Shock and Awe: Young People’s and ‘Outreach’ Concerts That Could Actually Build a New Audience



Clarke Bustard
Photo by Eric Dobbs

In 1958, I heard a symphony orchestra in the flesh for the first time. I was one of about 5,000 elementary school kids who heard the Richmond (VA) Symphony give its first youth concert. The program was Honegger‘s Pacific 231, Ives‘s The Unanswered Question, and Stravinsky‘s Firebird Suite.

They don’t do kiddie concerts like that anymore. And you have to wonder why.

Of all the existing or potential audiences for art-music, none is more wide-open to modern and contemporary music than youngsters. They haven’t been conditioned to prefer C major chords to tone clusters. They’re quite fond of loud noises and grinding dissonances—the typical 8-year-old is a connoisseur of discordance, as any parent can attest. Once they’ve left the Teletubbies behind at age 3 or so, they’ve had it with the cute and sweet. Their metabolism is attuned to the energetic and aggressive.

This is an audience primed for John Adams‘s Short Ride in a Fast Machine or Joan Tower‘s Petroushskates, not Pachelbel’s Canon or Bach’s Air on a G String—not even Ravel‘s Bolero (loud enough, but too slow). It’s also an audience that doesn’t realize Babbitt and Boulez are more “difficult” than Beethoven and Brahms. So why do orchestras typically feed their youngest patrons classical highlight reels like “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” and similar bite-sized portions of the old standards? Not that there’s anything wrong with the “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” concept—it’s a surprisingly nourishing production, especially for the musically clueless 30- or 40-year-old.

Wait, that couldn’t be the answer, could it? Are orchestras mistaking entry-level, pre-teen listeners for their parents? Has it been so long since programmers for youths were young themselves that they’ve forgotten what engages kids?

That’s part of it. Another, and I think more significant part is that the classical snippets most orchestra musicians can play in their sleep are much cheaper to prepare than contemporary works orchestras rarely play because their subscription audiences don’t want to hear them. What’s the point of spending valuable rehearsal time on an unfamiliar score when it will only be presented to kids or casual concertgoers?

The answer to that should be obvious: It’s a good idea artistically to challenge your musicians with something they can’t play on autopilot from time to time, regardless of when or where the piece ultimately is performed. But that’s a hard sell to many cash-strapped orchestra administrations and most orchestra boards. (Maybe you’ve heard the story of the board member who suggested to the music director that the orchestra could save a lot of money by playing romantic symphonies with fewer violins. It’s not apocryphal.)

The assumption made by many orchestras is that youth programs and other non-subscription “outreach” events are the season’s bulk filler, and that the audiences aren’t sophisticated enough to know good music, and good music-making, from bad, and that it would be foolish to waste scarce resources such as rehearsal time and funds for score rentals on these “marginal” events. Thirty or forty years of such thinking has marginalized many orchestras in their communities. Their serious programming is directed to increasingly elderly, white audiences, plus listeners of East Asian descent who constitute the only minority audience most symphony orchestras can claim.

Meanwhile, the rest of the community, especially the multi-ethnic, young-adult crowd that sustains the most vibrant urban art scenes, has grown almost totally estranged from art-music, at least the kind that’s performed by orchestras and other classical establishment institutions. Young adults have come of age with a perception of classical music implanted by the pop-culture and advertising industries—an image nicely encapsulated in a television ad you may recall from the 1990s, in which a string-quartet recital abruptly ends when a biker on his chopper crashes through the wall. Not-so-subliminal message: Out with the old.

Highbrow musicians have not come up with an effective strategy to dispel the notion that they are agents of the old, ponderous foils for the agile new. They’ve tried, God knows, but their attempts tend to be inept, palpably phony impersonations of hipness. Gilbert & Sullivan on rollerblades (in honor of an unforgettably awful restaging of The Mikado) is our local shorthand for such endeavors, which “connect” only in provoking eye-rolling and cackling.

