Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Can Rufus Wainwright cure what ails the American symphony?

Classical Revolution
By Barry Johnson

On Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud" Wednesday, which was dedicated to Rufus Wainwright and his concert with the Oregon Symphony on Thursday night, an important question arose and was quickly dismissed. To what extent can someone like Wainwright, who has operated mostly in a pop context in his career, bring his audience to a greater appreciation of classical music? Another way of asking it: Does the answer to the diminishing of classical music in our time, especially among the young, involve concerts like the one tomorrow -- a pop star, a classical hook, a symphony orchestra?

The worry from an audience development standpoint is that the star's audience doesn't think of the concert as an Oregon Symphony event -- it's just a Rufus Wainwright show, centered on his excursion into opera but departing for some Judy Garland tunes and his own songs afterward. Will they be convinced to turn out for a regular symphony or opera performance by a program of this sort?

Of course, the same question arises when Portland's Thomas Lauderdale, the driving force behind Pink Martini and a symphony board member, does a special night with the symphony (as opposed to his appearances on piano as part of the regular symphony program).  It would be interesting to know how many of his Pink Martini fans drop in for a little Mahler or Brahms when Lauderdale isn't addressing the piano in that characteristically impish Lauderdale way.

I just don't know, though the Oregon Symphony may. And maybe someone out in symphony land out there has some pertinent data.

My operating hypothesis is this: Given the right circumstances (informal setting, a little casual information), young people (say 35 and younger) will listen to and enjoy music we consider classical. Mozart, Haydn, you name it. It might not be their very favorite music, but it has a chance to be on their playlist at least, because great music played with conviction will be recognizable as great.

Now, I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back me up on this, but I've also seen the popularity of bands like the Portland Cello Project, which often mixes classical moments into his set lists, and the explosion of classically trained musicians in our major indie bands. No violin? What's wrong with you? And I could mention Classical Revolution PDX, Opera Theater Oregon, and Filmusik, among many others. Together they constitute an alt.classical scene that is relatively robust. So yes, I think ears are ears, brains are brains, Mozart is Mozart and it sounds good.

Over the rainbow by Rufus Wainwright
Uploaded by Scalplace. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

And once Mozart makes it on their playlist and once he's joined by Mahler or Webern? A few of them might make the leap to the concert hall, become real fans, again if they are asked in the right way and it's made easy for them.

Now, that may be incorrect. It's possible that nothing will turn the 30-somethings out for the symphony under any circumstance. Or maybe we shouldn't worry -- even if we do nothing, somehow enough of the young today will migrate to classical music eventually. But I think the symphony is obligated to try something now, if just for experiment's sake, even if the one of the last two explanations is correct. It's too dismal otherwise, even if it won't stay dismal.

The problem, if we go back to the original hypothesis, is those first experiences. Should they even be in a concert hall? What music should be offered and by whom? Does it have to be the symphony or can it be a surrogate, an alt.classical ensemble that is somehow connected to the symphony? I'm using "symphony" loosely here to represent all of our formal classical music groups.

Just for the record, I don't think the Rufus Wainwright concert, as delightful as it might be for his fans, is quite it. It may have other benefits, but I doubt that conversion experiences will be among them. Maybe if the program was different: If Wainwright explained the joys of an opera by Berlioz, the one that struck him dumb the way great music can land on a teenager, as he did on OPB this morning, and then we heard a concert staging of a scene or two from the opera maybe that would work.  Followed perhaps by Wainwright on Mozart followed by Wainwright singing from "The Magic Flute" and then other Mozart examples played by the symphony? I don't know.

At least it would break down the fourth wall, Wainwright addressing the audience directly and consistently in a language they understand. Lauderdale is great at that, too,  and should be given every opportunity to "sell" the symphony to his Pink Martini audience. I don't mean for it to sound crass, really, just informal. And the key is the tie-in with the symphony, which has to be very close, I think. They can't be tootling away in the background.

They also have to be sending the right signal: We want to be your symphony. Which is different from, we want you to be in our audience. We are dedicated to giving you what you need -- the achingly beautiful music that so attracted Wainwright as a young listener, disturbing music, music that consoles and excites, music for intimate moments, even music that makes you laugh. We are your servants when this is the sort of music you are looking for. At least that's what I think.

