at Friday's Chorus America plenary session

I’m back up North after spending the latter part of last week attending the joint Chorus America/League of American Orchestras conference in Atlanta, GA, part of a bevy of performing arts conferences this month that also included those of TCG, OPERA America, and Dance/USA. In the past when I’ve done conference wrap-ups, I’ve given more or less of a blow-by-blow of the proceedings, but I was pleased to see that my old friends at NewMusicBox were way ahead of me on that one, sending a small army of composers to report on the proceedings here, here, here, here, and here. (The last link points to Nickitas J. Demos’s kind review of my own speaking engagement at the Chorus America plenary session on Friday morning, pictured above. To have someone blogging about my own presentation at a conference is kind of a strange role reversal for me, but hey, it’s all good!)

Because of that, instead I’ll give some broad thoughts about my impressions of the event as a whole and what I’m taking away from the experience. My week began with the “town hall” event that was envisioned as the culmination of the whole Orchestra R/Evolution business that I’ve been blogging about for the last couple of weeks. I was honored to be helping with the Twitter duties during the session (rumor has it that the League has possession of some photos of me posing with my laptop over at the side of the room), which at one point included feeding questions to moderator Doug McLennan for his online-only interviews with the keynote speakers as they were taking place. The whole thing was admirably high tech, and impressively there were few glitches to mar the proceedings. Ben Cameron’s keynote was typically arresting, if now familiar from the seemingly dozens of other speaking engagements he’s had over the past couple of years (a change of pace is coming up at Americans for the Arts, where he’ll be leading what looks to be an interesting discussion on failure and experimentation in the arts). As for the Eric Booth-facilitated conversation discussing the two questions chosen by Orchestra R/Evolution users, I’ve now been to enough of these that I feel I can say this: World Cafe-style table conversations at conferences are great for raising tons of questions, but not very good if your interest is in coming up with answers. This deficiency was made more noticeable in this case by the compressed timeline, as conversation participants were not invited to “report back” their findings; the only overarching feedback provided to those assembled was Booth’s lightning attempts to synthesize what he overheard by traipsing around the room during the session. I don’t provide this criticism lightly, particularly as I’m not exactly sure what a better format to achieve consensus would look like, but I would submit that there needs to be more follow-up in order to make sure what started out as a very provocative conversation leads eventually to actionable recommendations.

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My sense is that the orchestra field is facing something of an existential crisis right now. Why else would it so openly welcome questions of its relevance to audiences and communities in the 21st century? Everyone’s seen the numbers – subscribers and ticket buyers have been declining across the board for years, and the recession is just the latest kick in the stomach for these long-beleaguered institutions.

From an economic perspective, what’s happening to orchestras right now is pretty simple. In the past century, and especially in the past couple of decades, the number of options the average American enjoys when it comes to leisure time has exploded. Digital cable, movies on-demand, video game consoles, YouTube – none of these things existed in 1980, the year I was born, and neither did a good number of the rock bands, theater companies, and yes, orchestras that are around today for that matter. As a commenter noted on my blog the other day: “the problem orchestras are facing is that traditional subscribers are disappearing and as that happens we become more and more of an ‘occasional treat’ rather than a regular lifestyle choice.” In short, the competition has gotten much, much fiercer for an amount of leisure time that does not seem to have increased nearly as fast. Not that orchestra concerts were ever an activity for the masses (according to Baumol and Bowen’s classic treatise on the performing arts from the mid-1960s, concert attendees of the day were, then as now, drawn almost exclusively from a small, extraordinarily well-educated niche of the population), but it was easier for them when they were one of the only games in town.

These structural shifts in audience demand, though tough on all disciplines, are friendliest to those art forms that are cheap to make and/or easily replicated – witness the dramatic rise in amateur home video – and hardest on those forms that are expensive and non-scalable. And just about the most expensive and unwieldy art form I can think of is—the symphony! The instruments are expensive, the training is expensive, the musicians (can be) expensive, taking them anywhere (especially overseas) is expensive….you don’t start an orchestra unless you’re prepared to lose some serious money. And therein lies the issue: if the orchestra loses money, that means someone has to be prepared to make up the difference. Whether from foundations, individual donors, or public grantmaking agencies, those dollars represent a burden on society that needs to be justified somehow. Of course, this is true for all art forms – but because orchestras are so expensive by nature, that need for justification becomes that much more urgent.

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Unfortunately, said justification is hard to come by when, as I learned at an engaging joint symposium on “Activating Your Audience” on Thursday, two out of three new arts patrons (at least in Philadelphia) don’t come back — and those who do typically come back once every two to three years. According to research by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard at WolfBrown, audiences are looking for more intense fulfillment for less time than they were before. While audiences vary widely in how much “added value” engagement they seek with their performance, 4 out of 5 orchestra patrons desired at least some interpretative content along with the experience (e.g., by having the conductor introduce and talk about each piece before it is played). The WolfBrown research showed that audiences who played a greater role in the performance scored higher on a number of measures than audiences who didn’t.

