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Should Orchestras Confine Themselves To A Certain Genre?

Answering a question from a colleague.

by Holly Mulcahy
July 6, 2009

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Should Orchestras Confine Themselves To A Certain Genre?

A few weeks back, there was a question posed on Inside The Arts by Joe Patti, the author of Butts In The Seats. Joe asked "Should orchestras confine their programming to just a few genres?" Responses from Inside The Arts bloggers and readers generated more interesting questions than answers, all of which got me thinking.

On one hand, some orchestras are limiting themselves by relegating the majority of programming to standard repertoire from 100-200 years ago. But isn't that what people expect? When they buy a ticket to go see the symphony, aren't they generally expecting a Brahmish, Beethovenesque or Mozarty type piece? When one goes to a steakhouse for dinner, one expects to see mostly steak on the menu. Why shouldn't orchestras approach ticket buyers the same way?

On the other hand, some orchestras go in completely the opposite direction by trying to attract ticket buyers with increased offerings of rock/pop (under the buzzword of being "approachable"). Luring audiences in with, say, The Beach Boys, or Cheryl Crow, and playing a bunch of garbage arrangements of the star's music that really don't need any orchestral accompaniment at all. My least favorite and most humiliating thing about this ploy (and yes, it is a ploy) is when an orchestra has a rock star or group come in as a guest, and make an audience to wait to hear anything from the star until after intermission. The audience is then forced to listen to cheesy overtures and the sappiest hits from centuries ago, as if to say "See, this is what you really need to be listening to," or, "Recognize this? Maybe your cell phone played it or you heard it on a TV commercial," or worse yet, "See, we're cool. This is fast and exciting music, and you as audience members like loud, fast, and exciting."

This approach has always approached me as lowest common denominator marketing by attempting to lure unsuspecting ticket buyers in and then slam them with propaganda that they will just have to love and cram it right down their collective throats! In a way, this has been the problem with orchestras all along, they try to force audiences what to think and feel.

The line between insipid and inspired is fine but I am glad to say that I've been part of concerts billed as "pops" that were decidedly inspired. There are plenty of genres that can be played tastefully by an orchestra and they shouldn't be restricted by attempts to categorize. Those types of concerts can certainly be successful but another Inside The Arts blogger brings up a very valid point about this. How can an orchestra be versatile and skilled enough to play a Bruckner or Mahler and be able to pull off the correct technique of contemporary style? The example used was Michael Jordan: Great at pro basketball, but pretty useless as a pro baseball player.

Is it fair to compare orchestra players to Michael Jordan? You bet. Musicians are athletes on their instruments, and the training involved parallels that of professional athletes. But the big difference is orchestras aren't as easy to measure in a competitive sense (we don't keep score). All an orchestra has to do is play a convincing and sincere program that engages and stimulates an audience in order to "win."

So my answer is this: orchestras should play primarily traditional genres but occasionally mix in interesting alternatives that make effective use of our instrumentation and skills. Yes, I go to a steak house because of the steak, but I expect the kitchen to offer few interesting and different side dish choices to mix it up a bit.

Comments (3)

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Justin Locke from boston ma writes:
July 6, 2009
well if i may,

in considering what programming would be most effective and desirable, do we have any hard data on just exactly what "the audience"-- those prone-to-coughing, cell-phone-carrying, noisy voyeuristic strangers in the dark-- really want to hear? it is my contention that the classical music business in general doesn't really pursue the concept of defining "buyer personas" as much as we should. instead of market research, we all too often presume to know what they ought to hear. certainly, we are usually in a better position to advise, but are we advising and connecting, or are we just announcing? did you ever hear the phrase "customer service" in music school?

also, my favorite question, what business are orchestras in? do we provide a product or are we providing a service? well both i guess-- using the metaphor of a steak house, the food is a big part of it, but if the waitstaff consistently ignores you when you drop your fork and need a new one, you may stop going, no matter how good the food is.

One of the biggest topics in the business world these days is using social media to listen to customers. in the music business, we expect our customers to listen to us. are we doing the same for them? -- justin locke

Ron Spigelman from In Lake Placid right now writes:
July 8, 2009
Justin made same salient points, there should be a holistic approach that needs to include a look at accessibility, customer service and the seeking of audience input. Moving an audience in any given direction has to include their consent, and that might mean making it a process to get them there, so that the jump to something new is easy to take, like any learning process.

I wanted to take one small exception to something you said regarding pops and that is many of the guest "stars" I have worked with will only play for 55 - 60 minutes which necessitates a 1st half of some kind (some even specify that they require a 1st half from us). You are right when you say many times 1st halves to pops are pretty much a waste of space (my favorite was hearing about the assistant who thought that 3 Wagner overtures would be great on the first half of Burt Bacharach!), so there needs to be much more effort and creativity in 1st half Pops programming. I like to either make it music that fits with the artist or sometimes even give a whole theme to the first half and advertise it as essentially 2 concerts in 1. For a Willie Nelson 1st half I did an "On the Road Again" theme which has now morphed into a full orchestra pops all about "Route 66". It is not an educational event to try and "convert" pops buyers into classical buyers I agree and that is insulting, as if to say "I know you can't wait to hear James Taylor, but what we do is better!" No, in those situations we need to be what I call the the 3 E's?: engaging, exciting and entertaining. Then just maybe we will surprise some people with our versatility and who knows what might happen....
Ron Spigelman - Sticks and Drones

Rob Simonds writes:
July 9, 2009

I too believe that the average Pops series is lacking artistically. The music is often hopelessly dated and the arrangements are poor. The nostalgia acts we engage preceded by some tribute to this or that musical from a hundred years ago is embarrassing. However, to follow your steak house reasoning, the audiences that come seem to love it. Orchestras advertise classical and pops to different audiences and I rarely think we mislead either of them.

However, I think that this limited vocabulary is at the root of our problems moving into the future. We are community organizations that serve far too small a percentage of our community. If there were a way to meaningfully increase the classical audiences by playing more Mozart then we would have found it. The Pops audiences, at least where I work, are already older than the classical. People of my parent's generation already don't listen to our standard Pops format. We have begun to include more recent decades but I fear we are just continuing the same cycle.

I believe that our industry has the collective talent to tackle the issues of what contemporary art is. Not what we wish it were. When the Boston Symphony hired Levine the Globe published an article talking about how the local musical community was coming to BSO concerts again. I am not advocating we do more avant garde programming. But we do run the risk of alienating ourselves out of the market if the people in our cities who are voracious consumers of music rarely if ever think about paying to hear us. (The BSO is doing more popular programming now) The musical sophistication that exists in indie rock, for example, is one that we would be well served to investigate. It may not feel as good as playing Mahler but in my mind reaching people with our instruments is primary. Personally, it will always feel better than a Salute to ________?

Collaborating with artists who are creating now is something we are foreign to. It may be why we can't connect with anyone outside of our circle. Learning new music and participating in new music that people care about is a window to a whole new audience. Hopefully.

Also, performing with the people who actually write and create their own music may be the way to get over the hurdle of specialization. When was the last time you played a medley of big band tunes with a conductor that had any idea about jazz? In my experience, playing with musicians that create the sound they are known for are able to communicate it one way or another.

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