The Ravinia Festival: A talk with Zarin Mehta

4. Crossover and New Audiences

FRANK J. OTERI: I know, interestingly enough, for me, one of the highlights of your brother‘s tenure with the New York Philharmonic was the commissioning of the 2nd sitar concerto of Ravi Shankar, which is one of the most remarkable syntheses of western music and Indian music, probably even more effective than his first concerto with André Previn.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah. And then another sitarist who’s written a sitar concerto and he wants us to do it, and I don’t know, it’s one of those things that we’ll have to look at. I personally feel so strongly about not mixing the mediums. You know, I don’t want to hear Ravi Shankar playing Bach, if you like. I’m not saying that he does, but what is the purpose of it? I agree that the 2nd concerto works better, but when you come right down to it, I’d rather hear him playing an hour of ragas than having an orchestra back him up. To me it doesn’t mean anything.

FRANK J. OTERI: I suppose it’s this question of getting people to come into the Pavilion, though, once again. How do you introduce a western classical audience who’s used to…

ZARIN MEHTA: To Indian music?

FRANK J. OTERI: …the symphony, to symphonic tradition?

ZARIN MEHTA: Well, I don’t think you do it by mixing the genres. I think that’s one of the mistakes people make in our business, is thinking that if you put a jazz artist with an orchestra, that it’ll bring the jazz world and vice versa. I think it keeps both away. I think, if you’re going to do… you know, Oscar Peterson‘s a prime example. Oscar’s from Montreal. I don’t know if you knew that. And in 1984 or so, we did a concert in the Montreal Forum where the ice hockey takes place, which we did a couple of times a year, major public things. We didn’t have an outdoor Ravinia. We used to go into the Forum which is air-conditioned in summer. And we did a jazz concert with the Symphony, Dutoit, it was for the celebration, it was the 5th Anniversary of the Montreal Jazz Festival, we got together to do this concert. The first half was Jean-Luc Ponty, the second half was Oscar. And Oscar had written a piece of 20 or 25 minutes called “Canadiana.” And he really wanted to play it with the Symphony; it was his hometown orchestra. So we said fine. And he did it, and it, you know, it was fine, it wasn’t great. Of course, the public applauded like mad, and I had arranged with him that he’d better play a couple of encores. Well, I tell you, he played a 40-minute encore, which was a medley of Fats Waller and so on. The orchestra sat absolutely spellbound on the stage, the 15,000 people in the arena sat down. And we really had 2 hours of, oh, and hour and a half of jazz crossed with classical music. What really made sense was him playing alone. Totally a cappella, if you like.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. But perhaps that audience would not have heard that had they not had… it’s the same idea that you were saying before of getting the people to hear Itzhak Perlman to play Tchaikovsky, and then they stay and hear Messiaen’s Turangalîla.

ZARIN MEHTA: But that’s still classical music. That’s not forcing something that doesn’t work. And if you ask the people who were there, they didn’t really enjoy Jean-Luc Ponty although Jean-Luc Ponty, was, you know, as a Frenchman in French Canada, was like a god and sold out everything. Hearing him play with his trio was more interesting than him playing with the orchestra. With the orchestra it didn’t mean much. It was an orchestrated trio.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, getting to this question, because we’re very interested in figuring out ways to build new audiences for classical music, for music in general, and for American composers, and now that we’re in the last year of the 20th century and approaching the 21st century, how do we bring younger people to hear this music? And how do we get orchestras and festivals and organizations to program more music of our time, and bring in these diverse elements? It’s very hard to say what the genres are anymore.

ZARIN MEHTA: Unfortunately, I think we talk at cross-purposes, in a way. If we talk about bringing in younger people into the hall, and at the same time talk about music of today, classical music of today, it’s unfortunate but I think that’s the reality. One can go back in history and say, hey, at the time of Schubert and Brahms and even Mahler, we played the music of that day. Well, with the revolution in communications, with radio and records and then television, people have gotten used to going back and having this historical document, and we got used to seeing that, and hearing it. So today’s music, in a classical sense, doesn’t have the same caché as does Beethoven or Brahms or Strauss.

