Klassisk, a Norwegian trade association for classical music, published an excerpt from my book
‘Present! Rethinking Live Classical Music‘ (warning: longread).
If we want to counter the trend of decreasing audience numbers, we need to reinvent the classical concert. In his book ‘Present! – Rethinking Live Classical Music’ Johan Idema presents an inspiring selection of more than 40 cases from international pioneers dedicated to fresh concert formats. Together these practices form the undeniable proof that we can make live classical music more exciting, relevant and approachable. How? By rethinking how we present the music.
(This text is an edited excerpt from the publication ‘Present! – Rethinking Live Classical Music’.
You can preview and order the book here)
The museum of classical music
Who wants to sit still in a concert hall for two hours listening to music from decades, if not centuries, ago? Unfortunately, only very few still do. The latest research even tell us that across the world there is a sharp – and in places, alarming – decline in the attendance for classical concerts. If recent participation trends remain unaddressed, paid attendance for classical music in the U.S. will have declined by 22% in 2018. In the Netherlands the attendance has already diminished 25% over the last 10 years.
Of course, a fair number of people still visit classical concerts and we should be glad they do. However we should also realize that many of them only do it for the tried and trusted ‘classics’ and the associated prestige. They are visitors to what I call the ‘Museum of Classical Music’ – a place that may preserve an art form but does very little in adding new vitality.
‘Nico and the Navigators bring to life a Rossini’s Small Mass, which until now was most likely to end up being performed as the most mundane of choral concerts.’ – Christiane Tewinkel, Tagesspiegel (photo: Maik Schuck)
Away from the concert hall
I don’t believe those who hold the music responsible for the shrinking audience numbers. Classical music has been in a continuous state of innovation for many ages, as composers seek to create new and exciting works. The genre’s drive for fresh sounds continues to be admirably strong. However, the quest for the new only goes in one direction: through the repertoire.
This focus of vision is classical music’s greatest strength, but – to be honest – has also become its greatest weakness. How many of us – composers, performers and presenters – truly look beyond the music to think about how we should offer this music to our audiences? Most of us have come to regard the way of the standard concert formula as the only way. This is remarkable, since this is the very attitude we must directly challenge if we want to reinvigorate live classical music. Classical music performances should be extraordinary experiences. However, when I read the season brochures of concert halls and ensembles, it sometimes feels that this aim has been watered down into a simple, easy-to-market two-hour construct – something that we call a ‘concert’. Of course, a concert can be profoundly enjoyable and inspirational. But the current situation raises fundamental questions: Have classical music concerts become too much of a predictable commodity as a result of formulaic programming strategies and practices? Or, even more alarming, is live classical music losing its competitive edge within the abundance of other arts and entertainment choices? One thing is certain, audiences are opting to spend more of their free time away from the concert hall…
‘The mood of Swelter was contemplative over all. The performance was as much an urban happening as an outdoor concert.’ – Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
The classical concert is holding itself hostage
At classical concerts, I often observe performers and presenters focusing entirely on the music. By following a single formula of virtuosity, tradition and formality, it is almost as if they are holding themselves hostage to a fixed idea around what a performance is. ‘Musicians and conductors are concerned with just reading parts correctly and creating a pristine sound,’ says conductor Kirstjan Järvi (the son of conductor Neeme Järvi). This approach may lead to sublime performances that many enjoy, but also to what significantly more people have come to regard as an formal and passive concert experience. Many have come to feel that the imagination and drama of the music is often at odds with the presentation. In addition, the contact between classical performers and their audience is often minimal when compared to other musical forms. With so little direct engagement, it is perhaps no wonder people grow alienated from classical music. Even those who are passionate about the genre, can come away from a concert feeling unsatisfied.
A sleeping beauty
There was a time when composers and performers were big stars and the classical repertoire was widely known. Those days are long over. We all recognize that the world is changing rapidly, which even makes classical music’s current decline understandable. Change is something all businesses have to confront if they want to survive. But what I find surprising is how even though there are countless potential solutions out there, most of us classical music professionals actually spend little time in finding, creating, analyzing, testing and evaluating them. Our overreliance on performance traditions somehow prevents us from experimenting with new directions. ‘Live classical music has become a sleeping beauty,’ one presenter I spoke with noted. ‘It has great potential but it is in a deep sleep.’
