Location, Location, Location

This past weekend, my woodwind quintet played one of the most fun, rewarding performances I have ever been a part of.  In the audience were nine people — an elderly couple, a retired trombonist, an angsty teenage boy who sat glowering in the back row as though he was ashamed to be seen there, two middle school girls with their mom, and two smiling librarians.  Behind the mostly-empty rows of chairs sat an even larger audience, silent and watchful — thousands of books, forming a labyrinthine rainbow as sunlight poured through the broad windows and settled translucently upon the brigade of dusty shelves.

War memorial/"stage" at Scottsville Free Library, Wheatland, NY (photo courtesy of Benjamin Woelk, http://benjaminwoelk.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/the-accessibility-of-escape/)
War memorial/”stage” at Scottsville Free Library, Wheatland, NY (photo courtesy of Benjamin Woelk, http://benjaminwoelk.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/the-accessibility-of-escape/)

Our stage was a raised wooden platform, home to the library’s reference collection.  Behind us loomed the small town’s war memorial — a wood-paneled wall inscribed with the names of citizens killed from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam.

The acoustics were unexpectedly stunning, the audience was participatory, and the music was exciting.  Our performance lasted for about thirty-five minutes, during which time the angsty teenager smiled at least once, and the elderly couple held hands and gazed into each other’s eyes.  True, there were only nine people in the audience — but those are nine people who wouldn’t have ever in their lives had another chance to hear Elliott Carter‘s Woodwind Quintet had we not played in that very location that day.  Those nine people are now more musically literate, more interested in classical performance, and — I like to think — happier than they would have been if my quintet hadn’t dismissed the traditional concept of “concert hall” for an afternoon.

Far too often, classical musicians get caught up in the quality of the performance venue.  Whenever a gig requires us to play in a church or convention center or even a library, we complain about the acoustic conditions, the temperature, the lighting — because nothing will compare to that time we played in [insert prestigious concert hall here].  I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to play in such amazing spaces as the Chicago Symphony‘s Orchestra Hall, the Kravis Center, and the Eastman School of Music‘s Kodak Hall — and these spaces are massive and gorgeous and allow the music to sound just as you intend.  But in a theater that seats thousands of people, you can’t answer questions from the audience or crack jokes or even make eye contact.  You can’t watch a too-cool-for-school teenager break into a reluctant smile, or an old man and woman hold hands like newlyweds.  You just can’t connect. 

Photo I snapped during rehearsal on stage in Orchestra Hall, Chicago Symphony Center
Photo I snapped during rehearsal on stage in Orchestra Hall, Chicago Symphony Center

And isn’t that one of the biggest reasons classical performance is so abhorrent to the masses — that sense of disconnect?  At a rock concert, even in crowded stadiums, the performer addresses the audience directly — “IT’S SO GREAT TO BE HERE IN LOS ANGELES WOOOHOOOOOO MY FANS ARE AWESOME I LOVE YOU ALL!”  But in a classical performance, you walk on stage in silence, play, and leave.  This method is boring and alienating.  Even when the conductor speaks about the piece or welcomes the audience, the speech is generally impersonal and doesn’t allow the audience to interact with the performers — no cheering or commentary, just stuffy silence.

A smaller venue at the heart of a town or community, meanwhile, puts the audience right on stage with the performers.  This makes the performance more engaging and accessible — and makes the audience want to come back for more.  Local communities are chock full of their own charming versions of Carnegie Hall, in the guise of school auditoriums and synagogues and community centers and amphitheaters… We need to use these resources to reach out to audiences!  If classical performance is to continue to function as a professional and artistic field, we need classical music in bars…

and on trains…

and at football games…

and in the middle of the city…

We as musicians need to remember that we make music for people to listen to — so if people won’t come to us, we need to bring the music to them.  We need to spend less time in “real” concert halls and more time in the real world — a world where a sold-out theater is worth as much as nine people grinning from crooked rows of folding chairs in a small-town library that smells like history and sunshine.

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