New Directions in Classical Music

Greg Sandow

compiled for my Juilliard course, “Classical Music in an Age of Pop

(This might seem like a fairly long list of innovations that classical music organizations have tried, or are about to try, or at least talked about. But in fact it’s a very small sampling of the many things that have emerged in recent years. It could easily be twice or three times as long. Or even longer. No one has ever catalogued all the innovations of recent years, and the only way to hear about them, unfortunately, is by word of mouth.)


New ways to do performances, or new things to do at performances – making the concert experience different

Simone Young, music director of the Hamburg Philharmoniker, conducts the Brahms Second Symphony from a tower in that city, with the musicians scattered in 50 different locations. They watch her on video, and sound technicians mix the sound so we hear the whole orchestra. On another website, we can watch Young, hear the performance, and see all the musicians. (You have to click the link called “ANSEHEN” to get to this page.) Click on any of the musicians, and you see them on video in a larger window, and you can hear what they’re playing, standing out from everybody else. This got major press in Germany.

The Baltimore Symphony announced a four-concert circus festival next March (one pops concert and three otherwise normal subscription programs), for which their concert hall will be transformed into a three-ring circus. This is more than a gimmick. The programming is quite serious. (The link takes you to the orchestra’s press release, announcing next season. Scroll down to find the part about the circus.)

The Atlanta Symphony had a program called Symphony 360°, on which only a single work is played at a concert, with video of the musicians and someone going through the audience with a microphone, inviting people to ask questions. They don’t seem to be doing it any more, but they’ve tried many new things at concerts. In the press release announcing next year’s season, they say: “To create a concert experience, various visual elements have been brought into the concert hall. In past seasons this has included film and projected images synchronized with the music, lighting effects, art installations, and semi-staged performances of operas creating a marriage of the auditory and the visual, allowing concertgoers to connect with the music on multiple levels.”

The Brentano Quartet played a concert featuring one of the Mozart quartets, and everything for string quartet that Webern ever wrote. They put the Webern pieces between the movements of the Mozart, and had a poet read poems he’d written, inspired by the Webern works. (I went to this concert. Hearing the movements of the Mozart quartet with something else between them turned out to work very well. It made me more eager to hear the Mozart movements, when they finally were played.)

And here are some other things that have been tried (mostly by orchestras), or proposed:

·         Having musicians dress less formally

·         Having a band play in the lobby before concerts

·         Selling food and drinks in the lobby before concerts

·         Making the program book very lively, like a well-edited magazine

·         Making concerts shorter

·         Starting concerts earlier or later than the usual 8:00 PM starting time – 6 PM, maybe, or 9 PM

·         Doing more new music (to attract a younger audience)

·         Streaming performances live, either on a website or in movie theaters (as the Metropolitan Opera does – though the Met has lost money doing this, and other institutions think it’s just too expensive to risk trying)

·         Playing chamber music, early music, or jazz or pop along with orchestral pieces


Interactions with the audience


When Michael Christie began his first season as music director of the Phoenix Symphony, he and all the musicians stood outside the hall before the first concert, to welcome the audience.


A new music director at the Springfield Symphony in Missouri allowed the audience to request pieces they wanted to hear, and developed many other ways of building the orchestra’s relationship with the people who come to its concerts.


When the St. Louis Symphony played a Steve Reich piece, their music director, David Robertson, asked the musicians to go out into the audience after the performance, to talk to people about the music.


In Britain, there was a composition competition called the Masterprize. Professional judges (composers and musicians) picked three finalists for the prize, and their works were played on a concert. The people in the audience could then vote on which piece they wanted to win. The Pittsburgh Symphony picked up on this idea, and featured the three finalists on a concert program. Since they were short pieces, they could all be played before intermission. During intermission, people in the audience could vote on which piece should win, and the winning piece was played again on the second half of the program. I was working with the orchestra when this happened; I was leading conversations with audience members after concerts were over. This concert made the audience more excited than any other. The people in my discussions had listened to the music carefully, debated the pieces with real enthusiasm, and remembered many musical details from all of them – something I never saw happen at any other performance I worked with.


The Pittsburgh Symphony also – before a concert where a new piece would be played  -- put musicians in various rooms and lobbies in the concert hall an hour before the performance, so that audience members could talk to them, and hear them play excerpts from the new piece. The audience liked this so much that the symphony management wished  they’d planned to have the musicians return to the various places in the hall after the concert, to talk to the audience again.


More things that have been tried or proposed:


·         Inviting the audience to text comments on the music. The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston invited their audience to text comments right after the premiere of a piece they’d commissioned. And I’ve just learned of an opera company (don’t know which one, because I found out on Twitter) that’s invited the audience to text which characters in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte they think should get married at the end. (For those who don’t know the opera, the plot is a little tangled, and no one’s really sure how two sets of lovers pair off in the finale.)

·         Inviting the audience to react to premieres by taking sides in the lobby at intermission—everyone who liked the piece would gather on the left, and everyone who hated it would gather on the right. (Proposed at the Philadelphia Orchestra, but never actually done.)

·         Inviting the audience (and anybody else) to debate performances and discuss anything about the orchestra, on a message board on the orchestra’s website.

·         Setting up a booth in the lobby where people who don’t usually go to concerts can ask questions

·         Inviting the audience (and anybody else) to debate performances and discuss anything about the orchestra, on a message board on the orchestra’s website



Combinations of classical music and pop

The Wordless Music series in New York puts classical pieces on concert programs with leading New York indie rock bands. I’ve been to many of these events. Most of the audience comes from the bands, but cheers for the classical music. The first year these concerts were done, there were four of them, in a 400-seat space, and every concert sold out. The second year, there were 10 concerts in an 800-seat space, and all of them sold out. This year, the third year that these concerts have happened, they’re in a variety of spaces. During the second year, the series also put on two orchestra concerts, featuring classical pieces by living composers, and each one sold out a 1000-seat space.

The Nonclassical record label in London – that’s really its name – records new classical pieces, and also holds monthly club nights, where new classical pieces are played, and DJs play club-style remixes of them. The CD releases also include remixes of the music.

In Pittsburgh, the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra mixes classical music and pop on its programs.

The Ebčne Quartet, from France, plays pop music and jazz as well as classical pieces. Here’s a New York Times review of one of their concerts, and here’s their website.

Christopher O’Reilly, a noted classical pianist (and host of From the Top, a radio program that features young classical musicians) plays pop transcriptions at his concerts. He’s a big Radiohead fan, and plays complex transcriptions of their very complicated songs, drawing both the usual classical audience, and many other Radiohead fans. (I’ve been to his concerts, and seen that first-hand.)


Relationships with the community:

In the past couple of months, orchestras around the country have been collecting food for local food banks.

The San Francisco Symphony invited bloggers from San Francisco to come to a concert, and blog from it.

Greg McCallum, a pianist in North Carolina, planned to take his piano to every county in the state, and give a recital. He only went to a few counties before he got sick, and had to abandon the project. But it’s one of the most impressive ideas I’ve heard about. In each county, besides giving a recital, he planned to produce a concert, on which any pianist in the county could play, in any musical style. And he’d give a master class, again for any pianist in the county. I wonder what would happen if the New York Philharmonic did something like that!