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Classical Music Aims To Evolve, Build Audiences Without Alienating Old Guard

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In 1913, classical music sparked a riot in Paris.

Igor Stravinsky was introducing his revolutionary "Rite of Spring" ballet to the world, with its discordant melodies and unorthodox choreography, and the purists in the crowd expressed their disapproval loud and clear. It might have been classical music's version of the time Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival.

"The noise, fighting, and shouting in the audience got so loud," NPR's music reporter Miles Hoffman said of the Stravinsky premiere, "that [the choreographer] had to shout out the numbers to the dancers so that they knew what they were supposed to do."

It's difficult to imagine a similar uproar occurring today within America's hallowed symphony halls. In fact, it's hard to picture any kind of unruly activity at all (unless someone's cell phone happens to go off, and then you'd better watch your back). A mannerly aura hangs over most classical proceedings, and many of the genre's biggest supporters would have it no other way.

Today, Western audiences for classical music and opera and ballet are almost always well dressed, older, respectful, achingly silent and often very wealthy (one has to be to afford most tickets). But as many of America's most storied "highbrow" institutions struggle financially -- the Philadelphia Orchestra's much-publicized rebound from bankruptcy is just one recent example -- classical music fans and theorists are wondering how the medium can weave itself into the 21st century’s cultural fabric without sacrificing its integrity.

For example, should we feel OK "clapping" during classical music events, even if nobody else is? Why shouldn't we cheer for something great, like we do at a rock concert? The Huffington Post recently ran a Great Debate on this issue and many commenters came out on the side of silence.
 
"There is no more rewarding experience in life than being part of an audience where everybody is leaning forward in silence, thoroughly engrossed by a great performance of a masterpiece," one commenter wrote. "Why is it so difficult for folks to develop an appreciation and understanding for the mannerisms and traditions of classical music?" asked another.

The truth is that classical music audiences weren’t always so polite. Robert Greenberg, an award-winning composer and musicologist, said that when Beethoven premiered his 7th Symphony, audiences forced the orchestra to perform encores of certain movements immediately, applauding wildly. And in the last few decades, he said, many audiences at opera performances have abandoned pretenses, yelling "Bravo" when they feel like it. 

"I don't think there's anything wrong with an audience showing their enthusiasm for a proper moment by applauding, showing their joy," Greenberg said, noting that the stuffiness in concert halls is "one aspect of contemporary concert etiquette" he doesn't understand. "I'm not sure when it was instituted and why. The players are often happier with that [enthusiasm], it gets people off their hands. Instead of waiting half an hour to show enthusiasm, why not show it every eight or nine minutes?"

Until the arcane rules about behavior and attire change, it’s hard to imagine hordes of young people filling concert halls on their own accord. They're probably more likely to head to Central Park to watch a free performance with a bottle of wine and their friends.

"I think anyone should be able to come into a performance dressed any way they like, and be comfortable any way they like, sitting in that seat ready to enjoy themselves," Greenberg said. "Because it is enjoyable."

Greenberg stressed that he doesn't want people to start respecting the music less, and he's not insinuating that we "dumb down" the experience. Rather, it's about opening up "access." When operas first instituted subtitles or supertitles during shows, he said, many purists balked at the idea, believing audience members should instead study the works before attending. But now it's commonplace to find titles on the seat back in front of you -- choose a language, sit back, and actually understand what's going on.

Allison Vulgamore, president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is certainly looking to the future. She says certain "classics concerts" dedicated to the old masters will always exist, but not every program has to feature Beethoven and Brahms -- or even a stage and seats. "We're trying to introduce different kinds of concerts in different ways," she said. "We are an interactive society now, where people like to learn."

As the Philadelphia Orchestra rebounds from dire financial straits, it is also aiming to experiment, without alienating the loyalists. Vulgamore pointed to Cirque de la Symphonie, a recent offering in which jugglers and acrobats interacted with musicians. An upcoming collaboration with New York City's Ridge Theatre, meanwhile, will feature a "suspended dance installation" and other theatrical elements occurring in conjunction with an orchestral piece.

"This won't be your grandmother's 'Rite of Spring,'" she said.
 
The orchestra also continues to offer $25 annual memberships to Philadelphia students, who can buy rush tickets to every concert on the schedule.

"[Students] line up for the concerts they want, and we get roughly 300 or 350 kids a night coming to these. They take any of the open seats available, 5 minutes before the concert starts," Vulgamore said. "It's like the running of the bulls, that energy when the doors open."

Greenberg thinks that youthful energy needs to be harvested. Conductors don't have to be "hoity toity" and untouchable -- they can be accessible. Perhaps there could even be a "bit of humor" about them, he suggested, and an abandoning of pretension within the high-art institutions themselves.

"On one hand, these organizations are all saying the same thing: we want more general audiences, to break down cultural barriers," he said. "But then they come up with some very snooty thing that makes you crazy."

John Terauds, a critic who has covered Toronto's classical music scene extensively, also wants to do away with the stuffiness. He suggested that the warmer an audience is, the better the musicians themselves will respond. 

"But the producer or organizer has to let everyone know it's OK," he said. "It's OK to enjoy yourself."

At the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for example, conductor Peter Oundjian often stops between pieces, taking a moment to talk about the composer or the music in a very congenial way. And some nights, Terauds said, “at least a third” of the audience consists of students who have received heavily discounted tickets. On these nights, the energy of the room drastically shifts. It becomes a less intimidating place.

Back in February, Terauds wrote on his blog about how going to classical performances can be intimidating. Certain people "think they have to dress up," he wrote, "They think they have to know something about the music before they go. And, I’m sure, sitting in a seat, trembling in fear that this might be the wrong time to applaud, is also one of the factors."
 
Everyone in the classical world agrees on the need for increased "accessibility,” but achieving it is often easier said than done. Nowadays, there are unknown, unorthodox opera singers wowing viewers on "America's Got Talent" and "The Voice," and classical guitar virtuosos being passed around on YouTube. What can higher institutions do with any of that? And if they appeal to these outlets, do they risk compromising the integrity or the intelligence of the music?

Luckily these days there are also other options for classical musicians and audiences to pursue, outside of the more institutionalized systems. The New York "indie classical" scene is certainly alive and well, with groups like Brooklyn Rider -- an accomplished string quartet that can play shows anywhere from the Cologne Philharmonie to Austin's SXSW indie music festival -- leading the charge.

"Something that we try to bring to the concert hall is that we as performers can actively shape the audience's experience through every choice we make about the music we play, clothes we wear, words we say," said one of Brooklyn Rider's violinists, Johnny Gandelsman. "In the age of digital technology, playing the notes, even if played beautifully, is simply not enough."

Vulgamore seems to understand this. She thinks an organization can have it both ways, claiming the new while keeping the old. And as she revamps the Philadelphia Orchestra, she will attempt to do just that. 

"The world's most respected musicians culled together as an orchestra will always exist," she said. "But it is essential that we be willing to experiment and fail."