As someone who has spent many years teaching Music Appreciation to students who are majoring in Nursing, Agriculture, Vet Tech, Automotive Tech and Business, I have had significant experience with "the average listener." These students are not usually interested in classical music at all, which makes it a challenge to get them on board with the idea that they just might enjoy going to see a classical concert or even (gasp!) an opera. Through the years of reading countless concert reviews, I have discovered that they are nervous just walking into a concert. They are often afraid they are going to "do something wrong" and are sure they aren't going to enjoy it. Naturally, the more weeks of class they have under their belt, the more likely they are to enjoy the concert. With just a little bit of instruction in music fundamentals and history, they are more relaxed and excited about what they hear. What surprised me (as a professional vocalist with more than a few recitals under my belt) were the reviews I read about recitals where the performer took the time to tell the audience about each piece. Instead of relying on notes in the program - which can sometimes run to dissertation length! - these performers took the time to educate their audiences about the music they were about to share, and without exception, my students appreciated it. It lessened their anxiety and enabled them to more fully to enjoy the unfamiliar.
I think I spent two or three years letting this idea percolate before I acted upon it. As a vocalist, I naturally shy away from extra talking during a performance, but the idea intrigued me. I had always tried to incorporate history and technique lessons into my choir rehearsals, but had never considered saying more than a few words between pieces during a concert or recital. I generally took the tried-and-true route of putting notes into the program, but as I read the concert reviews, I realized that reading program notes is a learned skill. It may sound condescending, but reading notes/translations during a concert/recital takes practice! The lights go down, and you find yourself squinting desperately at the text, trying to figure out what line goes where. You may not know that you really need to peruse the notes before the concert actually starts, and then lightly skim them during the concert itself. (I've considered the idea of posting notes and translations online for easy scrolling on smartphones, but I think I'd find it too disheartening as a performer to see the tops of people's heads, rather than their eyes!)
The idea I came up with was a "lecture concert" - similar to a lecture recital, but set up for my choir singing to a small-town audience. As with a lecture recital, there was a general theme to the concert (in this case, the development of vocal/choral sacred music), but instead of focusing on heavy academics, the lecture was designed more for the novice listener. That doesn't mean that the entire audience had never listened to classical/choral music or been to a concert, but certainly the majority had probably never seen concerts beyond church, high school or community.
The concert was a huge success. Although it ran nearly two hours, the audience was extremely responsive to the material presented between pieces as well as the music. As one of my fellow musicians put it, "that didn't feel like two hours!" The students appreciated the time I took during rehearsals to teach them about the music I'd selected, and the audience was incredibly responsive. I am working on a recital for the coming spring, and plan on doing something similar. It will not be a formal lecture recital, but I will take the time to talk a little bit about each selection, and the selections will be bound together by the loose theme of the language. Since this recital will likely be presented to a contemporary church audience, I think this idea will ensure maximum enjoyment.
The other thing about the article that struck me was his comment on the success of films which featured modern classical music in their soundtracks.
This is actually where I start my Music Appreciation class. There is so much amazing classical music being used in and written for film, television and even video games, that it gives us an easy way to get students excited about listening to classical music. My first lecture starts with a clip from the beginning of the second X-Men movie. Nothing like a blue guy crawling on the ceiling while Mozart's "Dies Irae" is playing to pull students in!
Follow that with different versions of Dies Irae - Gregorian Chant, Verdi and Webber - and you get them interested in how and why music has changed through the centuries. Continue on with the idea that classical music is everywhere around them, and they start to get excited. They become more open to listening to classical music, they start to listen more closely to the classical music underscoring their favorite movies, television shows and video games.
So why is it that we're more open to the dissonance of modern classical music in our soundtracks? The answer is simple - the action on the screen "explains" the music to us. We don't need the conductor/composer to give us a lecture, all we have to do is watch and listen. We don't wonder why the strings are shrieking at us, if we can see the man lurking behind the shower curtain. One of the very first film soundtracks was Ralph Vaughan Williams' haunting "Scott of the Antarctic" which he later turned into a stand-alone piece:
A symphony audience might find the music dissonant and/or confusing, but a movie audience will instinctively understand the use of the voice and the harsh rubbing of the strings to aurally illustrate the vast stretches of ice and wind. They might not have the vocabulary to describe it, but they will "get" it.
So what does this mean for the future of modern classical music? For one thing, it means that we need to work a bit harder to help our audiences understand what they are listening to. We cannot rely on pages of program notes to bridge the gap. As Ross said, even audiences more open to the entire genre of classical music may not be able to appreciate the dissonant music of Schoenberg and Webern.
Artistic directors also need to be willing to try different things and not give into the snobbery of believing that adding visual elements is somehow wrong. Consider the work of Sympho, an orchestra "that exists to reintroduce [classical music] to listeners in thoughtful and innovative ways." Under the direction of composer/conductor, Paul Haas, they presented "Tower," a "concert that placed performers and audience on the double-helix interior staircases of Ann Hamilton’s stunning 80-foot-tall sculpture and arts venue in California, set amidst the picturesque vistas of the Sonoma wine country.”
The idea of a "production" rather than a concert may be distasteful to some, but it certainly can captivate audiences:
Not every concert needs to be a full-sensory experience, but these kinds of events can both pull in new audience members and help people appreciate the sounds of modern classical music.