Is classical performance passe?

Have you ever wondered why concert halls don’t seem so attractive to so many people? To try and bring some answers to this question, the Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann brings out ten points that need urgent attention to the table. What do you reckon?

Is classical performance passe?
Jonny Greenwood & London Contemporary Orchestra en concert au Roundhouse à Londres © Atherton-Chiellino, Roundhouse

Educational concerts, in-class workshops offered by musicians, pre-concert performances, family concerts, illustrated and carefully documented programs, youth-friendly pricing policies, “revamped” posters and advertising campaigns... and so on, many actions are being taken to popularise classical music. Then why do numerous classical yet popular events, such as Les Folles Journées de Nantes, seem to draw the same public over and over again to concert halls?

In a recent article posted on his blog, young Swiss conductor Baldur Brönnimann gives us a critical insight: the worm is already in the fruit. According to him, it is urgent to rethink classical concerts, from the context to the ritual and the dress code, even the essence of what is displayed on the stage. Baldur Brönnimann suggests a complete makeover in ten points. What do you think?

1. "The audience should be free to applaud between movements" This is a typical initiatory ritual which is discriminatory to the highest point. If you are a novice, it is very likely that you will want to applaud when the music stops. Many connoisseurs will look down on you, and you’ll be deemed ignorant by the end of the first movement! But don’t worry: this act of waiting for the very end of a cyclical multi-movements piece is rather recent in the history of music: it is Gustav Mahler who introduced it himself, some hundred years ago.

2. “Orchestras should discuss before going on stage" Baldur Brönnimann believes that noise caused by the orchestra's tuning before the first piece spoils the auditory experience. But from a purely practical point of view, is it really possible for an eighty musicians symphonic orchestra to tune off-stage before the concert begins?

3. "We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)" Tweeting, taking photos or recording without disturbing the concert and sharing impressions in real time on social networks ... If this "virtual socializing" is now part of our daily lives, should it also be an option for classical music concerts…? Or not.

4. "Programs should be less predictable" Unlike jazz or rock gigs, the announced program are indeed the pieces which will be performed. But Baldur Brönnimann believes in the surprise effect: an elliptically announced program would open the performer and the spectator to the spontaneity of the moment.

5. "We should be able to bring drinks in the concert hall" If the audience of a pop music concert has the right to do so, why not allow this in a classical venue? This would surely prevent us from downing hastily our drink after having spent most of the intermission waiting to order it.

Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead composer and guitarist, defends the concept of "classical gigs" with the London Contemporary Orchestra: "We organize concerts which are a little more relaxed, people are standing at the bar and on the stage, we play music that inspire us in that moment."

6. "Artists should be free to interact with the public" Only optional and the moment, this practice should become systematic: interpreters should greet the public and present the program, to create a form of connexion. In the same way, backstage access should also be allowed after the concert rather than being forbidden.

7. "Orchestras should not go on the stage wearing tail coats anymore" Granted it is less common now, but a certain dress code seems to persist, and should also be applied to the public - no fur coats nor pearls please, this is so passe.

8. "Concerts should be more family-friendly » This expression is indeed a reflection of what often happens to parents who want their children to discover classical music, but not necessarily in a "young audience" context. Telling you about the extreme anxiety any parent feels while anticipating the faintest movement from their children to avoid any disturbance is not breaking news. Countless parents who found themselves smothering their children’s loud comments fatally polluting the concert hall’s sanctimonious silence know what I’m talking about. And I may be radical saying this, but why should they, after all? If snoring is tolerated, why not the children’s vivid comments? Given parents can easily leave the room if the child proves utterly restless or bored even symphonic concerts should be accessible to families…

9. "Concert halls should rely on new technologies even more" We definitely live in a society dominated by image. A classical concert experience should always involve the possibility of seeing the musicians play. Why not give everyone the opportunity to enjoy it, including those far from the stage, through wide screens installed in the room? Or maybe complementary media content available for download before and during the concert? Or simply, enhance rooms suffering from lesser acoustic qualities with a sound system.

 10. "Every program should highlight a contemporary piece"   It is rather obvious that a certain "nostalgia for the past" has harmed the classical music world. Not only does it exclude contemporary creation but it also frames the audience within a repertoire secluded from its own contemporary context. Yet, to keep music alive, ears must be trained while always encouraging curiosity and discovery.