More and more orchestras, particularly in Europe, are availing themselves of the services of an animateur. What is an animateur? The English version of Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for it, and the French version states that an animateur is one who animates a group of people. Not a very helpful definition, is it?
So I’ll let Thomas Cabaniss, composer and animateur with the Philadelphia Orchestra, tell you exactly what it means and what he does in that capacity for the orchestra.
I’d better get the most pertinent question out of the way, the one I get most often. So, what is an animateur? The word is French, meaning, variously:
to animate, to bring to life, to enliven, to spark, to create, to produce
The tradition of having an animateur as an integral part of an orchestra is, curiously, British. Many orchestras in the U.K. have animateurs on staff (some are orchestra musicians and some are composers); they are musicians who are committed to community work. That’s what an animateur is, but what does one do?
An animateur is charged with seeing that audiences get a chance to connect to the orchestra and its music in new ways. He or she helps the players as they develop techniques for reaching out to the communities in which they reside – in my case, in Philadelphia and its surrounds. The notion of hiring an animateur in Philadelphia came out of an institution-wide planning process that started at the beginning of Christoph Eschenbach’s tenure as music director in 2003. The motto that came out of that process was “raising the invisible curtain.” The Philadelphia Orchestra, influenced by many of the innovations of the London Symphony Orchestra (and its animateur Richard MacNichol), was interested in addressing the divide that can sometimes arise between performers and their audiences. Philadelphia recognized that even when the orchestra is playing the most beautiful music in spectacular fashion, there can be members of the audience who, for one reason or another, feel left out or disengaged. And similarly, there are times when the orchestra can feel disconnected from its audience. An animateur is one of the many strategies employed to try to change that equation.
It’s not just a whimsical choice. The orchestra field has been working on this question in different ways, through marketing surveys, educational research projects, and think tanks. And there does seem to be a clear set of findings from all the data collection. We know that 85% of our present orchestra audiences have had some kind of meaningful musical experience in their lives: they played an instrument, sang in a choir, performed in a drum circle – they participated in music. From education research, we know that participation through hands-on experiences is a central part of learning, retention, and motivation for repeated engagement in a field of knowledge.
So, how does an orchestra go about getting its audience to participate without it interrupting or intruding on the concert experience? This has probably been the stickiest question we have been dealing with over the last few years, and though we don’t have all the answers, here are three of our experiments and their (preliminary) results:
In addition to these three experiments, I have also worked with education and community partnership staff on family and school concerts, and in-school collaborations with both musicians and teaching artists. I have worked with marketing and PR staff on season announcement events, and I am currently helping to plan some of the orchestra’s festival programming. It’s a fascinating mix for me, and I have been honored to work with such dedicated artists and staff. The challenges are complex, some of our experiments fail, but it’s always interesting, and I do feel we are making progress.