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Chamber Music Northwest review: New music for old people?

By Brett Campbell

August 24, 2015

Open the program book for this year’s Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival, and the first thing you see on the inside front cover is a full-page ad featuring a pair of beaming septuagenarians shilling for Medicare Advantage. No question about it: despite the festival’s ardent efforts to broaden its audience, detailed in our previous post, like most classical music presenters, its core consists of admirable elders who won’t be around to support it in another decade or so.

How can classical music concerts draw broader — and especially younger — audiences? A new study, for example, suggests that “older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.” Presenters who want to attract the broadest audiences therefore must try to create experiences that provide all of the above; those factors don’t sound mutually exclusive.

One obvious place to start is by programming music created during the lifetimes of the audiences you want to attract. Of course, it depends on which music you pick, since much of the listener unfriendly new music of the middle of the last century drove away a good portion of the classical music audience, a blow that presenters still haven’t recovered from, despite the fact that we’ve had at least a couple of generations of composers writing in more accessible styles. And no matter how ear-friendly the sounds, presenting compositions by unfamiliar names (i.e., anyone born after about 1940) risks cutting into the conservative core audience that, though dwindling, still pays most of the bills. It’s a tough dilemma that CMNW is working hard to solve.

Tara Helen O'Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch's "Ralph's Old Records" at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom-Emerson.

Tara Helen O’Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Kenji-Bunch, David Shifrin and Fred Sherry premiered Bunch’s “Ralph’s Old Records” at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

As we saw in the previous installment, the annual summer festival’s inaugural New@Noon series provided a valuable injection of new music into a classical music scene desperately in need of rejuvenation. But some of the best new music I heard at CMNW didn’t even appear on that new series. Judging by the enthusiastic response to CMNW’s “regular” July 7 concert at Lincoln Hall concert featuring new music by Portland’s Kenji Bunch and Pulitzer Prize winning New York composer David Lang, even CMNW listeners who came to the to hear Mozart found plenty to enjoy in 21st century American sounds as well. That integration of old music and new points the way to broadening the audience for classical music. And as we’ll see in a conversation with the festival’s director, that’s only one of many lessons this summer’s festival offers for the future of CMNW, chamber music, and classical music in general.

In his eloquent introduction to the West Coast premiere performance of Lang’s 2014 work almost all the time, Jasper Quartet violist Sam Quintal compared the music’s structure, in which everything grows out of a simple musical kernel, to analogous natural phenomena, including the nautilus shell that’s part of CNMW’s legacy. It’s one in a long line of audible “process” pieces that, like the most successful classic minimalist works that inform Lang’s post-minimalist style, doesn’t let the concept overwhelm the art. As Lang noted, he modified his compositional formula “to make it musical,” and the Jaspers’ committed performance brought out all its musicality, as they played the slowly ascending and then (after a fierce climax) descending progression of musical patterns. 

Bunch’s new quintet Ralph’s Old Records, another in the festival’s long, laudable series of commissions, held special poignance, because the titular character is both an emeritus professor of the school where this world premiere performance was happening, and the composer’s father. Ralph Bunch’s record collection (and subsequent cassette mixtape) of popular music of his time, from the Andrews Sisters through Spike Jones, inspired his son’s rich creation. Far more distinctive than a pastiche (though that was part of it), it ranged from zany (“Chi-Chi Hotcha Watchee Stomp,” featuring some Shifrin wailing) to spoofery (“When I Grew Too Old to Dream, Dream, Dream, One More Dream Came True”) to affectionate (“Celestial Debris”) — and that’s just the first half. The cheerful performance by fab flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, Yekwon Sunwoo, Bunch, David Shifrin, and Fred Sherry drew a raucous ovation, proving again that in the hands of an accomplished and audience-conscious composer like Bunch, new music and even new Oregon music can be at least as appealing to “classical” audiences as the museum material — if only they have the opportunity to hear it. Original, accessible music like Ralph’s Old Records makes a strong case against ghettoization.

Oh, and as for that Mozart, the CMNW crew’s performance of one of his relatively lightweight flute quartets was pleasant, their version of one of his less-memorable string quintets somewhat rockier. Both received the usual applause, but on this night, the excitement came from the music of our time, not Mozart’s.

Out of the Ghetto

Chamber Music Northwest’s July 7 concert demonstrates that contemporary music, including music by today’s Oregonians, is ready for prime time at CMNW. I’ve long argued that ghettoizing new music (and for that matter old music) deprives each of the audience for the other, continues classical music’s self-inflicted marginalization from contemporary culture, and severs the organic connection between so-called “classical” music (all of which, as the radio show notes, was once new) and contemporary music.

Chamber Music Northwest's first free Community Concert at Portland Art Museum included contemporary music by an Oregon composer, free admission -- and a packed house with audiences of all ages. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Chamber Music Northwest’s first free Community Concert at Portland Art Museum included contemporary music by an Oregon composer, free admission — and a packed house with audiences of all ages. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Experiencing in concerts the continuity of all music in the classical tradition, new or old, can help listeners understand the DNA that links it all, and maybe thereby appreciate the music itself more. That’s why, as much as I appreciate the value of new music series like New@Noon and your typical FearNoMusic or Third Angle concert (because without them, Oregonians would hear little 21st century classical music at all), they do little to expand the audience for contemporary music, because they tend to attract listeners who already know they’re interested in it, and allow conservative listeners to succumb to often outdated stereotypes about new music. I hope we continue to see even more new music at CMNW — but included in every show (like the main stage concerts that mixed works by contemporary Oregon composers Bunch and Schiff with classics), not just tucked away on afternoons when many can’t attend, like New@Noon.

Lowering the average listener age isn’t the only goal of classical programming, though few more pressing. Did this summer’s new music make CMNW’s audiences younger? We asked CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta, who noted the difficulty in obtaining reliable hard data on audience age and demographic and instead offered anecdotal observations. “From this perspective, the past two summers, we have seen significant growth in audience members under age 45 and under age 30 – particularly at mainstage concerts,” he wrote in an email. “Audience diversity has increased at concerts at Portland State, which we attribute to the move from our suburban Catlin Gabel location to the heart of downtown. We also saw increases in younger audience attendance for a wide array of Reed College concerts, ranging from those offering more traditional fare to new works, our Tango showcase, and Igudesman & Joo. We know this is working, because more than 15 percent of our audience is new in the past two years, and nearly a third are new in the past five years.”

That’s the good news. The bad: new music alone isn’t dramatically reducing the age of attendees. “Our Club Concerts, New@Noon, and even mainstage concerts featuring new works – attract primarily knowledgeable, experienced, existing audience members who are seeking new forms of creative expressions…the vast majority of audiences for these shows tend to be experienced arts goers,” Bilotta wrote. “I’ve seen the exact same patterns of attendance for new and less traditional opera and theater throughout my career. They do attract some younger and new audience – and we have certainly seen that.”

But while new music has broadened the age range somewhat, the younger audiences actually are less attracted to the festival’s new music than to “crossover and well-known traditional works: Edgar Meyer & Mike Marshall, our collaborations with BodyVox and Northwest Dance Project, our Tango concert with Reed College, Igudesman & Joo, and beloved works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and other well-known composers,” Bilotta explains. “The past two summers, it is these events that have attracted our largest percentage of audience members under age 45. It’s for good reason – because crossover and popular works are often those that are most accessible, most approachable and least daunting to young people and newer attendees. Only the adventurous – whether young or old – want to spend their money and time on a risky, unknown arts experience.”

Bilotta thinks the main obstacles to gaining younger audiences are less about content and more about form, and he maintains that its efforts to demolish those non-content barriers seem to be working, pointing to increased numbers of free and discount tickets for young audience members, community concerts, open rehearsals. “[W]e have greatly expanded our education and outreach efforts to reach younger and new audiences, and it has paid off big time.”

Outreach in action: before its Family Concert CMNW hosted a free instrument petting zoo where kids could try various instruments. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Outreach in action: before its Family Concert CMNW hosted a free instrument petting zoo where kids could try various instruments. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Much more remains to be done in this area, Bilotta acknowledges. “We’ll attract younger and new audiences when we lower the barriers to participation that confront them at every turn – ticket prices, venues, formality, lack of information in their chosen media, feeling unwelcome in older arts crowds, grumpy old ushers, not being able to connect socially with friends and peers when they attend, barring drinks from the hall, and most importantly, feeling that the work has some relevance for them. Removing these barriers, whether perceived or real, is what ultimately allows younger newer audiences to actually feel like they can make the arts a part of their lives.”

This certainly squares with my own observations over the years, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, and it’s great to hear CMNW confronting these barriers rather than (as others have done) blaming the audience for not showing up to off-putting offerings. It will be fascinating to see whether the Club Concerts, which directly address these problems, result in a demonstrably broader audience than I’ve seen at them so far, though I wasn’t able to attend them this year myself.

While the festival’s emphasis on new music hasn’t yet drawn rock-show age crowds, those efforts have had another beneficial effect, Bilotta reports: sparking interest in new music by older audience members. “Our new emphasis on commissioning and presenting new music the past three summers has had a major impact on our audiences’ interest in and support for new works,” he concludes, and that pays dividends down the line. “We have a tremendous need to jostle our loyal audience out of their comfort zone and encourage them to experience and hear music differently, to discover dance, theater and a wide variety of musical styles, and to participate in events like Club Concerts and New@Noons that are breaking the mold,” he says. “These activities literally renew long-time audience members and get them excited and energized about what we are doing. As a result, they become more loyal, more evangelistic, and more willing to try new things…  So many of our current audience members have become interested in Club Concerts and New@Noons that they are monopolizing the events (which is why we added a second Club BodyVox show). A survey completed this past week indicates that 69% of our audience are now interested in concerts featuring new music and works they haven’t heard before. That’s just crazy.”

The audience at Chamber Music Northwest's Club Concerts tends to be middle aged to much older. This performance at Portland's Jimmy Mak's featured Julie Feves, Jay Campbell, and Fred Sherry. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The audience at Chamber Music Northwest’s Club Concerts tends to be middle aged to much older. This performance at Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s featured Julie Feves, Jay Campbell, and Fred Sherry. Photo: Tom Emerson.

New Wine, Old Bottles

Reducing the age of its audience from ancient to middle aged and older, and igniting an interest in new music among core listeners, are tremendous accomplishments. But is it enough? Like many arts administrators, Bilotta believes that “for the arts, 45 is the new 25. [F]or arts organizations, the real young audiences are people aged 40-50. These are the people emerging from the long, hard slog of education, meeting and marrying, building careers, raising kids – all the things that consume one’s life up until about age 45. Then, finally, you have the time, interest, money and need for something more in your life. After an initial exposure to the arts in youth, this is really the first real opportunity people have to make the arts a part of their lives, and we need to invite them to do so.”

While I agree with much of Bilotta’s analysis, I vehemently disagree with the notion that 20- and 30-somethings are a lost cause for classical music, nor that classical music groups should give up on younger audiences (who, to be fair, Bilotta promised to keep pursuing through outreach efforts) and court mostly middle aged and older listeners, only a small percentage of whom will actually experiment with new sounds. This weekend, Portland is hosting another chamber music festival, in which an audience composed predominantly of 20- and 30-somethings will pay $45-$60 per day.  to hear predominantly new music. Sure, we don’t usually call the indie rock at MusicFest NW “chamber music,” but it fits the definition: small ensemble sounds. Why is this coveted demographic willing to pay for some chamber music — but not what’s typically purveyed in “classical” concerts?

One problem is that the most compelling rock shows, by local or national groups, usually feature far more passionate and better prepared performances than the typically underrehearsed and consequently bland performances offered in most local classical chamber music shows, whether new music or not, that too often leave audience members snoozing in the aisles. They do a disservice to their audiences and to the passion-filled museum music, neither of which is to blame. Many 20- and 30-somethings no doubt think they’ll be bored at a classical chamber concert, and too often, they’re right — but because of dull performers, not dull music. Groups like ARCO-PDX prove that it’s possible to play classical music with rock passion and preparation, if the players are willing to work hard enough, especially if they have the kind of charisma and concern for audiences that makes listeners want to come hear them — and which many classical musicians frankly lack.

This August chamber music concert attracted a diverse Portland audience ranging from 20-somethings to 70-somethings. It was not at Chamber Music Northwest.

This August Debussy chamber music concert attracted 150 or so diverse Portlanders ranging from 20-somethings to 70-somethings. It was not at Chamber Music Northwest.

But the main issue is the music itself. With exceptions like Bunch’s and a few others noted in my previous post, much of the “new” music I heard at CMNW this summer didn’t really sound very new at all. Much of it resided squarely in the music of the past, especially the period from the mid-19th century through the middle of the 20th, and had little to do with contemporary culture, certainly much less than, say, Beethoven’s music had to do with his own 19th century world, or Gershwin or Copland’s did with the folk and jazz music of their time. It therefore makes a nice bridge for an audience that’s mostly accustomed to hearing the relentlessly backward programming of most Oregon classical music institutions (in contrast to every other arts form), and perhaps burned one time too many by modernist sounds that showed little concern for audiences. In other words, it’s new classical music that’s palatable to fans of old classical music — no small achievement.

Contemporary Connections

With a few exceptions, like Bay Area composer Mason Bates (whose music was featured at Jacksonville’s Britt Classical Festival this month and at the Eugene Symphony next) and Kenji Bunch, too much “new” classical music is more about the past than the present, ignoring contemporary trends in everything from hip hop to electronica to world music. No wonder younger audiences avoid it. By contrast, just look at the demographic for the Oregon Symphony’s video game concerts — it must average in the high 20s, because it connects to a contemporary phenomenon that’s bigger than music and movies, especially among younger audiences.

If CMNW and other presenters really want to broaden their audiences, they’ll continue the commendable efforts we saw this summer — but also, I hope, infuse new music in all their programs, so that listeners will expect to always hear that combination of classic and contemporary sounds, and make sure it receives the dedicated rehearsal it demands. And I hope they’ll seek out young (and even not-so-young) composers who are really writing music that speaks to their generation — not their grandparents’. Lower the non musical barriers, sure, but also give 20 and 30 somethings music that convincingly connects their own culture to the classics, and I bet we’ll see the audience age drop — and audience numbers rise. Let 25 be the new 45, and 45 the new 65, and hang on to those wonderfully adventurous 65 year olds (and up) whose support is so important to classical music, new and old.

Sounds like a fantasy, I know: affordable, high performance quality concerts that embrace contemporary and classical music as the family members they are, that (as Bilotta notes) also incorporate film, dance, and other art forms, that welcome local composers, a wide variety of ages and demographics, and that include music connected to contemporary culture.

Except it isn’t a dream. Last night in Portland, it was a reality (see the photo above), and it didn’t require a six figure budget or parachuting in imported big names from New York. In fact, it did what Bilotta said was unlikely: drew a diverse audience that looked on average about three decades younger than the typical CMNW show. It might have been the future of classical music, and I’ll tell you all about it later this week.

How can classical music groups make their audiences broader and younger? What do you think about CMNW’s innovations and those of other presenters? Please share your thoughts or questions in the comments section below, and let’s keep the conversation going.

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