audiences pendulum keeps swinging

John Terauds, the classical music critic for the Toronto Star, writes in a recent column that younger audiences are turned off by crossover efforts, and just want the “straight stuff”.

If young people weren’t interested in classical music, even $5 would not get them through the door.

My epiphany of 2007 came at an all-Gershwin pops concert this fall. It played to a half-capacity house made up largely of seniors.

It became clear that the TSO’s younger fans want pure classical, not crossover offerings.

“I would agree with you that many tsoundcheck patrons are often quite serious about their music,” answered “Tess” to a posting I left on the tsoundcheck forum. “When I was at U of T, I noticed a lot of students getting really excited about the big programs – Mahler, Shostakovich, Bruckner, etc. In general, the tsoundcheck trend does tend towards the masterworks concerts,” she added.

I won’t argue with that, except to say that something has happened over the last four decades or so – orchestras are having problems drawing audiences, donations and funding. If just playing straight ahead classical concerts was what everyone wanted all along, why did we end up wherever we are right now? (And I say “wherever we are” because depending upon who you read, classical music is either entering a new golden age or the last nail is being pounded into its coffin.)

4 thoughts on “audiences pendulum keeps swinging

  1. evank

    Hi Charles! Your excellent blog has inspired me to start writing as well. As an aspiring crossover proponent, here’s how I responded to the same article. Please excuse the length, and of coruse, any thoughts are of course welcome.

    “In general I like the article. I’m always happy to read an optimistic take on the future of classical music. But I take issue with the author’s conclusion that young audiences “want pure classical, not crossover offerings.” The supporting evidence – a scant, elderly audience at an all-Gershwin pops; and one young audience member affirming her age group’s general interest in “Mahler, Shostakovich, Bruckner, etc.” – aren’t enough to backup the author’s “epiphany.”

    “An all-Gershwin program is not representative of “crossover offerings.” I’m assuming the “crossover” referred to would be classical-jazz, but what about classical-world, classical-rock, classical-techno, classical-hip-hop, etc.? How about specialty shows such as video game and movie soundtracks, or perhaps the most important crossover draw – a headliner? And I doubt jazz is much more ‘hot’ among young audiences than classical to begin with. Not to mention that although his songs are timeless and have been covered substantially since, George Gershwin still died 70 years ago. And don’t get me started on “all-” anything programs. Gershwin is great, but I don’t know if I could handle two hours of symphonic renditions. I love orchestras, I love Gershwin, I love jazz…and I still probably wouldn’t show up to that concert.

    I agree that college students are more likely to get excited about major pieces of symphonic repertoire than a pops revue. But this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t also get excited about seeing the orchestra with any pop star. I’m eagerly awaiting our upcoming pops cycle with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Although they may not have as much of a guaranteed draw as, say, Justin Timberlake – they are extremely talented musicians who bring terrific music with them, and are widely popular with music appreciators who do not regularly attend the Symphony. For the record, I think Justin Timberlake is also talented and produces terrific music. And both Fleck and Timberlake are arguably as “crossover” as George Gershwin. But they’re also alive, recording music, and performing internationally. Put Rufus Wainwright in front of the Toronto Symphony and see if the audience is younger and more full.

    But I can’t really pin all this on the author, who may just have been speaking to the youth program members in Toronto. At least as far as my college experience was concerned, I always remember seeing more students at NY Phil performances of ‘The Rite of Spring’ or even Prokoviev’s Fifth Symphony than the Brandenburgs, Schumann Symphonies, and certainly pops shows.”

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  2. Charles Noble Post author

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply to the article, Evan! I pretty much agree with you – especially in regards to the ‘epiphany’ of the author after an all-Gershwin concert. Of course it would be full of seniors – how many teens and 20-somethings do you hear listening to Gershwin on their iPods?

    I would hesitate to call Gershwin a ‘crossover’ artist – maybe he was 70 years ago, but he’s firmly in the classical canon now, whether the labeling is deserved or not.

    I’m pretty much over the whole ‘crossover’ appellation anyway. How do you categorize Steve Mackey, or John Adams, who both have significant non-classical musical influences and quotations and inspirations in their pieces? Younger composers have largely demolished the lines between popular and classical, which puts them squarely in line with their forbears who wrote pieces for the concert hall that originally were heard in the dance hall (Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, Mozart’s Divertimenti, etc.)

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  3. evank

    And thank you for your thoughtful reply! I definitely sympathize with misgivings about the term ‘crossover.’ I write modern classical music that is heavily influenced by jazz and rock among other things, but I wouldn’t call it jazz, rock, or ‘crossover.’ But if that’s the term the media prefers, we can at least use it correctly! So while I welcome young interest in symphonic blockbusters, I don’t think we should write off ‘crossover’ music as an avenue to younger, more diverse, and ultimately larger audiences.

    To make the point, young people I know who have Gershwin on their iPods aren’t really listening to Gershwin. They’re listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, or to name a few living performers who would be great pops draws for symphony orchestras – Karin Allyson, Bill Charlap, Diana Krall, or Brad Mehldau. I think that if an audience wants to hear ‘Concerto in F,’ they’ll go to the symphony. But if they want to hear ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,’ they’ll pick their favorite jazz artist.

    So those are my thoughts on Gershwin as ‘crossover.’ Of course, what I’d really love to hear is Charlap or Mehldau play the ‘Concerto’ and work some improv into the cadenzas!

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