Roll over, Beethoven: Classical music turns to technology as audience ages
By Barbara Zuck
Columbus Dispatch, November 5, 2006
Opera in Times Square, orchestras on iTunes, maestros on podcasts.
To counter graying audiences and sagging support, classical music is going contemporary.
The most conservative American art form, in fact, is trying to change its image.
"The message is to talk to people in new ways," said Carrie Krysanick, public relations director for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
"It’s about how people get their news and information, and how we can get our news and information to them."
From sea to shining sea, classical institutions are going on the offensive — perhaps in the nick of time.
According to a 2002 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, audiences for symphony orchestras and chamber-music groups are now the oldest for any of the fine arts in America, with a median age of 49.
The median audience age for opera — 48 — is barely younger.
Combine the aging audiences with shrinking public support, increasing competition from electronic media and popular entertainment, a lack of superstars with name recognition and the post-Sept. 11 malaise, and the negatives stack up. Just Google "the death of classical music" and see what you get.
But not everyone in the field is content to roll over and play dead.
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony and 61-year-old protege of Leonard Bernstein, announced in June the $23 million, five-year Keeping Score project.
Combining national PBS broadcasts and a radio series with educational outreach efforts, Thomas is striving with his orchestra to re-create the magic of Bernstein’s "Young People’s Concerts." He is hosting three TV shows and eight radio programs.
"Keeping Score is designed to give to people who have been intimidated by the rituals of classical music the chance to get past that," Thomas said by e-mail.
"If I were sitting down next to somebody before I was about to play a piece on the piano, I’d say, ‘Let me tell you a few things’ — one-on-one, as simple and direct as that. . . . My goal is to clarify everyone’s intentions — what the composer had in mind, what the performers have in mind, what kind of voyage of discipline and self-discovery goes into the process of making music."
Perhaps the exposure will help Thomas become something missing in the 21 st century — a classical media personality comparable to maestros such as Bernstein and artists such as Pavarotti in the 20 th century.
On the East Coast, institutions are also unveiling initiatives. The new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, is taking a high-tech, high-stakes approach to revitalizing the company’s image and maybe taking some of the "snooty" out of it.
In recent months, Gelb:
• Gave away 2,000 tickets to the final dress rehearsal for the 2006-07 season opener, Madama Butterfly, and presented a broadcast of the opening performance on outdoor screens in Times Square and Lincoln Center Plaza.
• Established a relationship with Sirius Satellite Radio, enabling subscribers to hear archival Met performances without interruptions.
• Announced that six of the season’s productions would be transmitted live to movie theaters throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
• Began weekly Internet streamings of live Met productions, starting with the Oct. 25 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
• Initiated a ticket-sale "rush" program, making $100 orchestra seats available for $20 two or three times a week.
The efforts, Gelb said, are "symbolic of our plans to keep the Met connected to mainstream culture and contemporary life."
Response to these and other new programs has been "fantastic," according to associate press director Peter Clark. Although percentages haven’t been calculated, ticket sales and attendance are up this season, he said.
"There is a line down the block here every afternoon the special rush tickets are on sale," he said. "We don’t have specifics yet, . . . but, yes, the audience is broadening through this program and the other initiatives."
Other major American institutions are hopping on the bandwagon:
• The Philadelphia Orchestra and a few other large symphonies have upgraded their Web sites to offer free downloads of music and to sell compact discs of archival performances (www.thephiladelphia orchestra.com).
• Opera America initiated online learning courses through partnerships with nine North American companies.
• The Cincinnati Symphony launched several high-tech projects featuring Music Director Paavo Jarvi: giant preconcert videos; free podcasts of conversations between Jarvi and his players; and DVDs of his first season.
Tony Beadle, new executive director of the Columbus Symphony, said the orchestra would also be doing more "get-toknow-us" events as well as "concerts aimed at those who have no knowledge of or affinity with a symphony orchestra." In a program new this season, groups of young professionals meet with Music Director Junichi Hirokami in pre-concert chats and post-concert parties.
Beadle praised the Thomas and Gelb initiatives even as he noted their hefty price tags.
Bill Conner, president of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, also applauded the efforts toward securing younger and more diverse audiences.
"From CAPA’s perspective," he said, "I think that audience development has become our mission."
CAPA continues its annual Signature Series of prestigious classical performers but recently branched out into funky American musical theater. A partnership with the Ohio State University Theater Department resulted in six almost-sold-out performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show last season at the Southern Theatre, where the same team will present Hair this month.
Another initiative is the partnership between Chamber Music Columbus and Columbus’ Chamber Music Connection, provider of coaching and performing opportunities for young musicians: Students attend concerts, play short pre-concert programs and attend workshops offered by the touring professionals. The arrangement is bearing fruit: More than 50 young people and their families attended Chamber Music Columbus’ Oct. 21 concert with the Cypress String Quartet, said Ivan Mueller, past president.
Yes, classical music has been shaken in recent years, but many in the industry remain optimistic that audiences can still be found and can grow.
"This art form is too vital and has meant too much to civilization for too long to die," said Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "Might we have to adjust how we present it? Yes, but the marketplace will make us figure that out."