The Wristbandification of Classical Music

Maybe what it needs to build its audience is a little exclusivity.

The scene in the Benaroya Hall lobby, one Friday night last October, must have startled both those people who'd been to Seattle Symphony concerts before and those who hadn't. It's the first night of [untitled], the orchestra's late-night contemporary-music series. Around 9:30 p.m., the crowd is gathering, not dispersing. Drinks in hand from the open-late cafes in the Hall's Third Avenue atrium, a few concertgoers (those who feel most comfortable listening to classical music in neat rows) claim the folding chairs set up in front of a marked-off performance space, but the rest spill over onto the floor, up the stairs, to the balconies. The mood, curious, then eager, grows downright electric as the space fills to capacity; it could be a First Thursday, a VIP restaurant opening, a swank show at the Triple Door. But when the music starts—abstruse, high-modernist— the buzz of anticipation changes completely, to rapt silence. Even from those lounging on pillows on the carpet.

What was most unusual about that evening, though, was not what happened, but how. The event surely upended a lot of preconceptions—from those newcomers the SSO covets, yes, but even more from those who think they know what needs to be done to nab them.

Informality, accessibility, openness, a sense of welcoming—these are virtues when it comes to the public presentation of art, and this is the front on which the classical-music industry has been battling to stay solvent for decades. But in its desperation to be loved, it's overlooked that these also are virtues: insideriness, exclusivity, a sense of discernment, of being in on something the unenlightened can't appreciate. Though these days classical musicians love to see themselves as the enemies of elitism, even elitism can further art's cause when its power is harnessed carefully. For example, about 20 years ago Seattle built an entire musical genre and a world reputation by overtly catering to a niche audience. Born in garages and divey small clubs, its cliquish repudiation of mass taste—we get it and you don't—was a large part of what made it a success.

The American classical-music biz used to do this—better than anyone, in fact. Where it screwed up was to mix in issues of wealth and class, billing itself as a path to social status and gracious living. But the snob appeal eventually drove away more fans than it drew, and the fight to counteract that image has been the classical world's feverish preoccupation for years now—leading to some dubious gimmicks (q.v. the Cincinnati Symphony's recent experiment with designating "tweet seats" for concertgoers whose thumbs can't keep off their smartphones) as well as some welcome mold-breaking.

Attacking from both angles the problem of attracting new audiences, the Seattle Symphony's pairing their [untitled] concerts with a second innovative concert series, Untuxed: short 7 p.m. after-work concerts, one hour in and out, with orchestra members dressed down in black slacks or jeans and solid-color tops. In October, quite a few people took in both Untuxed and [untitled], despite the huge style shift from one series to the next: first Mozart and Haydn, then music from two centuries later. This crossover surprised the SSO: "People loved staying after the orchestral concert and mingling with our musicians, and then taking in more music," says Elena Dubinets, the orchestra's vice-president of artistic planning.

To lubricate the mingling, the SSO offered an hors-d'oeuvre at 9 p.m: a lobby performance of Gabriel Prokofiev's 2007 Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, with DJ Madhatter spinning and scratching to a string accompaniment. Overall, the response was just what the SSO wished: At Untuxed, the ratio of the under-40 audience members to the over-60s seemed to be just about the reverse of what it usually is, and the SSO reports that 25 percent of the [untitled] audience was first-time attendees.

This Friday, [untitled] will take a step further away from the norm with a concert built around Arnold Schoenberg's hallucinatory, expressionist song cycle Pierrot lunaire (1919). By popular demand, the 9 p.m. pre-concert returns ("It was so successful last time that we were basically required by the audience members to do it again," says Dubinets), with a performance of Schoenberg's slyly decadent Brettl-lieder, or "Cabaret Songs"—which inspired a cabaret setup this time, with small tables crowded around the performance space and a lobby bar open for business, even during the music. "We will ask the bartenders not to do ice, that's the noisiest thing."

The orchestra's experiment made two things clear. First of all, conventional wisdom is only half right. Concertgoers do relish informality—but not because silence is oppressive, because being allowed to chat and tweet during a performance is what today's multitaskers crave, or because a casual atmosphere relieves you of the onerous burden of paying attention. It's because informality enables deeper listening. The inaugural [untitled] lineup was challenging: Cage, Scelsi, Xenakis, Brown, and Feldman, music full of easily obliterated subtleties that reveals its wonders only to listeners prepared to commit. But just as you fidget less in comfortable clothes, the [untitled] audience was dead silent and laser-focused because of the unconventional setup, not despite it.

Dubinets confesses they weren't sure how the audience would react: "We were concerned about the extra noise, [but] we were amazed how quiet it was." But this wasn't an unprecedented phenomenon: Anyone who'd attended the Tractor Tavern's chamber- music concerts or the KeyArena simulcast of Seattle Opera's Madame Butterfly already knew it was true. For some, a concert hall is already an ideal space for concentrating on music, but for others it's not—and it's the space, not the need to concentrate, that keeps them away.

The second point, the appeal of insider-iness, crystallized suddenly when I arrived at [untitled], as an usher tore my ticket and directed me to another lady who wrapped a pink adhesive strip around my arm. Of course: What, after all, is a wristband but a way to distinguish who's in from who's out? Thanks to that simple detail, the event felt less like church and more like a club. We were the anointed, in on something special—not unlike the devoted knot of fans who pack tiny bars to follow a band before they hit it big, and pride themselves on being there back when.

Along with making concerts seem less stuffy and all the rest of it, the classical-music world needs to find a way to make them seem like something you have to be a part of—and that's exactly the atmosphere the SSO was able to create with its Untuxed and [untitled] series (even with half-century-old music). There was a vibrancy in the air even beyond the fun of the turntables and the pillows—a sense that those not there were missing out. That wristband symbolized an important distinction: Yes, this music can be enjoyed by anyone—but that doesn't mean it must be enjoyed by everyone.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow