That’s what he called it – the classical vocal quartet I recently presented at my community outreach Music Kitchen concert series, founded to bring top artists in concert for New York City’s economically disenfranchised. Armand, the bright, friendly interactive young man who was all of maybe 24 and, from what he told me and the journalist from ABC News, had no prior intimate experiences with classical music. He definitely carried a perception, however, as was obvious from his description- “millionaire music.”

And yet during the performance when I asked if the listeners had questions, he eagerly offered one: “Can I sing too?” Even though the program consisted of Renaissance and early Baroque motets in German he stood with the ensemble for one piece and did his best to sing along. This and myriad other experiences tells me that classical music in general and many orchestras in particular are often missing the boat somehow in reaching the uninitiated listeners among us. Or rather, stated in a glass half full manner, orchestras still have enormous opportunities in the community for listeners yet untapped! In order to become more relevant in American Society, and as I continue to watch primarily only the older generations cling to the experience of orchestra concerts, orchestras cannot afford to leave any eager young listener on the outside. How can we better reach new listeners like Armand? These are some of the questions that I would like us to consider in this blog.

Where did all the young people go?

I remember being soloist with the Dallas Symphony several years ago. When I attended the performance the evening before mine, there were so many 20 – 30 year olds in attendance that it was an arresting sight- something I had never seen before. I had to ask a group of them what drew them to the concert. They just responded happily, “Oh, we just love the Dallas Symphony!” I have never forgotten that and still wonder what they are getting right in Dallas that so many other orchestras have not yet discovered. The essence of something important is also clearly at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where their former Artistic Director Simon Woods once said that every taxi driver could tell you something about the orchestra- it might be outdated or not entirely correct- but it was something. This is no small measure of pride that the city’s residents have in its orchestra.
But still, there are a couple of key areas that I have observed where I believe orchestras can improve. The best ideas for how to better reach the community do not always come from some board room or arbitrarily assembled committees and task forces. Orchestras are some of the greatest creative think tanks I have ever witnessed- have you ever seen any group of people mobilize faster to commemorate a birth, honor a beloved donor’s death, create creative program ideas, roast venerated members of the organization, raise money for an important cause, endlessly challenge an army of talented students – and play note perfect Strauss Don Juans? The list goes on to include orchestral musicians who pursue alternative music styles and instruments, additional degrees, chamber music ensembles, interests in other fields, foreign languages, create new inventions, author books…Volumes are filled with the stories of people who must choose between their creative selves and their orchestral job. Why would that be? Because orchestras take some inexplicable pride in keeping their artists under lock and key in the ivory tower without the freedom to pursue these interests alongside their orchestral career. Not only do I personally contribute far more to my orchestra when I’ve returned from performing concertos or recitals, but I believe every orchestral musician is an invaluable link to the community that cannot be fostered artificially only with the newest catch phrase from the marketing department. Orchestral musicians, unlike other professional members of the community, may not be products of the community like most doctors, lawyers and teachers. But after the successful audition win and subsequent move, they tend to develop powerful links to the community which could then link powerfully back to the orchestral season. Cleveland Orchestra and community seem to understand this with their profiles of new members in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. My Mom is a retired computer engineer from IBM and when she worked there in the 80’s they gave grants to projects identified by employees. They clearly recognized that the employees were the best liaison for the company in the community. The New Jersey Symphony used to have a similar program through the Mellon Foundation for “Personal Development Projects.” After all, musicians- not real estate moguls- Justin Kantor, cello and David Handler, violin founded Le Poisson Rouge, the hottest new venue in New York City for classical music and beyond, attracting old/new music and old/new audiences together with a flair (and saturated calendar) not usually enjoyed by traditional inside the box approaches. How can orchestras better foster the creativity of their members to the good of the community?

A Word on Budgets-

Occasionally in the context of their work in the orchestra, musicians discover special skills which would be cumbersome or next impossible for the organization to seek out a la carte. I have a colleague who, as a teaching artist in an orchestra’s outreach program, innovated an unprecedented device which virtually eliminates an age-old bad habit among beginning violin students. The musician’s orchestra initially balked at the idea of paying a small stipend towards the creation of this tool for all the students in the program- which would have effectively ended this musician’s significant time investment into the process. They eventually came around. Committees and blogs even such as this one are always musing on how musicians can do more of this or that – and I agree, the time when musicians could be content to just play the music without a care of the world beyond the proscenium is most likely over. However, a word to orchestra administrations: Be willing to commit your budget dollars to the artists who innovate or otherwise provide a skill that is not in the performance contract. Otherwise, the risk is shutting down too many of these valuable ideas, insights and skills, to be channeled elsewhere.

Meaningful and Lasting Impact = Future Ticket Buyers

The Berlin Philharmonic came to New York and embarked successfully upon the most daring project in the community I have ever witnessed: training 120 of New York’s previously inexperienced, inner city youth a choreographed dance piece for the Stravinsky Rite of Spring, to be performed with the orchestra. I expected a cursory result since the students had never danced before and they were only trained for 6 weeks. I was there for the dress rehearsal and was blown away with the results, as was Thomas Quasthoff, sitting to my right, and many members of the press. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic were in tears as they watched the students’ hard work come to such amazing artistic and expressive fruition. Two years later, I am still wondering, why did a foreign orchestra have to travel 4,000 miles to a city as culturally ripe for the picking as New York to give American students their first meaningful interaction with an orchestra?
Of course, we in the arts cherish the millionaires, billionaires and all of the philanthropists who make what we do possible in our society. But as Carnegie Hall CEO Clive Gillinson said at the Berlin Philharmonic reception at the conclusion of their ground-breaking tour in ’07, ‘This music is and must be for everyone.’ And as Juilliard President Joe Polisi’s book “The Artist and Citizen” suggests, we must all play an important role using our music to strengthen our communities. I continue to be amazed at the reactions I receive, written and in person, to my Music Kitchen – Food for the Soul series concerts. “Wow- it’s like I’m at Carnegie Hall- this is a dream come true!,” one gentleman said at a concert this past March. “This is particularly poignant for me as only a year ago I worked for the Boston Symphony,” a woman wrote several years ago. “This was absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for enriching my life,” another listener wrote just last week. Accessibility in performance, creativity of vision and compelling expressive impact are qualities I seek to bring to all of my performances, not just the so-called community outreach. It’s not just about perfection of a lick or ticket sales for FY ’10, but we all have the opportunity to say something with the music and truly create a place, not just of survival and sustainability, but of endearment for Americas orchestras in a broader section our society.