Even the most effective efforts to engage youths and other new audiences for substantive music—programs by the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Christopher O’Riley, and talks with musical examples, ˆ la Leonard Bernstein, by articulate conductors with a knack for the American vernacular, such as Michael Tilson Thomas and David Zinman—are a heroic struggle against the accumulated gravity of decades of listener ignorance, presenter snobbery and creaky programming reflexes, and the ruthless typecasting of art-music by the pop culture.

It’s easy to conclude that it’s a struggle almost inevitably doomed to fail.

Almost, but not quite.

Here are some suggested strategies for orchestras trying to connect with young audiences—and, for that matter, older listeners who aren’t attuned to art-music.

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Let’s start with programming…

From the Top

First impressions count. And it shouldn’t be news, even to highbrows, that today’s attention spans have shortened to the point that first impressions are formed, even cemented, very quickly. That’s certainly true when it comes to music. Three generations of pop songs have conditioned people to decide almost instantly whether or not they like a piece of music. Savvy songwriters know they’ve got just a few seconds to get to the “hook” that grabs the listener.

Serious compositions that reach the hook quickly are pretty rare—Mozart‘s Haffner and Jupiter symphonies, Beethoven’s Fifth, Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman Overture. Among modern classics, the “Hoedown” from Copland‘s Rodeo and the first movements of Hindemith‘s Weber Metamorphoses and Janacek‘s Sinfonietta hit the money shot quickly.

If you really want to jolt a restless crowd of pre-teens into attention, though, I recommend “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” from The Firebird. No announcement, no explanation, just dim the lights and let it fly. The louder and speedier, the better. Four and a half minutes of shock and awe.

Now that we have your attention…

Involve your listeners directly. Invite them, say, to place their hands on their chests and feel their heartbeats. Then play a piece that begins with a heartbeat. Ravel’s La Valse is a good choice, especially as it develops into another awesome orchestration. It’s also a useful display of the tone colors an orchestra can produce that are beyond the electronic instrumentation of pop song.

Range of color is one of the most pronounced differences between a symphony orchestra and everything else your audience will have heard. Wider dynamic range is another difference. Turning the listener’s ear with those differences is not unlike dazzling the eye with a new and different special effect in a film. Exploit what can be done with this instrument that cannot be done in “regular” music.

Breathing Room

OK, you’ve shocked, awed, surprised, and dazzled. Now you’re free to go where you shouldn’t have risked going sooner—into slower or quieter music, or into more rarified tone coloration, or towards something more intellectually meaty, like an explanation of sonata form or maybe contrasting examples of musical style.

How about juxtaposing a classical-period dance—say, the Menuetto from Haydn‘s Symphony No. 97 (my favorite symphonic drinking song)—with an analogous bit of Prokofiev or Poulenc?

Punch Line

You’ve introduced entry-level listeners to an unfamiliar music. Now come full circle. Show them that—surprise!—it’s not as unfamiliar as they may have thought. Now’s the time to link the classics to the more familiar realms of movie music and pop song.

Segue from “Perdido” or some other chestnut of the swing era to John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Or from Bernard Herrmann‘s Psycho Suite to the Capriccio from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Once you’re into the X-recalls-Y mental-association mode, you’ll find the possibilities are legion.

For a big finish—and a progression into the near-present tense—try one of Michael Torke‘s “color” pieces. (Green is a personal favorite.) Torke is one of the contemporary composers (Paul Schoenfield, Michael Daugherty, and Osvaldo Golijov are others) who’ve mastered the precarious balance between classical style and the energy level and sensibility of the pop idiom.

Our sample program:

  1. Stravinsky: “King Kastchei” from The Firebird
  2. Ravel: La Valse
  3. Haydn: Menuetto from Symphony No. 97
  4. Poulenc: Rag-mazurka from Les Biches
  5. Herrmann: Psycho Suite
  6. Lutoslawski: Capriccio from Concerto for Orchestra
  7. Torke: Green

That may not look too radical to readers of this site, but compare it with the typical symphony kiddie concert or outreach program and you’ll see how far most orchestras need to progress in their presentations to youths and other new audiences.

