Monday, 14 May 2012

What´s the problem with classical music? Apparently, none...


Gustavo Dudamel (photo taken from the blog Opera Fanatics)

Gustavo Dudamel is, at this moment, the face of classical music´s popularity. I recently read that his latest album is nr. 3 on the swedish pop chart (ahead of Madonna). I don´t know whether I am wrong, but I think that we hadn´t seen something like this since the time of the three tenors. I do believe it is fortunate when one can count with the contribution of such ‘phenomena’, who, through their art and their great capacity to communicate, manage to open windows for thousands of people to things they had never experienced before. Thanks to them, this world (and also those of opera and ballet) – seen by many as closed, elitist, incomprehensible, uninteresting, ‘stuffy’ – becomes demystified, surprises, enthuses, touches, gets a place in people´s lives. In the meantime, there are many more professionals (artists, but also programming directors, managers, communication and education professionals) who also contribute, although at a different scale, so that more and more people may get in tuch with the world of classical music, discover it, share it.

One cannot deny that the lack of familiarity with the experience is a fundamental barrier. A survey recently carried out in the UK confirmed it once again. According to it, 15% of those surveyed (which would correpond to 7.3 million adults), when questioned about the artistic expeience they would like to have, they said they would be interested in going to the opera (read article here). When they asked them why they had never done it before, 62% said it was too expensive. Nevertheless, 14% (which corresponds to more than 4 million people) answered that they didn´t know enough to be able to appreciate this art form and 7% were worried about not knowing the etiquette.

Familiarity relates to various issues (both practical – like, indeed, the etiquette – as well as specific knowledge and even relevance to people´s lives), which institutions and professionals of the filed are trying to address in various ways. One of them are the so-called flash mobs, which have multiplied in these last years. I remember this one in particular, at a market in Valencia, where in the end a panel appeared saying: “Do you see how much you like opera?”. ´




On the other side of the Atlantic, the Knight Foundation funds Random Acts of Culrure in airports, markets, fast food restaurants, shops, and justifies this investment on its website as follows: “Hearing Handel, or seeing the tango in an unexpected place provides a deeply felt reminder of how the classics can enrich our lives. As you’ll see in our videos, the performances make people smile, dance, grab their cameras – even cry with joy. For those brief moments, people going along in their everyday lives are part of a shared, communal experience that makes their community a more vibrant place to live.”


Words used by visitors to Re-Rite to describe the experience.

In this line of action, and although it was not live (but it almost was...), I believe we should also include the unique experience of Re-rite, presented last year by the Gulbenkian Foundation at MUDE (see here and here), which placed us in the middle of a huge symphonic orchestra and even gave us the opportunity to take the maestro´s and musicians´ place. When exiting, visitors were asked to describe the experience in three words. "Exciting", "vibrant", "fantastic", "involving" were some of the words more frequently used. In the meantime, one third of the people surveyed admited that they wouldn´t have used these same words to describe a concert before visiting Re-Rite. "I had no idea", "I didn´t know", "I had never been to a concert", "I didn´t have this perception", were some of the reasons given. One is curious to find out know whether the experience took some of these people to the Gulbenkian Season concerts, as almost 50% of those surveyed had expressed the wish to do so*.

But taking this step, which makes us come out of our institutions and go to meet the people does not answer all their doubts, is not enough by itself to break the barrier related to the etiquette or everything that really goes on in the concert hall, the stage and behind the scenes. The
Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago acknowledges these doubts and takes advantage of 30 free concerts and 50 open rehearsals, in an extremely accessible location like the Millennium Park, to encourage those who attend the festival (25% of which for the first time) to ask the questions. Everything from “what does the maestro do”, “why is the orchestra divided in sections like this” to the inevitable “can I clap now” get to be answered here (read more in Overcoming cultural barriers: romancing the newcomers in Millennium Park). In London, Opera Holland Park invites people to attend its performances making available tickets at an affordable price, but, mainly, creating an informal environment, where people, especially those coming for the first time, do not need to worry about the etiquette. Still in London, the Royal Ballet presented live in March on the You Tube a day of work behind the scenes (read here), allowing the public to see this they rarely or never have the opportunity to know or follow.

Another approach still is the image institutions try to project regarding themselves and the nature of their offer through their publicity spots. The blog Slipped Disc presented various of them in these last days, where it is obvious the attempt to transmit the idea of an entertaining, relaxed and relevant experience. Two characteristic examples are those of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Luxembourg Philharmonic), but I would invite you to also watch this one, about the Royal Ballet, which, word has it, was created but a dancer and the Royal Ballet never ‘accepted’ it as its own (and what a pity if that is so...).




There are still more issues, related to the repertory, the composers, their life and work. The above mentioned Grant Park Music Festival, appart from making explainers available, allows for encounters with maestros and musicians, where one may talk about the programme. Among my personal experiences, I would mention two. First, a fascinating talk with musicologist Rui Leitão before a concert of the Metropolitana Orchestra. I din´t just appreciate the simplicity of his talk, totally accessible for those who knew little, but also the fact that those who knew a bit more were able to discover – yes, in that simple and informal approach – so many things, ,arvellous details, they did not know about. Then I would also mention the concert presenting National Symphony Orchestra´s 2011-2012 season at the Kennedy Center, where it was inpossible to resist the contagious energy of maestro Ankush Kumar Bahl, who - with much enthousiasm, sensitivity, passion and sense of humour – told brief stories and created beautiful contexts regarding the season´s highlights. What distinguished both talks was that they were conscious of not adressing their peers, deep connoisseurs, but the ‘general’ public, with whom they wished to be able to share this experience.

Anna Nicole Smith at the Royal Opera House (photo taken from the website of the ROH)
But repertory has not become stagnant. Naturally, artists continue to create, renew and even look for new ways of presentation in order to relate to more people. Minnesota Opera invests in new commissions because they feel the need to evolve, to move forward, to turn operatic art into an art form which is progressive, ambitious, innovative. One of their latest productions is an opera for teenage audiences based on a popular book, The Giver (watch here the interview with the staff). We should also mention examples like the Royal Opera House´s controversial production about the life of playmate Anna Nicole Smith (watch the trailer here) or Royal Ballet´s new production which brings together dancers, por singers and rappers (read here). And apart from these experiences with fusion (artistic or not), it´s also worth getting to know Alarm Will Sound, a contemporary music group which aims to touch people, regardless of their background, through concert-performances. They say they are aware that contemporary music concerts are a bit cold, because people are not familiar with this musical genre. Thus, through their music, but also through their bodies, energy and enthusiasm, they communicate what the music is about. And that which is little familiar might make some sense.

And after all this, here comes the so-called Churn Report (Orchestra Audience Growth Initiative) to say that, after all, the problem is not bringing new people in, but convincing them to come back… The study showed that 90% of firstcomers don´t come back; and 60% of occasional spectators don´t buy tickets for the following season. I was particularly surprised to find out in this report that the tastes of newcomers and frequent spectators regarding favourite composers and instruments are not as different as one might have expected (see charts) - after all it might not be so complicated to programme for both. It´s worth reading the results and recommendations of this survey, which proves, once again, that it´s not only the art that determines people´s options (thus, non-participation does not necessarily indicate a ‘problem’ with the art itself), but the whole experience, with which there is a need to create familiarity, without underestimating, at the same time, those practical and logistical details which may create barriers, no matter how strong the wish to attend.

*
Data from the survey with the visitors of Re-Rite at MUDE, kindly made available by the Music Service of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please can you let me know where the following stats came from? VERY useful.

...Survey recently carried out in the UK confirmed it once again. According to it, 15% of those surveyed (which would correpond to 7.3 million adults), when questioned about the artistic expeience they would like to have, they said they would be interested in going to the opera (read article here). When they asked them why they had never done it before, 62% said it was too expensive. Nevertheless, 14% (which corresponds to more than 4 million people) answered that they didn´t know enough to be able to appreciate this art form and 7% were worried about not knowing the etiquette.

Maria said...

Hello. You can click on "read article here" ("here" is a link to the article that mentioned these data).