Curating the modern listener’s experience with classical music post-Covid 19: Starting a fresh path

Curating the modern listener’s experience with classical music post-Covid 19:

Starting a fresh path

by Tania Miller

Let’s face it.  Before Covid-19, classical music was ever so slowly moving towards an alarming reality of being detached from it’s environment.  More and more people have been choosing to do other things.  Orchestras have many devoted followers, it’s true, but as we look to the future, can we do more to connect to our communities so that new audiences will develop a relationship with the experience of live classical music.  

I have been a conductor who has spent my happiest moments curating projects that attempted to connect uniquely and meaningfully, believing that music must be vibrant and relevant to our community.   Many orchestras have provided great leadership, creative ideas, and have successfully curated special projects that have enhanced and modernized the traditional presentation of core repertoire.  It’s inspiring to see this leadership.  New models, formats and experiences are being explored by many orchestras: coffee-hour concerts, rush-hour concerts, casual concerts, music that connects to visuals, and more.  We know there are many successful orchestras, supported by great communities that love what they do and how they perform great music.  But perhaps we’ve entered a time when people stay connected through their phones and computers, tending to text rather than to talk, or to watch Netflix rather than going out for dinner and a movie.  The ease of social isolation has further become a habit as we’ve navigated through the pandemic.  Out of fear for safety and hassle, many have had to choose the online replacement for the real thing, but now, slowly the world is coming back, and how will music help everyone get there?  

It is a precious and critical time to think deeply about the future for classical music. 

One thing is for sure: the essence of music to our lives, to our expression of our lives, to the way that we connect to each other and to cultures and history, to the beauty of how we experience the transcendence of being understood and understanding at the same time – all of this is what makes it vital.  All of this is why music will grow back, no matter what happens, like a new tree sapling in a burned-out forest, or a lone flower from under a craggy rock.  There is no way that orchestral music will be gone forever. 

But what will we do to help its return?  How will we find the essence of classical music post-Covid, and how can we do it strongly and quickly enough that it won’t destroy the organizations and the musicians’ livelihoods in its wake?

One thing that we have discovered, or rediscovered, during this time is how much we love serenity.  Although this time has had its extraordinary challenges and tragedies, some fortunate people have also experienced what it is to be solitary, what it is to have space and serenity. Many have recognized that it was missing from their lives before, and have found serenity to be calming, empowering, and for most; whether it is through projects or thinking, reading or cooking, gardening or cleaning, building or researching; it has been a time of creativity.  But in this serenity, I think the voice of the arts has nourished and supported people and has consoled and entertained the world when they needed it.  The importance of music and the arts for our future has surely been felt.

Secondly, we have learned how much we need each other, to be close to each other.  We have learned to differentiate between what it feels like to be physically close to someone vs. virtually close.  Perhaps we hadn’t noticed these differences so profoundly before.  Those of us who go to concerts realize, although access to incredible music online is there for us, (perhaps with even better orchestras and better soloists than we might have had available in our own communities), that something deep is still missing.  This is the relationship that we have to the community, the orchestra, and the people that we share the music with each concert.  We start to understand how much we feel music together, physically together. 

I have always felt that music had this incredible ability to know us, to speak to us personally, to present a thought or a feeling to us individually, and yet to somehow, simultaneously “be” for all of us, to collectively move us emotionally toward a climactic moment, and to elevate and dissipate our emotional experience as a united audience.  What an incredible feeling it is to share with people and with oneself simultaneously!  How unusual and special it is to be a part of a collective expressive experience that includes not just the great music itself, but the specific performers who we care about, those who share those performances with us right in our own communities.

But where can we go from here?  Where can classical music find it’s new voice in the future, a future which will surely have full concerts of Mahler, Beethoven and Shostakovich, but one that also recognizes this potential of a reset button to help us reflect on what we can do to stop the climate change of classical music, to stop the slow indifference to classical concerts that may have been developing and to rethink new possibilities for presenting classical music?   We need to work uniquely to bridge the gap between this critical moment of silence and quickly work our way back to the fullness of what our orchestras present.

First of all, let’s talk about the social aspect of attending classical concerts.  Once, large scale concerts and opera productions originated more as social gatherings than artistic experiences, French opera during the times of Lully and Rameau, for instance.  Patrons, (generally nobles and aristocrats at this time and not the general public yet), sat in boxes in the concert hall at a time when it was socially savvy to arrive late so as to be seen  “making an entrance”.   Perhaps more than half of the fun was the novelty of people watching, gossiping, and talking with others. The music was a background to this social fun, and from time to time provided entertainment when the audience took the time to listen.  Thankfully it progressed beyond that point to concert experiences where audiences listened deeply and silently to the profound experience of the music.  But had our audiences been changing in the last few decades to something that maybe needed a little bit more of both?