* * *

Music, alas, is not all there is to it. Presentation matters at least as much—maybe, in this visual age, more.

Returning to my hometown, the Richmond Symphony used to stage in-school concerts with the musicians looking like they were attending a funeral or applying for an office job. When I observed to one of the players that their attire could not be more off-putting to a crowd of high-schoolers, the response was: “We think it’s boring, too. But the schools want us to dress like the teachers.”

Just say no. Symphony musicians are in the performing business, which is a making-a-singular-impression business. They should under no circumstances appear onstage looking like garden-variety grownups. Nor should they look like the wait staff of an overpriced restaurant or the denizens of a cocktail party in a 1930s movie. No business suits. No tuxedos and gowns. No jeans and polo shirts, either—looking like the students is as ill-advised as looking like the teachers.

In Richmond nowadays, the orchestra does school dates wearing black-on-black (sans denim)—a bit too ’80s SoHo, perhaps, but a quantum leap from business suits and sensible shoes. If I were outfitting the musicians, I would go for a more continental look to complement their still-largely European repertory.

Appearance must be complemented by attitude. As an orchestra’s musicians tend to come across as a mass of anonymous faces, it’s up to the conductor to project the collective personality. This may be the toughest hurdle orchestras have to surmount.

The old image of the white-haired maestro with the exotic accent and forbiddingly prodigious intellect may be a moldy artifact, but no new prototype has really taken its place, certainly none that emanates irresistible charisma. Orchestra boards and administrators hunting for a charismatic conductor typically want another Bernstein, a brainy virtuoso with a gift for vernacular gab, giving off a distinct whiff of the cool and hip. What they usually have to choose from are earnest products of the conservatory. How many conservatories or advanced conducting programs require their students to take classes in public speaking or acting? Or provide them with any practice in introducing classical music to a lay public? Or offer any guidance in translating the technical patois of music into language that most people can understand?

Because conductors are not prepared linguistically, and nowhere near as well-schooled in connecting with an audience as they are in connecting with musicians, their first talking gigs are often painful exercises in trial and error. For 25 years, I’ve watched young conductors learning on the job as they give verbal presentations to audiences in schools and at pops and casual concerts. They grope for analogies and grasp for superlatives. They impose narratives on abstract works. (Good thing dead composers don’t get to hurl lightning bolts.) They resort to silly props and sight gags. They try to compose program notes on the fly. The more gifted or insightful often veer into overheated stream-of-consciousness raps that leave the audience bewildered and embarrassed. Passionate, enthusiastic, and informed as they may be in their presentations, very few conductors are cool, self-deprecating, or ironic—the qualities that audiences are accustomed to seeing in an appealing, persuasive talker.

To connect successfully with a lay audience—especially a young one—conductors and other verbal presenters of music must distill their facts and impressions into straightforward phrases with punchy adjectives. (Maestro needs thesaurus.) They should develop an actor’s or comedian’s sense of timing. They should rehearse their rap at least as well as they rehearse their music. In deciding what to say and how to say it, they should ask themselves, “What would Conan O’Brien do?”

O’Brien probably wouldn’t accept the gig. Serious music never was an easy sell, and it’s harder today than ever before. But if you’re going to make the pitch, make it right. Make it relevant to the people you’re trying to reach. Make it surprise and stimulate, and spark curiosity for more.

Above all, make it very, very well. Young or uninitiated listeners may not know Liszt from Ligeti, but they know the difference between making music passionately and phoning it in. A routine performance before such a crowd is nothing less than slow-motion suicide.

In the not very long run, the symphony orchestra’s institutional life depends on making this sale.

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Clarke Bustard covers classical music and visual arts for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His column "A Case for Early Music Education" won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 2003; his criticism and reporting also have won awards from national and state press associations. Bustard has taught arts journalism at the University of Richmond, newswriting at Randolph-Macon College, and has lectured on music criticism at Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University and Virginia Commonwealth University. He also has produced several radio series, most recently "Concertmasters," for Central Virginia Public Broadcasting.