Sunday, August 21, 2005

gimmicks and quandaries at the symphony

There is an interesting article in today's New York Times, "New Overtures at the Symphony" by Daniel Wakin, discussing some of the latest promotional ideas to attract young audiences - cocktails, networking, free t-shirts, video games, dinner, films - as the sub-headline wonders, "Do orchestras want to inspire us, or date us?"

One of the orchestras mentioned is the New World Symphony, which is experimenting with 20-minute long programs, repeated hourly - something to pull in tourists and window-shoppers on Lincoln Road, I imagine, without the commitment of a two-hour concert. I love the idea of attracting new audiences and making orchestral music more accessible. The challenge is always to deliver music of the highest quality, and give people a reason to come back for the full experience.

I got to see another of the promotions mentioned in the article - the Cleveland Orchestra's sci-fi night, with Also Sprach Zarathustra and Holst's The Planets accompanied by space images on a video screen. It was a fun evening, the orchestra sounded great, and there was an enormous crowd - all signs of success. Still, I worry that a generation is being indoctrinated to view orchestras as background music.

We need to find ways to not just pull people in, but help them to listen actively, passionately, and imaginatively - a delicate task, made even more difficult if we've cluttered the concert hall with distractions. As one orchestra official remarks in the Times article, if we depend on gimmicks and giveaways for orchestras' survival, "We are in a lot of trouble."

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