Classical concerts are great. Stop apologizing for them.

Classical concerts are great. Stop apologizing for them.

Classical concerts are great. Stop apologizing for them.

Jonny Greenwood with composer Krzysztof Penderecki (Photo by Polish National Audiovisual Institute)

This week my Facebook feed was barraged with angstful hand-wringing over comments by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who told the BBC he finds classical concerts “off-putting.” Greenwood wasn’t dissing classical music—he performs it, after all—but he felt like classical concerts should model their formats after indie rock shows.

A host of blog responses popped up with suggestions on how to “improve” classical concerts: encouraging people to clap between movements, getting rid of formal attire, tuning back stage, and so on and so forth—nothing original, nothing useful, and all of it completely missing the point.

Look, classical concerts are off-putting—to some people. Any type of concert is going to be unappealing to somebody. But off-putting-ness is a feature, not a defect. That’s why teenagers perennially hate their parents’ music and vice versa. If your concert doesn’t put off someone, you’re doing it wrong. Yet for some reason, in the classical world we try to be all things to everyone. That, in my opinion, is the only real thing wrong with classical concerts.

So in the spirit of getting our collective hands unwrung, I’m going to deconstruct one of the most egregiously wrongheaded “fix lists” I saw on Facebook this week: conductor Baldur Brönnimann’s 10 things that we should change in classical music concerts. Brönnimann gets it wrong on nearly every count, demonstrating some of the most common ways classical presenters shoot themselves in the foot.

1. The audience should feel free to applaud between movements

This is one of the most common “fixes” people propose for classical music, and it makes the least sense. It’s not like clapping is the primary reason people enjoy concerts. If that were true, they’d be beating down the doors to the jazz clubs, where clapping after every solo is de rigueur.

Every musical experience has its own culture. At an indie rock show, you stand on a dance floor and cheer. At a classical concert, you sit in a chair and refrain from clapping between movements. Learning the culture of the event is one of the great joys of concert-going. The specifics don’t matter, but you feel good when you’re part of a group and everyone’s following the unwritten rules together. So who knows? Maybe someday it will become the norm to clap between movements, but encouraging people to clap (or not) isn’t going to change anything.

2. Orchestras should tune backstage

Why? People enjoy watching an orchestra tune. It’s humanizing to see the musicians getting ready, instead of simply having them walk on stage to play without any context. Orchestral tuning is also one of the most iconic markers of a classical performance. It’s both comforting and thrilling, because no other concert experience starts the same way.

3. We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)

The lights from a mobile phone are extremely distracting in a concert, just as they are in a movie theater. People are chained to their phones 24/7, we don’t need to encourage more of that. Concerts (and movies) should be an escape from the glowing screen.

4. Programs should be less predictable

Brönnimann doesn’t think the entire program should be written down and handed out to the audience; he thinks certain pieces should be left as a surprise. Okay, sure—change things up, whatever. But there should be a method to your madness. Unpredictability and surprise can be useful elements in programming, but in the process you give up other things. For instance, lots of people enjoy reading about the pieces, performers, and composers in their programs. Others come to hear specific works or soloists, not just because your ensemble is playing. You lose those advantages when you don’t announce your programming, so you’ll need to make up for them in other ways.

5. You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall

I’m okay with that, as long as straws are not allowed.

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Yes, of course, but in an ensemble you can delegate. Not everyone needs to be a spokesperson. After all, it’s not like George Harrison torpedoed the Beatles’ success by being an introvert. The beauty of a group of musicians working together is that everyone brings different skills.

7. Orchestras shouldn’t play in tail suits

These days, everything is informal. Especially here in SF, it’s not even safe to assume people will dress up for weddings. So when classical ensembles put on their penguin suits, it makes the concert stand out from everything else. And when it comes to entertainment choices, people go for things that stand out. As I’ve written before, you’ll never be able beat out Netflix on ease and accessibility—there’s just too much competition for people’s time. You have to compete on uniqueness.

I’m on the board of a young chamber group called Elevate Ensemble. One of the reasons I got involved with them is because founder/music director Chad Goodman gets this stuff. He insists on a rigorous dress code for his musicians, and he presents the concerts as serious, formal affairs that you should dress up for. Elevate’s approach isn’t the typical, “Look, we’re just like the cool kids! We play in hoodies and jeans too!” Instead, Elevate projects something more like, “Our shit is badass, take it seriously.”

The conventional wisdom would tell you that Elevate should be playing to empty halls. But guess what? Despite programming new music and challenging repertoire, Elevate plays to full houses, with an audience that’s almost entirely drawn from that coveted demographic of non-musicians in their 20s and 30s. True, it’s still a young group and anything could happen, but in a short time Elevate has managed to build a loyal audience—not by making things convenient, but by demanding that the audience rise to its standard.

8. Concerts should be more family friendly

Why? So parents can feel obligated to drag their kids along, and kids can decide that classical music is “that lame music that mom and dad make me listen to”? You don’t see punk bands trying to attract grandmothers. Stop pretending your concerts are for everyone. Be honest about who you’re programming for, then make a program those people will like.

9. Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology

Concert halls do use cutting-edge technology! The acoustics of modern halls are light-years beyond the halls of decades past. We’ve also got better lighting, access to video projection, a range of options for scrims and supports, quality amplification, and a host of other tools at our disposal. But technology alone won’t save you. People don’t come to concerts to get some half-baked iPhone app or to see you project your screen saver onto the wall. They come for great musical experiences. Classical concerts should use the right technologies, not more technologies.

10. Every program should contain a contemporary piece

The “eat your vegetables” approach to programming isn’t going to win you any friends. As a composer I’d obviously like to see more new music on concerts, but that doesn’t mean every program should have a contemporary piece. The classical tradition is enormously broad and varied, and people are entitled to like whatever they like. So get off your soapbox and focus on putting on good programs. That’s a much better way to win the hearts of audiences.

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  • Fiddler

    Hurrah! Thank you for this article!
    One comment- it was largely Mahler and Wagner that put a stop to inter-movement clapping. That’s not that long ago… But whether to clap or not to clap seems less important to me than the treatment the clappers get. We should be happy “new” audience is in the house! A smile and polite nod will do wonders compared to ignoring or scowling at them. They’ll figure the clapping out soon enough on their own. 🙂

  • Thanks, Fiddler. Yes, people used to clap all throughout concerts. Then the culture changed and now they don’t. We also don’t wear top-hats and formal gloves anymore. Maybe someday those fashions will come back; maybe someday we’ll clap between movements too. Either way, as you point out, it doesn’t matter.

  • Frances Wilson

    An excellent post. Balanced and thoughtful. Thank you very much for your intelligent contribution to this debate (which will no doubt continue to run and run……)

  • esdoc

    Those works used to be “pop music” of their times….now they’re not. Stop trying to pretend the only reason classical concerts are not as popular as Britney Spears shows is because they can clap.

    The false justification of “well but back in Mozart’s time….” and the effort to encourage clapping whenever one wishes will not bring pop music fans of today flocking to the symphony halls instead. That pointless effort will only worsen the experience for those who are there to enjoy the works in their entirety, and who appreciate that these formerly pop works have become cultural high points instead as they have weathered decades and centuries and have remained relevant and now rightfully revered.

  • esdoc

    Totally agree: stop with the watering down of classical music. It is NOT pop music and never will be, and that’s the way it should be.

    It sounds all good and democratic as heck when one reads “the audience should be encouraged to express themselves at the concert hall and applaud and take photos.” But try to sit next to people who are “expressing themselves” by chatting or Mystery Theater 3000-ing it through the concert, even in the most delicate moments. This already is happening. And then imagine if the concert organizers ENCOURAGE them to do more of it.

    It takes just one such individual to ruin the experience for fifty or hundreds or the entire audience at the concert. Who would even want to pay the otherwise justified high price of a ticket when one could just download from iTunes for 99-cents a movement and listen in peace at home? How does allowing a few to ruin the experience of many help classical live performance groups to survive and thrive?

  • Thanks for this! I felt like I was on crazy pills for not gushing over the Greenwood article. Also, thanks for introducing me to the Elevate Ensemble. I’m looking forward to checking out more of their (and your!) stuff.

  • bill

    Hope you and the 17 other 90 year old Luddites still attending classical concerts enjoy the front 2 rows of the last symphony in existence 20 or so years from now.

  • concertgrand


  • beagal

    Not everyone likes rap music.

  • TR

    Not to mention that fact that not allowing the orchestra to tune on stage would — not surprisingly — result in instruments quickly going out of tune because the auditorium is likely hotter (due to stage lights) and more humid (due to hundreds of people exhaling moisture) than backstage. Or that percussionists and harpists couldn’t warm up on their own instruments before the concert.

    The frame should suit the art that it’s framing. Playing a concert of John Adams and Mason Bates and Nico Muhly in streetwear makes a lot of sense. For Mahler and Strauss, it does not. There’s no reason that there can’t be different presentations for different repertoire.

  • Liam

    It’s about time someone voiced these opinions. You don’t increase the stock value of a product by homogenizing it. All that does is water it down.

  • CJ

    You know what else is great? Cigarettes. And people should stop apologizing for using them.

    They’re certainly off-putting, to some people. But inhaling toxic and carcinogenic by-products is a feature, not a defect. That’s what smoking is all about!

    Vaping, the patch, Nicotine gum, warning labels, non-smoking areas, education and prevention are trying to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed. I’d say that trying to “improve smoking culture” is the only real thing wrong with smoking. Leave it alone!

  • Last I checked attending classical concerts was not a health hazard… 😉

  • MippysMom

    Have you actually been to a classical concert? The music — drama, emotion, variety of sound — is the thing. None of the “new technology”, etc. does anything other than take away from the experience. And you don’t have to dress up in formal attire.

  • MippysMom

    That is about the dumbest comparison I’ve ever heard.

  • bill

    I was President of the San Diego Opera, once was on the board of the San Francisco Symphony, my SO is on the board of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and I am on the board of the Curtis Institute. I am the founder of Instant Encore, I attend 80-100 live classical music events a year and I have spent thousands of hours fund raising for classical music. I spend the bulk of my non-work life trying to work with classical music presenters to find strategies for engaging the younger generation. This kind of thinking does not help. If we don’t find a way of making the experience relevant to a new generation the art form will vanish.

  • James Parr

    THANK YOU! I can’t tell you how put off i was by Greenwood’s list. I spent way too much time last week arguing with people in comment sections about why his ideas were so flawed. I’m a 30-something year old concert goer and I’m perfectly fine with not clapping between movements, powering off my phone, enjoying two hours of music without mind-blowing visual effects, etc. If people don’t enjoy concert music it’s either just not their thing OR (more likely) they don’t understand what they’re listening to. Performing groups need to invest more in educating their audiences, not dumbing down the experience by taking the emphasis off of the music. It’s the MUSIC, stupid.

  • Perhaps you missed this earlier, but I *am* a member of the younger generation and there is nothing anti-technology about my article.

    In essence, what I’m advocating is no more radical than standard marketing wisdom: develop a unique value proposition, don’t undermine the features people like about your product, and advertise your strengths instead of trying to imitate the competition.

    Presenters have tried the family-friendly, “whiz bang”, accessibility-oriented approaches to audience building since the 1970s. They haven’t worked in the last 40 years and they’re not suddenly going to start working today.

    Time to try something else… And we could do worse than starting with the things people already love about classical music.

  • bill

    OK. Good luck.

  • Brian Brown

    Here’s just a small thing. Warm up to your heart’s content onstage, but ensure as many as possible are offstage by about 5 minutes before tuning time. Just before tuning time, swoosh the entire orchestra onstage. I swear the Berlin Phil gets onstage in about 15 seconds. May not sound like much, but it’s truly breathtaking.

  • Henry

    Aaron, I agree that attempting universal inclusion is a bad direction. Classical music certainly is not for everyone, nor should it be, nor could it be.

    However, classical concerts should definitely be for me. I’m a professional classical musician, and classical music is my favorite thing on this earth. And yet, despite going to countless concerts as a kid, right now I have no desire to attend one.

    Part of that is because of banal programming bereft of any imagination or creativity. We can agree on that point at least.

    But most of it comes down to those very aspects of classical concerts that you claim give the event its special character, but which seem to me nothing more than off-putting anachronisms.

    I desperately want to applaud between movements. After some epic movements, like the 1st movement of Nielsen’s violin concerto, it feels wrong _not_ to applaud. How could the “joy of knowing and adhering to the rules of classical concerts” possibly outweigh the joy of a spontaneous outpouring of positive emotion? Why would you seek to ask people to hold back what seems to be the entire point of music — a sincere, transcendent emotional reaction?

    When performers come out on stage in those preposterous costumes, I don’t get a sense of occasion or formality. I see an old, dusty tradition being clung to needlessly, I see musicians who would desperately prefer to be in more comfortable clothing, and I see an icy distance being interjected between performer and audience, an attempt to separate the two when they ought to be so much closer.

    I get the sense that you know what you, personally, enjoy about classical concerts. But it’s possible you do not have a full enough understanding of why these traditional aspects you defend are off-putting enough to other people — folks like me who love classical music desperately, and who ought to comprise live classical’s core audience.

    Clapping inbetween movements and dressing performers more sensibly are obviously not going to make massive improvements in attendance. But I think it’s the idea behind those small changes that is key — the idea that holding fiercely to anachronistic traditions is a dangerous conservatism that is sure to prolong decline.

  • David Dawson ?

    If you want to discover how things were “back in the day”, then I was reminded of this when turing in China in 1986 (!) Audiences were very appreciative, and not only did they clap at the end, but during the performance. They also chattered most of the time, and ate a brown bag supper in their seats. A lively – and full – auditorium! Must say it added a new and positive dimension to the occasion. I guess that habit has changed now, 25 years later. I´m not sure for the better.

  • David Dawson ?

    They certainly don´t dawdle! Visual presentation is a thing. I´ve noticed it more and more, and appreciate those who take the time to present well. For me, it complements the performance.

  • CJ

    Wrong. Being bored to death is not recommended by doctors.

  • Maria

    President of San Diego opera…. Isn’t it the one who together with his wife led the house to bankruptcy by having incredibly high salaries? Congrats, you were the object of my coursework. San Diego Opera should be grateful to the White Knight committee that kicked you out.

  • MippysMom

    I may have answered in haste, but bill’s first post was aggravating. I’m a performer with and a member of the board of the Elkhart County Symphony in IN. I also play for Southwest MI Symphony. Things that have worked: Cirque de la Symphony — over 1000 in the audience, lots of kids, lots of enthusiasm. Combination pop/classical concerts with overall themes such as patriotic or stage and screen. A Sinatra tribute artist with big band and orchestra back up. Changing images behind the orchestra that tied in with the music.
    One thing that didn’t work was having the audience text questions during the concert and having the conductor answer. Another thing that didn’t work was having rock musicians appear with the orchestra, unless it was highly publicized as “Jeans and Classics” or some such. The few younger people who turned out were offset by the regulars who were put off. But we need to keep thinking creatively to appeal to more diverse audiences.

  • bill

    Perhaps an accurate account would add some value. I resigned from the SD Opera board 7 years ago in protest over “drive the bus off the cliff” strategy that the management was pursuing. The rescue operation was spiritually and financially led by Carol Lazier, my wife for more than 30 years. You may want to update your coursework.

  • Ben

    As a young person very connected to classical music, I think the most important point is number 6. Thinking personally, all of the classical concerts I have enjoyed most have been those where the performers have not only shared their passion in the music itself, but also by introduction and expanation of the pieces. Without an expansive understanding of music theory, one cannot fully appreciate the nuances of the music and therefore one’s experience can be less rich.

    In my classical octet, we have recently taken to explaining and demonstrating select features of the pieces we are performing, such as building up a particularly iconic chord note by note, or singing a short fast section at half speed, to demonstrate the intricate harmony that may be missed at full throtle. This is obviously not appropriate for all occasions and programmes, but where we have done it, it has been incredibly well-received.

    Finally the importance of connecting with the audience during the performance cannot be overstated. So often musicians are tied to their scores or the conductor and do not interact with the audience while performing. The most electrifying moment for me in any classical concert ever was watching Voces8 at age 18, when one of the singers looked me straight in the eye as he sang the final few notes.

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  • ml

    How can experiencing great music ever be boring?

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