THE BLOG

Can Technology Save Classical Music?

02/15/2016 05:57 pm ET
  • Julie Dobrow Director of Communications and Media Studies, Tufts University

By almost any metric, classical music is in trouble.

A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts titled "When Going Gets Tough," found that attendance at arts events had steadily dropped over two decades. Sales of recorded classical music keep falling, many classical radio stations are changing formats or failing, and the number of Americans who report they or their children are studying/practicing classical music is declining. A number of orchestras recently reported getting more money from donations than from ticket sales.

In a Slate article dismally titled "Requiem: Classical music is dead," writer Mark Vanhoenacker reports that the median age for attendees at classical concerts is about the only thing in the classical music world that has increased. He cites data showing that the share of classical concertgoers age 60 and older has steadily risen. "I grew up near Tanglewood and had various summer jobs there in the 1990s. When I worked at the beer and wine stand, I almost never carded anyone," he writes.

Can anything resurrect classical music from this fate? The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of several organizations making a valiant attempt to do so.

As part of its ongoing effort to reach out to younger audiences and different demographics, the BSO has launched "Casual Fridays," a series of themed concerts that offer lower ticket prices, an opportunity to come to the symphony dressed as you are, and a chance to use technology in a fascinating effort to connect with the music and the performers in different ways. A number of seats are in a "designated technology" section. The BSO loans patrons iPads loaded with multimedia content and seats them behind large flat screens that give audience members the same view of conductor Andris Nelsons that the musicians have.

On an exceedingly cold Friday evening last week, my husband and I made our way to Boston's historic Symphony Hall to see if technology might really be a path to bringing new generations to old music.

Our loaner iPads offered the full scores of music on the program (Strauss' "MacBeth" and Tchaikovsiy's "Romeo and Juliet" overture), short interviews with Maestro Nelsons and Harvard musicologist Tom Kelly about the music, a video on other Shakespeare-themed music, an interview with English Horn soloist Robert Sheena and one with contemporary classical composer George Tsontakis, whose newly-commissioned piece was also part of this program. There was actually more to see and listen to than we had time to view before the concert began. And honestly, once it started I barely saw anyone looking at the iPads because all eyes were focused on the flat screens.

There have been times I have gone to concerts and closed my eyes so as to concentrate more deeply on the music. I was not tempted to do so at all during this concert. Watching Conductor Nelsons was simply too riveting.

"It's absolutely amazing seeing Andris like this; I wish everyone in the audience could get the view that we have," commented Chelsea Lewis. Lewis, who studied voice and works with the Boston Ballet and with an opera company, is already predisposed to classical music. But she's also part of the demographic the BSO is hoping to attract. "Watching him on the screen doesn't detract at all from the musical experience," she noted. "I think it amplifies it in a way that most people wouldn't realize."

Indeed, Nelson's incredibly expressive face and his balletic conducting would provide even someone who knew nothing about classical music with new insights into it. Ani Patel, a Tufts University psychologist who studies music and cognition, has not investigated the ways in which technology might intersect with musical experience but believes that if it "provides images that are coordinated with the music that's being played, then perhaps it could enhance the experience."

Anthony Rudel, station manager for WCRB, WGBH's classical music radio station in Boston, agrees. "I'm a firm believer that classical music is one of the best ways to connect viscerally with people. One of the problems with the classical music world is that we present concerts the same way they were presented in Beethoven's time; the world has moved away from that. Anything that breaks down the boundaries between the stage and the audience is a good thing."

Rudel feels that technology would be a good way to do this. "The 30-year-old and younger generation grew up with technology 24/7 and show no desire to escape that. So using technology to bridge gaps and to make them feel more at home with music and performance will only help to bring them in." Like the BSO, Rudel and his team at WCRB are always looking for innovative ways to bring more people to classical music on the radio. It seems to be working: in the past two years their audience has grown.

There seems little doubt but that efforts to use technology with classical music could be a way of engaging younger audiences, including children. Laura Deutsch, a long-time elementary school music educator in Connecticut (who is also my aunt,) suggests that using technology to give a visual dimension to classical music can help to interest children.

She sometimes utilizes content on websites like those developed by the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic that have games designed to teach children about instruments and styles of music, but says that content that actually shows people making music is the thing she believes resonates with children the most. "Showing kids close-ups of an orchestra gets kids to pay attention," she says. "Kids are interested when they can see the body language of musicians. It brings them into the music in a completely different way."

My observations at the BSO suggest that the same is true for adults. Derek Lewis, a French horn player, enjoyed using the iPad to follow the score but agreed with his wife that getting a musician's eye view of the conductor was indeed the highlight of the evening. "Andris Nelsons is incredibly engaging to watch," he said.

At the concert's end, the maestro came to the lip of the stage. The young Latvian conductor, now in his second year with the BSO, quipped that the only causality of "casual Fridays" was his white shirt after his acrobatic conducting, but added that he wanted to extend a warm welcome to "season ticket holders and first time concert-goers, alike."

For those of us who love classical music and desperately want it to be loved by new generations, we can only hope that efforts like the BSO's to blend technology with music will be successful in bringing in those first-timers.

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