If we want to counter the trend of decreasing audience numbers, we need to reinvent the classical concert. We must develop more new and challenging ways of truly connecting the music with its audience. Of course, some of us are already engaged in vigorous experimentation and innovations. However, no matter how exciting these efforts may be, they remain only admirable exceptions. As a group, performers and presenters are far from spending the recommended minimum of 10 per cent of the time and resources that every business should dedicate to research and development. Moreover, the interesting successes (and failures) that have occurred, most of us have hardly heard about because – let’s be honest – we do little when it comes to sharing our insights with others.
‘Is there a problem in imposing Alban Berg’s private drama so overtly on to the performance of his Lyric Suite? I do not think so. As soon as you know the story, you start imposing it on to the music – but at an ordinary concert performance the drama would be in your head as you listened rather than on stage.’ – Pierre Audi, The Guardian (photo: Jan-Olav Wedin)
Kissing the classical concert
Many of us are aware that classical music needs to develop new ways for the future. Our challenge, however, is to find out what this actually means. We need to get specific, by analyzing real cases and best practices of how to present classical music in innovative ways. Concrete solutions can inspire and activate us, and let us move beyond the general discourse about innovation we now often limit ourselves to.
For my book ‘Present! – Rethinking Live Classical Music’ I researched and selected these so called best practices. The publication includes more than forty known, but also lesser-known cases, such as Nachtmusik (Radialsystem V), The Noise of Time (Emerson Quartet), The Infernal Comedy (Wiener Akademie Orchestra), Mail from Mozart (Netherlands Wind Ensemble), Small Mass (Nivo and the Navigators), Night of the Unexpected (Paradiso), Swelter (Make Music NY), Lecture Songs (B’Rock), Late Night Rose (Chamber Music Society), and many more.
Brought together for the first time, the practices introduce us to the pioneers – composers, performers, directors, presenters – who are dedicated to fresh concert formats. Whether it is the actual event itself, the formula behind it, or the attitude that it represents, each case offers us bright ideas and valuable insights that point the way forward. We can be inspired and learn from them – not only from the results, but also from the attitude that produced them. Each case also contributes to the undeniable proof that, through either radical alteration or simple ingenuity, we can make live classical music more exciting, relevant and approachable for audiences. All who care about the future of classical music should therefore get to know these practices. They are the gentle kisses with which we can awaken the classical concert.
‘It was a picture book scene – dozens of swimmers of all ages took to the water in a beautiful Edwardian swimming pool to listen to Handel’s Water Music played live on a floating stage.’ – John Baron, The Guardian (photo: Lizzie Coombes)
What can we learn from the best practices?
The cases I collected offer a great diversity of ideas and approaches. They show us that we can choose new moments and environments for live classical music, and in turn create site-specific concerts that connect directly with the singularity of a place. We can also organize nightlong classical music events (such as the Night of the Unexpected), or turn a conventional concert performance into a staged reality experience. And why should we not make the explanation of the ideas behind the music just as exciting as the performance itself, or back the music with theater or choreography?
Visualization can also be an exciting way of bringing the music’s narrative to life – or conversely, visuals can be the inspiration for new music. By making classical music a more reflective experience, audiences can explore its spatial and spiritual dimension more profoundly. As performers and presenters, we can share our personal and professional ideas and missions more with audiences and thereby involving them more closely. We can also employ the music to celebrate or remember pivotal events in our lives. Last but not least, we can formulate new work that is more responsive to news and recent events, recompose existing classical works and rewrite other musical genres as classical music.
The classical concert as a designed experience
When taken collectively, the best practices give us the unique opportunity to look at the bigger picture. What we can learn by linking the cases is what presenting music is truly about: creating the most exciting ways for contemporary audiences to experience live classical music. If we, as composers, performers and presenters, want to keep our audiences and attract new ones, we need to create a much greater diversity in where and especially how we present classical music. To do so, we must realize that concerts are about more than just music. We need to design the concert experience as a whole.