We spend our time curating the musical experience for our audiences, but how much have we been thinking about curating the overall social experience of attending a concert as well? If we want people to leave their safe homes in the post-Covid future, and to venture into the concert hall again; if we want people to leave their television sets and to use the extra energy and courage required to plan for and commit to an event; we must understand and harness the thing that people miss most right now:  the feeling of being together.  In the case of music concerts:  the witnessing and experiencing of something magical, profound and expressive…with others.

As I reflect on what the modern concert experience is, I recognize that people don’t dress up anymore as they once did, and often arrive just in time to find their seats and maybe read a few program notes.  For modern audiences most are seeking a personal search for the experience of quality, entertainment and transcendence, but it has lost, for many general or new audiences, that added social event status.  How can we make it more of an event?  And thinking about the concert itself, running for two or two-and-a-half hours with an intermission in the middle, do we wear out our modern audiences mentally?  Adding in a pre-concert chat creates a lengthy evening.  And where was the social interaction?  

If there is no social interaction, perhaps watching the same concert online would be enough?  But, as we miss our live concerts these days, strangely, watching concerts online feels sterile in comparison to experiencing music while sitting beside someone else, while viewing the efforts of the musicians and the conductor in real time and feeling the energy of the performance.  It brings us to understand that there is a full and deep realm of the subconscious that is at play when we experience music.  We subconsciously feel and experience a presence beside us more strongly than we perhaps realize and the true vibrations of the music.  Maybe we do relish the experience of sharing something collectively while at the same time secretly treasuring our own personal response to the music. Yes, surely, it works both ways and we are all too aware of the disturbance of a noisy patron as well!  But, overall, I think we enjoy being a part of a group experience and making this a special part of our week when we attend a great concert.  

This isn’t to say that more beautifully filmed and recorded online content isn’t important and satisfying (and truly necessary at this time).  Online concerts serve to bring music to people at a convenience of personal choice and timing that can’t be created by a curated live experience.  But do they reach new audiences or just serve existing ones?  Do they develop a community?

In another direction, how can we rethink smaller but equally deeply meaningful experiences during this next post-Covid time?  Perhaps we have a year ahead of us of exploring smaller endeavours, and more of them.  Perhaps we explore chamber experiences, work in smaller community venues or the homes of music patrons and lovers, thoughtfully connecting people together either through the Symphony families that we already have, or in an intelligent way of reaching out to certain groups of like-minded people.  To be the social curators of human home life is truly where music once started.  It was the place to come together.  Let’s explore the possibilities of that in our communities with our orchestras in this post-Covid time.  The possibilities of great music are endless from solo flute to Mahlerian orchestras and perhaps we need to draw from all. 

Thoughtfully curated artistic experiences may contain chamber music that our musicians love to perform, orchestral music, contemporary ensembles, art, conversation, dance or all of these together.  Let’s open the possibilities of what a concert experience can be, what is a possible venue, a true variety of repertoire that goes outside the box of classical-only, orchestral-only, but still meets the needs of souls experiencing music with each other.

Music is an experience of the body as well as of the heart and mind.  This is one of the aspects that defines music differently from visual art or poetry.  We feel it in our bodies; the rhythms, the tensions, the swells, the stillness.  The experience of being in a concert is elevated through the connection of our bodies and mind.  As this physical response to music is an important part of the experience too, perhaps it too bears some thought.   Does it create a sense of disconnection as audiences sit in the concert hall watching and not moving for a long period of time, and is this the unnoticed subtlety that keeps the young or new audiences away or feeling that classical music is either “boring” or “disconnected”?  Think about a bar, or a rock concert.  People are interacting with each other, with the music and their bodies.

What if there was more movement?  Stravinsky believed that music had to be seen to properly be assimilated.  He was partial to the ballet as mode of performance for this reason and insisted that it was important for one to observe instrumentalists when they were performing a piece.  What can we do to rethink or enhance our old model?  Maybe more intermissions, or movement needs to happen between pieces.  Maybe, more movement needs to be shown on stage?  How will this affect listening?  We must have moments of depth, moments of stillness to truly listen.  But is two hours straight of listening also the wrong model for this?

What if, for a moment, we threw the current concert evening model out the window, and thought of it in new ways.  In one possible scenario, the classical concert could open and close the evening, and a social activity could be expanded in the middle.  Imagine starting with a half hour concerto, opening up then into a new modern social experience; walking around an art installation with wine in hand for instance, or experiencing, while standing, an edgy modern new commission with a smaller music ensemble in a new room; and finishing with a sit-down experience with an extraordinary Symphonic work.  Maybe we need shorter modular formal concerts, and expansions pre-concert and post-concert into new kinds of artistic experiences or explorations.  Audiences could have choices about which sections of the evening to attend.  