During the show, Wainwright said that classical audiences "freaked out" when he sang opera classics. There's a lesson or two in there.  Giving those songs to new audiences is really priceless, whether Wainwright is to your taste or not, and Wainwright understood that his untrained voice (by opera standards) was going to receive a stormy reception in some quarters and he still risked it. Bravo!  If you want to reach new audiences, regardless of medium, don't you want to bring the same qualities: great music played or sung fearlessly? You don't have to be 25 to respond to that. Though maybe it helps.

As for the scoffers, I don't have much to say other than maybe you don't quite understand what's at stake.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what's ailing the "American Symphony." Actually, I thought we were playing better than ever before! If the question is more about ticket sales and donations, the picture is obviously more mixed.

But even in this regard, I don't think we need a "cure," so much as a renewed determination to market effectively and fundraise effectively. Play interesting programs well, as we certainly do, and people will come, if they get the marketing message. Convince the wealthy citizens of Portland that our performances and education programs are absolutely vital, and they'll give generously.

I think there's always potential for success with crossovers- Ella Fitzgerald recorded with orchestra successfully, as did a lot of other great pop singers. The full orchestra is a great backdrop for singers. They didn't sing Berlioz art songs, though: they sang the songs that they were actually good at. Difficult art songs are a challenge for a pop singer. The artistic compromises necessary will of course be forgiven, assuming we make good on the ticket sales. I just feel sad for talented young classical singers in training- this opportunity would be great for a young, well trained singer, but is instead going to a pop star (who probably doesn't need the money, and certainly doesn't need the career boost). A grad student from a conservatory would do a better job, but wouldn't sell as many tickets. I guess it's okay. The orchestra is a not-for-profit outfit, but we can't stand on principals while our livelihood floats down the drain with the rest of the economy. We need to sell tickets.

All said, it's going to be a great concert- the opera excerpts are quite lovely and exquisitely sung by classical singers, and Storm Large's cameo is not to miss. She's a local treasure, and I'm happy she's going to be on stage with us again!

Barry Johnson said...

Do you think cross-over concerts create new classical music fans, though? Or do you even think that is important? (A reasonable argument could be made either way.)

I like your formulation -- play interesting programs well and they will come -- and I'm interested in how you would unpack "interesting."

I think people want to hear Wainwright's interpretation of those songs, not because they are close to a musical "ideal" but as an extension of who Wainwright is. He loves those beautiful songs and wants to sing them; his fans are interested in how he will do them, how he makes them his. And that's where the courage comes in, because Wainwright knows his voice isn't trained for this sort of song. But he believes in himself as an artist, and he gives it a go. And I think he makes something interesting, but that's just my opinion.

Of course, there's a time to talk about the fate of classical music and a time to hear some music. Which is where we are right now!

Rachel said...

Rufus Wainwright is a singer whose music always manages to stir my heart in much the same way a good symphony performance does. So to hear them both together tonight is a very exciting prospect indeed.

This is an extremely thoughtful and honest article. I am a 30 year old, highly trained in classical performance, and I can say that I have been to very few symphony concerts (3? 5?) in the past 8 years since losing my "student" status. The only reason for this is that tickets to attend the symphony cost more than I have been willing (or able) to pay. When I was first out of college and living in Boston, I would have done anything to see the BSO perform on a regular basis but the problem was logistic: I simply could not justify the purchase of symphony tickets. I was barely making it and had to hustle from my day job to volunteer usher just to see any live theatre or performances. Now that I have a little bit more disposable income (please note we are still paying off my music degree) and we have relocated to Portland, I am happily representing the nosebleed section with my $20 ticket to tonight's performance. Meanwhile, for the past 8 years I have felt so snubbed by the inaccessibility of live orchestra ticket prices my musical tastes have migrated to what I can rotate for free on Pandora -- independent musicians (and some pop!).

All in all, I have to say that more than making it "easy" for younger people to "like" (think facebook there) a type of music or become loyal followers of a classical group, you just have to make sure they can afford to be a part of it. Student ticket deals are great, but how about those just out of school who can't find a job because they spent 10 years learning how to play the clarinet?