To frame our mission in this way extends beyond the current modus operandi of most classical music institutions, which is often limited to merely selecting the works and performers. Presenting music involves considering all the ingredients that determine how audiences experience music: the physical location, the setting (or general atmosphere), the program (and its actual relevance and urgency), the overarching message or theme (and how this is communicated), the performers (and how they present themselves) and even the audience’s engagement (how to involve them). If we want to (re)connect audiences with classical music, we need to consciously include and design all of the building blocks that make for a compelling and ultimately memorable experience.
‘Concerts last approximately two hours and provide ritual, spectacle, and organized transcendence. Here, though, for eight hours each day in a sanctum, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet offers a fourteen-minute bath of warm Renaissance counterpoint – a sauna for the mind.’ – Justin Davidson, New York Magazine (photo: Markus Tretter)
Three grand strategies
The bigger picture also learns us about overarching strategies we can apply. Many best practices seek to illuminate the music’s story, by explicating, explaining and interpreting, in new and attractive ways, what the music and the performers want to tell us. It is no longer enough to let the music always speak for itself, but also about adding other ingredients to the concert format to allow the music’s message to more clearly resonate. Other cases connect classical music to the here and now, by relating it to a story, location, event or feeling – or whatever it is that gives us a specific reason for wanting to hear the music today. The performance is no longer an isolated event or museum piece for mere entertainment, but comes backed with extra levels that give it more immediate relevance and urgency. Finally, yet other cases make the music more engrossing, by adding elements to the performance that better serve our sight, taste, smell and touch. By appealing to all of our senses and not just our ears and brains, such events work to intensify the musical experience. Together, these approaches represent three grand strategies to innovate the presentation of live classical music. Each composer, performer or presenter who strives to keep classical music vital, relevant and attractive, can apply these strategies to their own professional practice.
Inspiration or real solutions?
A cynic could argue that best practices often appear better on paper than in reality. If there is any truth to this, it is because rethinking live classical music is such a profound challenge, one that confronts us with fundamental questions about the classical music tradition and our modern engagement with it. A few of us have already been addressing this challenge for some time already, but most of us are just beginning and only now becoming aware that there are few quick or easy answers. We must realize above all, that real and sustainable solutions take time and effort to be implemented.
The complexity of performing and presenting classical music requires perseverance, especially when trying something new. Inevitably, this includes failing, which is in fact ‘business as usual’ when it comes to innovation. We can only embrace these failures for what we can learn from them, while remembering Woody Allen’s words: ‘If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.’ Therefore, it should come as no surprise that even best practices are still far from perfect and can benefit from further development. Additionally, some cases are currently very complex and expensive to produce. But again, when it comes to innovation, the work-in-progress nature of these cases is an inevitable, yet essential step. At first, new practices are often difficult and costly, yet they are part of a necessary process in arriving at more feasible and lasting solutions.
‘Film, music and acting often merge impressively, but despite that Michiel van der Aa’s Up-Close remains on the whole a cello concerto, with explosive moments as well as melancholy lyricism.’ – Jochem Valkenburg, NRC (photo: Joost Rietdijk)
From formats to business models
Besides inventing new formats, we should also adapt another way of working. As performers and presenters, we need to find a way in which we not only try the new, but also apply the results in our long-term strategies. We should not only create new formats, but also turn them into sustainable business models. A good start is to consider innovation as a vital part of our mission, and to treat it as an equal partner in music to composing, performing and presenting. Consequently, this implies that we need to consider research and development as a natural part of our practice, as well as taking an audience perspective more into account. Testing, monitoring, evaluating and sharing results are essential if we want to learn and grow. Only if we consider innovation as the essential strategy to face the challenge, will we be able to create a viable practice of performing and presenting classical music. Fortunately, there is a plain and motivational reason for doing so: the music itself. These sounds deserve the largest, most passionate audiences imaginable. By vigorously reinventing how we present classical music, we will find these audiences.
About the author
Johan Idema is a passionate promoter and initiator of cultural innovation. He specializes in creative concept development, business planning, strategic and innovation management and fundraising. Johan has worked at several cultural institutions and has extensive experience as a senior arts consultant.