Most readers of this blog will know of Greg Sandow, if only for the work that he’s done for Polyphonic. But he’s done a great deal of other stuff, including writing a blog for ArtsJournal.com. He recently did a post on something that Ray Ricker had written for this blog, and it’s worth reading in full, including the comments.
Greg has been advocating a very different approach for our institutions for a while now. I’m not inclined to agree with his basic thrust, which can be gleaned from the online syllabus for a course he’s teaching at Juilliard called Classical Music in a Age of Pop.
But I must admit that my disagreement isn’t based on any particular insights into audiences past and present, nor do I have a considered view of what our field should do to fix its problems in reaching a wider audience, or even in keeping the audience we have.
I find that, when I think about these kinds of problems, I have no idea what audiences like or don’t like, or even why they come to concerts at all. I know why I go to concerts (aside from the ones I play, of course). I don’t go to many; usually only concerts played by friends. Usually I go because I want to support them, or hear how they’re doing. Once there, I find myself focusing almost exclusively on how they play, and what I can learn about playing, or performing, from what they do.
As a consequence, perhaps, it’s not very often I enjoy a concert. When I do it’s usually because of some really extraordinary artistry. I heard Vienna in the pit at Salzburg in Don Giovanni (I was the next thing to being in the pit with them, as I had front-row seats overlooking the fourth desk of first violins). I was blown away by the quality of the string playing. I heard Berlin with Brendel at Carnegie doing the last Mozart concerto, and still remember the just how magically he played the opening of the slow movement.
As a rule, though, I find I enjoying playing music a lot more than I enjoy listening to it. I don’t think it’s an ego thing, or about being noticed (although few performers aren’t motivated at least in part by that). It’s just that music works best for me most of the time if I’m participating.
But that makes it very hard to look at concerts the way an audience might. I know I love playing Bruckner 8. I’d probably enjoy listening to a live performance by a really good orchestra, given how well I know the piece by now. But I’m not at all sure I’d enjoy it if I wasn’t familiar with Bruckner as a performer, which of course is the situation that most audience members find themselves in. And, if I don’t feel I’d enjoy it, it’s hard for me to imagine that someone who knows less about music that I do would enjoy it either. That doesn’t mean they won’t; it’s just hard for me to understand that they might.
It’s very frustrating to look out over a sea of faces from onstage and feel I don’t have a clue why any of them are there. It’s one of the many things that would make me a lousy arts manager.