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Fishing With The Right Bait

Should patrons be allowed a say in programming?

by Holly Mulcahy
August 3, 2009

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Fishing With The Right Bait

Last month I participated in a cross blog discussion about whether orchestras should vary their genres beyond standard orchestral repertoire. There was much discussion and interesting comments both here and at the other blogs but I was left wondering what would happen if orchestras would seek some programming views from the people that buy the tickets beyond the traditional "patron's choice" style programs.

A year ago, Chicago Opera Theater offered the audience a unique opportunity to pick which opera they wanted to hear. For just a buck, people could vote with their wallets between three operas. The winning opera would be performed the following season.
I wonder what would happen if orchestras regularly offered a similar voting campaign. A dollar is not a lot, but it allows a general patron to have a voice in what they want to hear. And the money raised could provide a much needed boost during times when annual giving is down, especially if there was a passionate patron who was determined to win!
When orchestras plan upcoming seasons, there is usually great care in trying to create well rounded programs. Usual goals for a "successful" program are based around a combination of what the music director wants to conduct and what artistic administrators believe will sell tickets. In orchestral planning meetings, phrases like, "Audiences will just clamor to the doors if we program a Tchaikovsky or Beethoven symphony; that will really generate tickets sales." Or, "I don't think our audience will like Bartok, let's stick with..."

While a Tchaikovsky symphony might draw an audience, would that audience be drawn in by Bruckner? Mahler? Hindemith? There are a lot of assumptions when planning but wouldn't it be nice to stop dumbing down the musical offerings and actually ask the audience what they want for a change?

What if orchestras designed a competition like Chicago Opera Theater's that allowed audience members to hear snippets of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, or Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis and actually decide for themselves which sounds cooler: hashed over Beethoven Symphony or one of these fresh options that some artistic administrators shy away from due to concern over public reaction?

Having a dollar per vote mechanism in place not only allows the audience a type of participation, it creates an environment that teaches the orchestra what bait to use when fishing for ticket buyers.

Comments (3)

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telemann from Fairfax writes:
August 4, 2009
Holly, you betray your establishmentarian - uh, I was going to say "indoctrination", but it would be more diplomatic to say "influences" when you draw a deep breath and ask whether it would be a good idea for audiences to have a role in determining the repertory of classical ensembles.

The revolution of the arts in the early 20th Century was a cataclysmic development that shifted focus on music from communication, service, inspiration and entertainment of audiences to self actualization on the part of composers. It now became the accepted norm that audiences and other consumers of music were unqualified to hold valid opinions about the worth and quality of music. That had to be determined by the pros.

Babbitt may have been more blunt than most professionals when he declared "Who cares if you listen", and Charles Rosen might not be the model for orchestra managers' outreach when he made it clear that audiences lacking professional skills or experience should be kept out of decisionmaking roles. Pierre Boulez was candid when he said that for him the primary purpose of public concerts was to test his musical conceptions.

The stereotype that it's a choice between Lutoslawski for the professionals and Beethoven for audiences was created by the professionals - not audiences.

We will not be able to break the downward slide in classical music's influence in society and reconnection with youth until - in my opinion- we get away from the entrenched philosophy that music is a research field like particle physics or pleistocene stratigraphy - to be controlled by peer researchers - and back to the idea that it is a medium for communication and inspiration.

Ron Spigelman from Springfield writes:
August 5, 2009
It shouldn't just be a competition, but a policy, we have doubled our audiences in 5 years by adopting the approach of asking for audience input and making a point of including their selections. This is not pandering, it is communicating and listening. We are always going to program Beethoven 9, Mozart Requiem etc... so why not let the audience request them? They always do. I have relayed the following story already on Sticks and Drones but it is pertinent here: once I was on our local NPR station helping with their pledge dirve and with 5 mins to go we were $150 short of goal, so on the spur of the moment I offered the next person who pledged that amount to pick the Beethoven Symphony we would do the following season out of 2,4,5,6,8. Within 5 seconds there were several calls and the 1st caller picked 8. Ironically I was going to program No. 8 but instead the caller did, NPR made the goal for the hour and whats more the caller bought 10 tickets to the concert to bring her friends to hear "her" Symphony. I would say that was win, win win!

Gene De Lisa from Haddonfield, NJ writes:
August 11, 2009
Hindemith wrote a "Concerto for Orchestra" also; actually the first one. So you questions could be phrased:

Which Concerto for Orchestra would you like to hear: Lutoslawski, Bartok or Hindemith?

You are not going to get me to buy a ticket just because the Jupiter Symphony is on the program. I loved it the first 1,000,000,000,000,000 times I heard it. Sell me on what you are uniquely offering.

Did you bother to relate the pieces on the program in some way? Or was it just random. Perhaps "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" on the same program to show just how arrogant the second title is?

Or, hell, how about putting the above mentioned Concertos for Orchestra on the same program?

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