February 04, 2010

Welcoming back the amateurs

The relationship between professional presentation and amateur participation may be the most urgent topic in the arts today. In Baltimore, some intrepid musicians are showing us a way back to the future.

Grim news about declining audiences from the SPPA and the new National Arts Index. Shrinking endowments. Contract renegotiations. Programming cutbacks. You might expect a struggling orchestra to pull out the film scores and bring on as many star soloists as it can afford, or reemphasize its musical excellence and world-class stature.

You might not expect it to invite a few hundred amateur musicians to join the professionals onstage without so much as an audition.

But that’s what the Baltimore Symphony did this week, thanks to Marin Alsop’s warm-blooded understanding of the participatory shift underway in contemporary culture. As Anne Midgette explains in yesterday’s article, Alsop decided to call a pair of concerts “Rusty Musicians with the BSO” and invite “anybody older than 25 who played an orchestral instrument and could read music” to “have a chance to perform serious orchestral repertory with the BSO players.”

It worked better than anyone suspected (judge for yourself), in part because most of the musicians are fairly serious amateurs who happen to work in other fields, and in part because the amateurs were interspersed with BSO players, often sharing a music stand just like regular desk partners.

All of which sounds pitch perfect to me. “Rusty” tells both the amateur musicians and the audience (tickets were $10) that it’s okay if things creak a bit, and it implies that the amateurs are different from the pros not because they’re intrinsically less talented or less worthy, but because they don’t practice as much and haven’t kept up their skills as assiduously.

The whole experiment conveys that we’re-in-this-together spirit, a lovely contrast to the vibe most nights in most concert halls. For the audience, the presence of amateurs onstage gives us a proxy for ourselves and reminds us that even the professional musicians are humans and individuals just like us — exactly the sense of connection that patrons have wished for in our research studies, and that many orchestras have been trying to create in their marketing materials and meet-the-musicians events.

There have always been amateur and community orchestras, of course, not to mention choruses of all kinds and plenty of private and social music-making. But for the last century or so, as both Midgette and Joshua Levine in a recent Newsweek piece note, the amateurs have been segregated from their professional cousins, or rather subordinated in a hierarchy that valued specialization and perfection over participation and conviviality.

Alsop’s Baltimore program and a few kindred initiatives around the field (like the gala concert of Bernstein’s Mass that will be sung mostly by amateurs at London’s Southbank Center in May) suggest that the wall between the two realms may be crumbling.

If so, it’s timely, because the same studies that show attendance declining for traditional arts categories like symphony-going and ballet attendance also show growth in the amateur dance and music scenes, not to mention painting, writing, and other manifestations of the expressive life.

Participatory engagement with the arts is coming back into balance with presentational engagement. As Levine observes, this is “less a new development than a return to an old way of life.”

Traditionalists will point out that, after the novelty wears off, nobody’s going to pay to hear a bunch of engineers and social workers play Elgar. But Alsop’s concerts weren’t about the audience, at least not the one in the house for those concerts. It was about giving a new audience a way of connecting with their local symphony. Midgette points out that most of the amateurs, despite playing orchestral instruments and loving classical music, didn’t attend the BSO frequently.

Which isn't surprising if you think about it. They didn’t have a place there. Now they’ve been given one, if only temporarily and symbolically. Let’s see what happens.

Jeff Prillaman — February 05, 2010

What an excellent program. Kudos to BSO and Ms. Alsop for being courageous and breaking the elitist "glass ceiling" if only for a while. The most important line here was the audience was largely composed of music lovers who don't regularly attend the symphony. That is key to community engagement and survival for any Arts org in our day and age.

Best Regards
Jeff Prillaman
Executive Director for the Da Capo Institute.
Richmond, VA

Lena Khandros — February 06, 2010

What a great story!!! I want to share 2 examples of how arts organizations can benefit from audience participation (from my experience):
1. I partnered with a local ballet school for young kids and organized an "opening act" Nutcracker performance at the theater lobby -- prior to the "Nutcracker on Ice" show by the St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet. This resulted in significant burst in attendance (thanks to the families and friends of the young dancers who wouldn't have come otherwise). As a result the show was sold-out, and later, the event was featured in the New York Times article, as part of the larger story about the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts.
2. I also had a successful experience with having a talented young artist (not a professional musician), with strong following among the young audiences, to appear as a guest performer at a concert by an established musician. There are two obvious benefits: first, guest artists bring their audiences with them, and second, if collaboration is truly creative and inspired, it helps position a host organization as an innovator open to new ideas and collaborations.
I believe the sky is the limit here. It is very important of course to ensure that the concept of audience participation is approached both creatively and with high degree of sensitivity, to ensure the artistry of the professionals is only enhanced by the collaboration. In the end, all sides win.
Thank you again for the great post!

Janis — February 08, 2010

This is FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!!!!! What a great idea and story!! I'd definitely pay to see this -- and not just this, but behind-the-scenes stuff about training and getting them up to speed again, how they felt about picking up an instrument again, perhaps how different amateurs decided to get together and maybe make a little quartet for their own amusement, what have you.

What a GREAT IDEA! I'd SO pay to see and hear this!

This should be marketed as a DVD for the next orchestra that tries it.

Janis — February 08, 2010

"But Alsop’s concerts weren’t about the audience, at least not the one in the house for those concerts. It was about giving a new audience a way of connecting with their local symphony."

It was about attracting an audience that wasn't content to sit back passively and be a mere audience.

It was about redefining the word "audience."

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