My Experiment in an "Alternative" Classical Performance

Well, like just about every classical musician I know (especially those who don’t have a full-time gig in New York, where classical music life is much healthier than in many other places), I’m worried about the shrinking and the “graying” of classical audiences. Even at DePauw University where I teach, we see this phenomenon. A fantastic School of Music, a tremendous number of faculty recitals, guest artist events, and wonderful student concerts, yet smaller and smaller audiences. I don’t have any numbers to back up my general impression, but it sure seems to me that there has been a declining number of non-music majors and non-music faculty attending concerts over the 18 years I’ve been teaching here.

Over the last year, I’ve become quite taken with Greg Sandow’s blogs about the future of classical music (links in the right column). Inspired by his Juilliard course “Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop,” I’m teaching a seminar for first-year students at DePauw called “Creativity, Non-Western Music, and the Future of Classical Music.”

The students and I have been talking about alternative ways of presenting and performing classical music. What’s so off putting to their peers, and often to themselves, is the formality and the atmosphere of fear that pervades the audience, espeically the younger members of the audience. Don’t make noise. Don’t clap between movements. And whatever you do, don’t move.

It just happens I’m giving a faculty recital tomorrow (Wed. 8/30) night, of short Romantic pieces. And so my pianist colleague and I have decided to throw all the rules out the window and invite people to respond however they wish. Quoted below is an email I sent to all the music students. Other versions went to the enitre university faculty and have been posted on the university’s intranet classified ad board.

So far, only positive response from colleagues and some excitement from students. Stephanie Gurga, the pianist perfroming with me, and I played part of the program for my seminar class this morning so they could practice moving, clapping, etc. There was a lot of nervouse energy and a bit more chatter than I’d prefer at the concert, but it was also fun to play for people moving and having a good time. One thing I realized is that when the audience is free to move and respond, the focus becomes more on the collective, shared experience and less on the performers and how “well” (in my case) I think I’m playing.

More soon. Meanwhile, here’s that email:

Wednesday Aug. 30
7:30 PM Thompson Recital Hall in the PAC
The Romantic Cello: An Informal and Interactive Musical Event
Eric Edberg, cello and Stephanie Gurga, piano
featuring short, entertaining pieces
one hour max
performers in jeans
clap whenever you want
and dance in the aisles if you feel like it
Ever think classical concerts are too formal and have too many intimidating rules? Could one of the reasons classical audiences are growing older and smaller be that the whole stuffy ambience, in which newcomers are shamed if they do something natural like clap between movements or during a movement, be part of the problem? (Did you know that before the 20th century, audiences clapped between movements and even during them, and composers like Mozart encouraged it?)
Stephanie Gurga (a recent SoM grad and brilliant pianist) and I think so. So we’re trying an experiment. To make the atmosphere unintimidating, we’re going to dress very casually in Wednesday evening’s recital. I’m wearing jeans.
And the usual rules of audience deportment are suspended for one night. Clap between movements (well, there’s only one multi-movement piece). Clap after a good lick, or shout out an “amen” or a “boo.” Dance in the aisles or in front of the stage.
I made a deal with my first-year seminar class (which is looking at the future of classical music): I’ll wear jeans and make the concert as fun as possible if they’ll bring someone new to classical music to the recital. So I’m making the same invitation to all you music majors. Our future as classical performers is dependent on getting young people to start coming to classical concerts again. Let’s see if this helps.
Bring a friend who’s not a classical concert-goer, and let them know they don’t have to worry about clapping at the wrong time.
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