These revelations, along with others at Doug McLennan’s solo session that followed (the downside of the era of infinite choice is that it raises expectations so high that pleasant surprises become a rare beast), caused me to think that I was on the right track with my post from last week, Listening vs. Doing. There have been a few concerts and arts events that I’ve attended over the years that have truly changed my life — but the vast majority haven’t. Not to say that they’ve been bad or unpleasant – they just didn’t have much of an impact. Based on informal conversations I’ve had with others who attend many concerts for a living, their experiences have been similar. So can we set aside this fantasy that orchestral or other arts events are automatic epiphanies for the audience? Isn’t it probable that for most of them, it’s just a pleasant night out? And frankly, if two out of three aren’t coming back, maybe it’s not even getting to that level?

No, for me, and I imagine for others, the most intense, fulfilling arts experiences I’ve had have all been from performing and learning music, seeing and hearing it come to life before my eyes, and the relationships I’ve formed with others who were doing the same. That’s what can’t be replicated from ordering Tropic Thunder on-demand or seeing Vampire Weekend at the park.

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I tried to bring some of these thoughts into my session at Chorus America Friday morning, “Envisioning the Choruses of Tomorrow,” relating them in particular to my experiences starting and developing C4, a unique collaborative chorus that involves the entire board of directors and many of its rank and file singers in artistic decisions. This wasn’t my first speaking engagement at a conference, but it was the one with the largest audience so far. So I’ll admit I was a little nervous – the more so because I was pretty sure most in the room wouldn’t know who I was and, given that it was a plenary session with other highlights such as the ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, hadn’t necessarily chosen to hear me and the other panelists in the same way as if it were a breakout session. I think it went pretty well – the few people I asked for feedback said mostly nice things – but it was kind of a funny experience even so. For one thing, for all of our talk about how the concert experience needs to be more engaging, it was a very non-interactive session. There was no time for questions from the audience; those in attendance mostly sat quietly and occasionally let out a nervous laugh here and there; even the panelists generally engaged in serial dialogue with the moderator instead of building off of each other’s contributions. Indeed, the one moment that got an outburst of applause from the audience was when Julian Wachner said in response to the question “What will the chorus sound like in 20 years?” something along the lines of, “Well, regardless of what else changes, I hope we’re still singing the classics, because if we’re not honoring the great music of the past, then I don’t know what we’re here for. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!”

I didn’t spend as much time hanging out at the Chorus America conference as the League’s, but even so it was interesting to compare the two. In contrast to the League’s sessions, which seemed relentlessly focused on issues associated with the sweeping changes in our culture and how they’re affecting orchestras, by and large you wouldn’t have necessarily known from the Chorus America sessions that 2010 was a different year than any other year. Judging by the conference content alone, it seems that choruses are in a somewhat different place: certainly not immune to the digital revolution by any means, but nevertheless somewhat insulated from it by virtue of their much lighter cost structure and arguably deeper roots in local communities. Even so, choruses will still have to grapple with many of the same looming questions that the arts face as a whole over the next decade: how do we incorporate the voices and participation of a more diverse public? How do we cultivate distinct artistic and local identities for our work, and how are those linked? How do we broaden our notions of participation in accordance with the demands of a more fulfillment-hungry constituency?

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Anyway, it was a wonderful experience to attend these events, a great recharge and reorientation for the brain, and I am grateful to Chorus America and the League of American Orchestras for making it possible. My travel odyssey continues this week at Americans for the Arts – catch you in a few days!

  • A World-Cafe without a report-back? Yikes. What’s the point? Keep on challenging, and insisting on answers, Ian David Moss! What an exciting time for you – I’m getting a vicarious hit from it all.

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  • Absolutely Fabulous article. It is a pleasure to read your thoughts. It reminds me what a good performance of a great piece sounds like, not a common event.

    Your unique and valid perspective adds authenticity to your reasoning.

    I think this is the best summary out there yet of the current plight of classical arts, and certainly classical music.

    • Awww, thanks! I plan to subscribe to your blog as well – you pick up lots of great stuff that doesn’t get on my radar. Hooray for the internet!

  • Will

    I just saw a bumper sticker [yes, yes, I know…], that says it all:
    “Incite Art: Build Community”

    For me, and for the 95% of us who have never made a cent from “making art” [or music or dance, etc.], but have participated IN the arts for a significant part of our lives, this is, to a large extent, what it’s about. Yes, there is satisfaction in the challenge and rewards of the artistic experience itself, from conceptualization to rehearsal to performance. Yes, it is enjoyable to see an audience respond to your artistic endeavors [for the performing arts at least, the only kind I have experience with].

    But the big secret, at least when participating in a group endeavor, is the community that is created around the artistic experience, often consisting of people you might never have come into contact with otherwise, and with whom you may have little or nothing else in common.