Is Timid Programming Classical Music's Biggest Threat?

Email a Friend

When times are tough, a lot of arts groups go for the sure thing. For orchestras, that means a Beethoven symphony cycle over Schoenberg or Cage. For an opera house, it's Carmen and La Boheme over a risky modern opera.

But some companies think differently. In the face of all its hardships, New York City Opera planned a season that includes J.C. Bach's Endimione, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole – hardly proven audience bate.

So what’s the proper balance? Does safe programming equal more "butts in seats?" Or do you need to take risks, even in tough times?

Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, tells host Naomi Lewin that arts organizations often get into trouble by neglecting more serious-minded audiences in an effort to chase niche listeners. "Orchestras very often think that their audience falls into two categories: there's a conservative, old audience that only wants Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn, and then there is this ideal audience that’s interested in everything," he said. "I argue that there is another audience out there."

Kennicott recently wrote an article for The New Republic, in which he chastised orchestras for an over-reliance on star soloists, a handful of over-familiar concertos, and a cookie-cutter mix of "special events" – video game music, crossover tenors, Broadway crooners and movie screenings.

Lost in this mix, Kennicott tells Lewin, is the listener who is "open to new pieces, open to obscure pieces, interested still in the traditional repertoire. The panic response of reflexively programming familiar works that you see in orchestras actually doesn’t serve the serious listener very well."

Krishna Thiagarajan, the executive director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, notes that many orchestras don't want to take risks with unfamiliar programming because "the funding isn’t there to back it up," he said. "When you’re being very creative and breaking the mold, you have to know that’s an area where you have to invest.”

By investment, Thiagarajan means that an orchestra must take the long view and condition audiences to leave their comfort zone. As an example, he points to Esa-Pekka Salonen's tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009, where he premiered 120 works, including 54 commissions. "If you initially get a poor reaction from your audience, if you pull back you won’t know what the full effect was," he said.

Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national service organization, says there are no surefire hits anymore. "There are fewer and fewer safe pieces," he said. "Operas that used to be reliable box office producers are no longer pulling the way they used to." Scorca adds that he's seen an audience fatigue with La Traviatas and Carmens, whereas new works can energize an organization and create excitement.

To some observers, the performing arts are mirroring the homogenization of mass media and popular culture as a whole. "There is something going on in this country at large, and what we’re seeing in the arts scene is a symptom," Thiagarajan cautioned. But Kennicott is more optimistic. "I think there are audiences out there," he said. “I call them countercultural audiences that are really eager for stuff that doesn’t fit that homogenized cultural model. That’s the great hope of any organization that’s producing live art.”

Listen to the full discussion in the audio link above and take our poll below: