simple, audiences who wanted music went to the private salon, theatre, concert hall or opera. There is little evidence to suggest that they were any younger than today´s average attender. But they established a tradition on which time now tramples.

In our age of enormous and revolutionary choice, we are becoming confused, and the rigidity of the conventional concert hall is fuelling the muddle. We want a concert to be an event, but we want it to be friendly. We want to be seen to belong, but we want to be accepted as individuals. We want to express ourselves but we want others to shut up and respect our listening space. We say that we are searching frantically for a new, younger audience, but we don´t like it when they don´t behave the way we do. Those of us who want to immerse ourselves in the music hate the introduction of visuals; those who find the music boring are delighted to have something to look at. We want our children to grow up ’cultured’ but we are scandalised when they wriggle.

So let´s stop trying to shoe-horn change into inappropriate spaces. The fine classical concert is a transcendental experience performed in a formal hall as great artists or soloists tell the composer´s story. Such expertise and beauty will always deserve respectful silence. Whatever the audience size, it wants to listen without distraction. That they may be older is no problem. Lets have other, different concerts where the orchestra – yes, the orchestra talk to a wider audience – about how it feels to play a great Tchaikovsky oboe solo, a Stockhausen percussion clash or indeed second viola in Mozart– as well as the expert musicologist discussing the composer. The latter audience may then grow into becoming the former.

The performance where we have a phone in one hand and a can of Hansa in the other can be equally exciting, but it asks for a more intimate venue with much looser social dynamic. It might be a string quartet and electronics or film and solo trombone, but it´s a given that the etiquette is entirely different. Then, there is the site-specific performance – where the audience line the bare walls of a warehouse, or follow the performers though a maze of tunnels – which offers something different again, an unpredictable physical experience and a changing aural landscape.

And it´s tough to demand that the child whose life is by and large splintered into sound bites and virtual relationships should sit still throughout a long performance in an alien grown-up hall. Let´s design terrific special performances in interesting spaces with lots of chat and visual effects, along with listening quietly for shorter periods at home.

Perhaps IKEA´s message is relevant. We don´t want ubiquitous blue and yellow. But there is something about its cheerful generosity that could inform the heart of our offer to the audience: here is something you and many others have chosen. Take it in its many pieces, place it where you will and make it your own.

Mary Miller

Also read: Baldur Brönnimann’s article “10 things that we should change in classical concerts”

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