Attracting New Listeners to Classical Music

Friday, July 02, 2010 - 12:00 AM

This week on WQXR we’ve been featuring Eric Whitacre’s choral music on a new Naxos CD. Eric is a young American composer who is taking the world of choral music by storm. Everywhere I go, I hear singers and conductors talking enthusiastically about his music.

Eric has a Master’s degree from Juilliard here in New York. He has studied with the likes of John Corigliano and David Diamond. His compositions are heard in performance venues of all kinds--including the most prestigious churches and concert halls--all over the world. There is no question. He is a highly accomplished composer. 

Recently I attended a performance of  Eric’s Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings at Carnegie Hall. The work has been described as both opera and musical theater (to my ear, probably more musical theater than opera). I have even seen it described as ‘opera electronica’. As opposed to the CD we are enjoying this week on WQXR, Paradise Lost is not the kind of thing that you are likely to hear on WQXR. But, maybe it should be?

Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings is loosely inspired by Milton’s epic poem. The story is about an abandoned tribe of angels in search of their wings. The piece features electronic, world and orchestral instruments; classical singers and many different styles of music. For this special concert performance at Carnegie Hall, Eric brought together over 450 chorus members from all over the world ranging in age from 14 to 73. The excitement on stage was palpable. The audience response was intense.

My question to you is this--is Eric on to something here? Do you think that blending musical styles and creating an opera/musical theater hybrid such as Paradise Lost is an effective way to attract new listeners to classical music? Finding ways to interest new listeners in what we do is always on our minds here at WQXR. If this isn’t the way, what is?

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Comments [12]

Brian Kennedy from Cranford NJ

Hi Midge, All interpretations and styles are valid and mixing them can only attract wider audiences. My taste leans more towards the traditional but I don't have to worry! Great music of any age stands the test of time. All the best to you and yours. May WQXR remain the classical beacon of the Hudson Valley!

Aug. 24 2010 04:56 PM

a lot fewer pieces on the playlist that are *completely* dominated by the sound of a violin -- alternating between whining and screeching -- might attract more new listeners to classical music.

Aug. 10 2010 06:57 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Classical composers and performers have NEEDED such venues as the band shells at Lincoln Center and Central Park and the Frick Collection concerts, and concerts at Museums and at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, NYU's Tisch Building School of the Arts, Mannes School and libraries such as the Main Library at 42nd St and 5th Avenue where classical music IS performed regularly. COMMERCIAL interests have cut classical performers out of high silhouetted events such as parades, sport events, the GRAMMYS, even special holiday events at Christmas, Easter. 4th of July, etc. Non-classical performers and composers have an exclusive hold on TV and radio and in the record industry. Much of this problem is directly due to the fact that the primary schools don't teach art, music, geography or history. They do not, they say , want to offend anyone. The schools want to be "politically correct" !! Classical music deserves, merits larger audiences for their elegant, ethereal, majestic, exciting or, simply, transcendental music that uplifts by its beauty.

Jul. 20 2010 10:29 AM
monkeyboy from NYC

Curious to know who created the diabolical Rock and Roll radio ad that plays constantly where a facsimile of a top 40 station announcement is blasted at your unwitting audience. I have to run to turn the sound off when I know it's coming.
If the idea is to attract more people to the station, I suggest you start by getting rid of this annoying advertisement.

Jul. 18 2010 10:15 AM
Peter Schamel from Manhattan

Heard a comment this morning on Jeff Spurgeon's program (didn't catch the speaker, but it was a female voice), doubting Sting's purity of intention in moving into more classical repertoire, and suggesting that he was merely adapting in order to retain an audience with maturing tastes. Rather curmudgeonly, I suggest - particularly considering, as we learned over the weekend on this station, that Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism, in form, if not in substance, purely in order to obtain a position as conductor of the Vienna opera, and to ensure that he reached an audience he deemed desirable. In either case audiences maintain(ed) the option of voting with their pocketbooks and their feet.

Jul. 13 2010 10:46 AM
Michael Meltzer

The point of early music education is that it is participatory. The children play musical games and sing, learn simple instruments at some level, and if there's talent, go on form there.
Whatever the level, participation gets all the mental receptors active and firing. Unless the kids intentionally prejudice themselves later, they are then open to everything, the "whole shootin' match" of classical, popular, jazz, folk/ethnic, whatever. Music no longer needs to be "explained."

Jul. 08 2010 07:33 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I think Alan Polinsky has it right. Music should not be mono-sensual. It shoud be appealing to the eye and heart as much as the ear.

That is why opera is so successful. We see the bare emotions of the singers carefully synchronized with the highs and lows of the music. We see the colors of the sets and costumes.

How can you escape the music when it is presented in that way?

Jul. 08 2010 05:10 PM
Alan Polinsky

I've always thought that the 'Looney Tunes' or 'Fantasia' approach to classical music is the correct one. The old cartoons or Walt Disney films played music that was fun, listenable, and put it in a different context.Where's the new Mickey' when he has to conduct those brooms?


Jul. 07 2010 11:21 AM
Robert Johnson from Stamford, CT

Dear Ms. Woolsey,
The Eastman Winds version of the "Guadalcanal March" from Rodgers' under-appreciated "Victory At Sea Suite" is the worst I've ever heard - unbalanced and far too fast. Stick to the original NBC recordings as the source & do play other selections. The work occupies its' own unique niche & has a large under-ground following.

Jul. 04 2010 03:19 PM
Michael Meltzer

No one composer will ever provide the key to suddenly inaugurate the millenium of "Classical Music Over All Others."
What WQXR can do is get solidly behind every effort to restore music education to the public schools, also to encourage parents to leave WQXR turned on in the nursery. Music learning is very, very much like language learning. The time when it is introduced is all-important. If there is still a WNYE, QXR should get involved in it.
It's not that musically unschooled adults can't learn and enjoy, it's just that it's likely to have to be a determined effort with widely varying outcomes. The kids pick it all up so naturally, and even if they leave it for a period, it will be "in their wiring" and they can go back to it later, rather easily.
The big music education cuts were in the 1970's, when we had 3 classical music stations. Now there is just one. It's not an accident, or bad station management, it's "cause & effect."

Jul. 02 2010 11:09 PM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

why? That's like buying "Classical Thunder" or "The Greatest 100 Classical Adagios". Enough with the easy way to engage people, nothing wrong with high brow.
Some people like to be challenged.

Jul. 02 2010 05:03 PM

Well Midge, if you want new listeners to classical...drop the high brow approach, and hit um with strong melody & bombastic percussion. ( You really got to raise them out of their sofas and teach them a musical lesson they'll never forget) And seeing how its the 4th of July almost, I think the March King would really do the trick, don't you think? (Always leave them with something they can HUM..)

Jul. 02 2010 02:19 PM

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Ignite your love of classical music every day with the articles published in the WQXR blog. Here you can find blogs about classical music, playlist selections, curated videos, and other features highlighting the joy of great music.