This article was written for Fine Music magazine, the journal of radio 2MBS FM, for publication in 2005.
I recently attended two concerts in the Sydney region. Both featured performers of outstanding quality, the selection of music was interesting and engaging, and in each case the audiences were obviously enjoying themselves immensely. In spite of these similarities, there was one difference â€“ the audience demographic. The first concert was a performance by a local amateur orchestra in a town hall – at this concert, I was the youngest audience member. The second concert was a presentation of Australian Hip-Hop music at the Sydney Festival – at in this concert, I was the oldest audience member.
We have all read articles predicting the imminent death of classical music, sometimes near-hysterical tomes surely more applicable to the demise of the entire Western Civilisation. A solution often given amidst the gnashing of teeth is to expand the audience demographic, or more simply, to get more young people into the audience.
On the face of it, itâ€™s puzzling that young people do not attend classical music concerts in greater numbers. There are thousands of students studying musical instruments each year at schools and universities. Surely there would be enough of them whose interest can be sustained through to adulthood, and consequently who may be interested in attending classical music concerts in their twenties and thirties. Who are these people? What are they doing now? Have their tastes changed so much?
Organizations like Musica Viva are trying to recapture this demographicâ€™s perceived latent interest with alternative concert presentation formats. The MÃ©nage series is billed as â€œan edgy new concept in music events staged in the hottest inner city nightspotsâ€¦ designed for the 18 – 35 set, who want something different to the ‘concert hall experience’ but still want to hear brilliant music with friends.â€
So is it the Concert Hall that is unattractive to younger people? Why would people prefer to hear an ensemble play in a nightclub rather than in, for example, Angel Place? Are younger people are unwilling to concentrate silently for the length of a Beethoven Sonata without a drink of wine or an SMS from their friends to get them through â€œthe boring bitsâ€?
I think itâ€™s probably more generally a wider aspect of presentation: of the expectation that young people will be surrounded by people from very different walks of life, as an ignorant â€˜outsiderâ€™ unaware of tradition. Newbies to classical music concerts invariably ask whether they have to wear black tie, even to a local choral concert in a church hall, let alone to the Opera House.
For me, going to the hip-hop concert was certainly an instructive parallel. Would I stand out too much if I wasnâ€™t attired in a baseball cap and a basketball singlet? Would it be OK to sit quietly once inside and listen to the music, or would I be expected to â€œmoshâ€ near the front of the stage? The patient young ticket seller smirkingly answered my queries, and it brought home the feeling of â€˜othernessâ€™ that must be encountered by those not used to our own concert-hall tradition.
Letâ€™s face it, when we attend a classical music concert, weâ€™re doing it for one main reason: the music. And perhaps thatâ€™s one way that we can attract increased legions of attendees to art music concerts in general. Over the past few years many of the professional orchestras in Australia have broadened their offerings to encompass a wider range of musical styles: here in Sydney we have the SSO accompanying Harry Connick Junior and Warner Bros. cartoons. The performing musicians apparently hate these concerts, but on the other hand, my sisterâ€™s boyfriend, an environmental engineer more schooled in the art of Korn than cornets, couldnâ€™t wait to go. He really enjoyed the music and the innovative presentation linking the music to the creation of the film, and even better, said that heâ€™d be interested in going to another classical music concert, as long as the music â€œspeaks to [him] now, not just some guy living in a castle 200 years ago.â€
As a composer, I sometimes wonder where my role as a music creator fits into all of this. Is classical music inherently boring, stuffy, pretentious and even irrelevant to younger people? Weâ€™ve all heard plenty of music that fits the above description. Part of the problem, if it is a problem, is that composers by necessity need to write for themselves first. If not, their art will be second-rate. And most composers (and musicians in general) are geeks and nerds: who else would voluntarily lock themselves away for months on end just to write a single piece of music, music which may be only be heard once, by a small number of people?
Part of my interest as a classical music composer has been in bringing some aspects of popular music forms â€“ in particular its energy, extroversion and virtuosity â€“ into my own works. To me, music is a form of communication, and these particular facets of popular music I find intriguing. I find that if a particular musical content speaks to me, then it may we speak to other people as well, composer nerdiness notwithstanding. Itâ€™s worked for other composers for centuries: why not now!
So maybe the key to the whole thing is communicating the communicating power of classical music, presented and marketed in an inclusive way. We are not a nation of boof-heads. There are plenty of younger people out there with cash to burn, looking for satisfying and engaging experiences. It will be a dream come true when I go to a classical music concert, and I am the oldest person there â€“ letâ€™s hope that I donâ€™t need to live to 100 to achieve this goal.