FRANK J. OTERI: With a particular audience.

ZARIN MEHTA: I would say for, when you say a particular audience, I would say that’s 90% of the audience.

FRANK J. OTERI: The audience for classical music.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: But how do you account for a phenomenon like, say someone like Philip Glass, whose ensemble sells out halls all around America and Europe and brings in people who don’t normally listen to classical music.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yes, but thank you. If Philip Glass was to play in the 2,500-seat hall, 4 times a week for 35 weeks, would he sell out? That’s the question. Okay. I have no problem saying, Philip Glass, come with your ensemble to this 1,000-seat hall, and it will sell out, and if he comes back in two months time, he may sell out. When he comes back next year he’ll sell out again. That’s why I say that it’s a small audience. I’m not saying it doesn’t have to be developed. But will those people, because of being to Philip Glass, come the next week to a concert that includes Messiaen and Beethoven? I don’t know that. I’m not sure that they would. So, also you have to remember that at the turn of the century when we are saying that people went to new music of that time, how many concerts took place? What was happening with the managers and the conductors, you know, in those days the conductors essentially ran the orchestras and the whole thing, right? What was their objective? How many times did they have to fill the hall? Maybe you should go and do research and say, okay, the New York Philharmonic started, what, 150 years ago or something. In the year 1900, how many concerts a week did they play and how many weeks did they play?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things I find so impressive now with the New York Philharmonic. . . I was at a concert last week where they did the premiere of the Tan Dun Concerto for Water Percussion. It was really amazing.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah, and I think it’s great to do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: And the audience went wild! They were ecstatic. A standing ovation. And this was not easy listening. This was out there, difficult music, really strange sounds, but there was a visual component, people saw these weird objects being immersed in water and making ‘boi-oi-oi-ing’ sounds, and perhaps if you listened to it on the radio or on a recording, it wouldn’t be immediate the way it was in the concert hall. And it was this sort of theatrical ritual, and people loved it. But what I thought was so exciting is I was at the premiere performance which was on a Thursday night. But they did that same program…which, the first half was American repertoire, they did a William Grant Still piece for trombone…

ZARIN MEHTA: How old was that?

FRANK J. OTERI: Maybe from the 1950′s. It was a 10-minute work. It was, in short, very well played. And then the second half was all Richard Strauss…They did this program Thursday night, they did it again Friday afternoon, they did it again Saturday afternoon for the young people’s concert to bring children in to hear this, the Tan Dun Water piece was an amazing to bring kids in with because it’s so visual, then they did the program again Saturday night and Tuesday night. They don’t do the program just once so I thought, wow, they don’t only have to fill up this hall one time with this program, they have to fill up this hall 5 times. But I’m so glad they did it that way because so many people wouldn’t have gotten a chance to hear it otherwise.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah. The point I’m making is that if you did a program of music of the last 25 years, 4 times in a week, but you did that for 30 weeks, okay, and only throw in the odd Beethoven or Brahms like you throw in contemporary music now, I don’t think you’d sell tickets. That’s my point.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, I wonder? I wonder who the younger audiences now, how are we going to get younger people interested in Beethoven and Brahms.

ZARIN MEHTA: Okay, let’s go into that, because this is one of the things that obviously we all have been talking about for a while. The younger people today are no different from the younger people of 25 or 30 years ago. At Ravinia, for example, we have a long-range planning committee like most organizations, and in ’91 or ’92, the committee, obviously there’s management, we guide the committee as to what we as professionals think, and then we use their resources to, you know, affirm and raise money and et cetera. And anyway, the first was renovation facilities, et cetera, the second was what should we do for the community and the third is audience development. So we’re talking about audience development now. And one old-time trustee who’s in his late eighties, about three years ago sent me a file that he had in his office, I guess, or home, and was his long-range plan chairmanship from 1962. And I have it – I gave it to Jean [Oelrich] and Jack [Zimmerman]. Guess what they are talking about? The audience is graying, how do we get the young people in? [laughs]