New Music for New Audiences

It’s Spring and time to plan for the next art season (and beyond!). Have you considered some new music for your repertoire?
Sound familiar? I opened my post this same time last year the same way, and I urge you to revisit it here, since it lays out my feelings on programming new music, both the need and urgency and yes, the problems of doing so.

So, I’ll try to avoid repeating myself, but why address this again? Well, it’s Spring again, and there’s still new music out there…much of it mine! We read a lot about how music organizations struggle, and too often the answer is to fall back on The Classics, tried and true popular pieces by famous composers. There’s no doubt that this approach brings in audiences, but does it keep them coming back?

Since I moved to LA, I have been continually impressed by the LA Phil but never more so than recently when I attended two concerts in a week, one featured an all minimalist program (Part, Adams, Glass), while the other featured an all modernist program (Stockhausen, Cage, Bettison). Both featured a premiere. The result? A not-sold-out but highly respectable 80-odd% attendance in the spacious Walt Disney hall, especially impressive given that the smaller orchestral forces required must have kept costs down significantly. What was the audience like for these unheard-of programs? All-ages, diverse, hip, and repeat business. I saw several of the same people at both concerts and noticed how broad and young-skewing the age range was. The modernist concert in particular enjoyed a very arty and racially diverse audience (sadly rare in classical music).

I can’t speak to the financial state of the LA Phil, but I can speak to the fact that everyone I meet here – professional musician, amateur, or non-musician – is excited about what the organization is doing. A first-rate orchestra that only plays The Classics can only appeal to a small segment of a community, however ardent that segment might be. A first-rate orchestra that engages the community, plays The Classics, and engages in regular bold programming is a real topic of conversation that generates interest across the board for all of its programming. People like me might come for the Stockhausen and be impressed enough to get an expensive Mahler ticket. Someone else comes to hear a Glass premiere and then is inspired to get a cheap ticket for a Cage concert. Yet others see the work Dudamel does in LA school, bring their children to hear Beethoven and chance upon a Gorecki premiere.

The point is that regular and consistent programming of modern music brings in new audiences far more so than safe programming can ever hope to. Is it a risk? Of course, but the alternative to investment is not to invest, and no business, organization, or country ever thrived by failing to engage in new opportunities. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve had a premiere and someone has come up to me afterwards and said that they wished they had an opportunity to hear more new classical music.

People are hungry for new music. They are out there in every audience you’ve ever seen, and when you excite them about music again – when they feel like you are consistently performing music that is worth experiencing new or anew alike – they bring their friends and tell anyone else who will listen. In today’s world, integrated and consistent programming of new music is the only way to generate that excitement. It’s a dangerous road to travel, but who out there became a musician because it was the safe way to go?

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