Think of this in a new post-Covid environment:  Is it possible that your concert hall facility and/or the environments near it can accommodate several experiences simulateously – a concerto or chamber work in one area, an installation and social activity in another, and a Symphony in the main hall?  And that in this time of social distancing, you could offer your patrons the chance to experience these offerings in smaller spaced out groups, rotating throughout these three repeating presentations while experiencing them at different times throughout the evening? 

And how relevant are our concerts going to be to this emerging audience post-Covid?  What “universals” can we find that connect the music of the past and present to the cultures of our modern listeners and specific communities, especially after what we have just been through?  A story about the life of Mozart in 1789, and the social context of his writing that work is interesting, but for many perhaps it projects the feeling that classical music is disconnected and even old-fashioned or stuck in the past.  Is Mozart’s music relevant, up-to-date, thought-provoking, expressive to general audiences of today?  Yes, the music is, but is the context that we present it in as well? 

One of the great aspects of music is not that it tells specific stories or that it expresses specific emotions of the composer, but rather that the music itself journeys over time and reflects us as much as it reflects its original intention.  It transcends time, culture, specific emotions and stories, and changes, grows, relates, expands, and inspires us through the universal expressions that it has.    Love, war, darkness, life everlasting, struggle, pain, and progress: these universals remain as important to us now as any time in history past and can be expressed with great impact through music.   Many great orchestras have curated extraordinary themes and projects and are an inspiration in this regard.  It’s time to continue thinking about connections between all music, and our present humanity: this time, this world, this human situation that we are presently in.  It’s about being relevant.

Perhaps the model of our “masterworks series” needs to be rethought.  Should music continue to be organized around the traditional mix of varied orchestral repertoire and spread across the typical span of the season?  Perhaps we should think of all “series” as journeys, and define what journey we want to be on.  Perhaps one “exploration” is three concerts long, and another is five.  Perhaps one journey takes place over a shortened time period, like a festival, and perhaps another journey is the theme of the entire season.  What are the themes that impact us today that can partner with music into meaningful explorations of us and now.  We can think of music as not just the experience of great art, which it is, but also as a means to explore humanity, to find spirituality, transcendence, exploration of ideas, and interaction with communities and cultures.  In this next post-Covid time, perhaps these thematic explorations include full orchestra, but also chamber, solo, and other art forms as well.

And finally, there’s the education, the personal relationship that we all have in our own growth and experience with music.  In this next period, when orchestras may not have the ability or even the budget to present their full concert seasons or all of their full programs, let’s be creative about the precious and inspiring talent in our midst: the experiences, the minds, and the passions of each of the musicians.  How can your orchestra create programs that may have to pause in the realm of normal presentation and performance, but instead focus on enrichment, education and connection.  For this special moment in time, as we transition slowly back to a hopeful normalcy, can you impact each member of your community from the children, to the young people, to the music lovers, to the strangers to classical music in new ways?  How can we bring people, young and old, closer to music?

Many people are more distantly connected to what music is than they were in the past.  So, on that level, we could be talking about education initiatives.  But, I’m not just talking about music lessons.  I’m talking about engagement:  up-close, thoughtful, personal small-group experiences with musicians talking about and performing music, exploring sound, exploring ideas like colour or structure and the performance of small concerts with personal discussions and explorations about themes and topics.  I’m talking about working with individuals in the community, who share a dream to enrich and deepen the musical understanding of those in the community and who will support unique endeavours, and who will, for this transitional challenging moment, be inspired to financially or otherwise support the endeavours of the musicians and orchestra leaders to create special community projects, school projects, work with youth and young people.  This requires leadership, and strong curation.   Although many musicians will have these interests and skills, this will generally require the organization and the vision from those leaders who do have the interest to create something that is imaginative and impactful. 

And finally, challenging as it might be, in my mind, now is the time to creatively partner with the other arts within the community.  Museums, galleries, artists, poets, writers, theatre companies all included.  How can we use themes, direction, and curation to create something small but special, something that spreads people out, reduces large crowds, but keeps everyone moving, interacting, experiencing.  Perhaps now is a time for smaller groups of people attending longer-running exhibitions that last several weeks and enable, again, space and time to explore them.

Combining music, art, and searching for meaningful ways to create interactions with music, for people and with people, orchestras can continue to show the community that music has never been more needed, more vibrant and more relevant to the core of humanity. Our current pause, our reflection, and our creativity can possibly make it so that we make it out of this eye of the storm and beyond the storm itself into an even greater future.  Regardless of what happens to orchestras, music will continue.  It will be the tree sapling that grows in the forest and the flower that grows up out from under the rock.  But we have an opportunity, as orchestras, to create a new epoch, a new era, a new relationship for humans to music and for the future of classical music.


Tania Miller


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