PEIKEN: Music Hall has intimacy issues and young adults aren't coming

Changes should reflect generational shifts

CINCINNATI -- Classical music isn’t dead, and this isn’t an eulogy, but the concerts coming from symphonic orchestras are long overdue for a heart transplant.

Few things are better at inducing sleep than the formality of the concert experience: Performances are measured by how true they mirror the composer’s intent, with little room for interpretation or spontaneity. Cavernous concert halls devour intimacy. Audiences are discouraged from applauding between movements. When the applause comes, on cue, musicians stand expressionless, like robots. 

No, the music isn’t dead, but the experience is.

Until last Friday, I’d only visited Music Hall for events a lot of people wanted to attend—Louis Langree’s first concerts, last November, as music director for the Cincinnati Symphony and a taping of the public radio program “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” Then came last Friday, when anyone could have purchased a ticket to the symphony minutes before the opening number and had his choice of seats.

This program presented a challenge for the orchestra’s marketers. The centerpiece was an adventurous, contemporary percussion concerto by Scottish composer James MacMillan, featuring guest artist Colin Currie. It’s not often you see a gong at the lip of the stage.

Music Hall, which seats 3,500, is an architectural and acoustical gem—perhaps the most recognizable icon in Cincinnati arts and culture—and supporters are years into the effort to raise $165 million for its renovation. I took time Friday studying the depths, wings and bird’s-eye vantages of the stage. First, I wondered why anyone would sit in the upper balcony, a football field away from the musicians. I also wondered whether any renovations could turn Music Hall into the concert hall it needs to become.

Symphony orchestras across America have trouble connecting with people who aren’t on AARP’s mailing list. So do chamber orchestras, but chamber music is more nimble, more free with instrumentation, presentation and size of venue. Symphony orchestras are the freighters of classical music. And like an iceberg ahead, you can see the coming crisis at nearly every concert.

Young people aren’t there, at least not in the numbers large orchestras need to cultivate into subscribers and donors 20 to 30 years forward. Young adults today want cultural experiences that are warmer and more inclusive, immersive and engaging than, generally, what symphony orchestras are prepared to present.

The notion of injecting orchestral concerts with a rock concert edge isn’t new. I wrote about this elsewhere years ago, and other writers have posited the same. The Cincinnati Symphony isn't shy about commissioning music and performing other recent works. As it happens, the orchestra is performing with guitarists Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National in a March 21 “Music Now” program  at Music Hall.

My prescription starts with treating contemporary programming as more than a novelty. As a matter of course, orchestras should commission work and collaborate with the likes of Trent Reznor, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the prog-rock band Dream Theater. I’d settle for orchestral arrangements of the music of the art-rock band Tool, but programming is only part of the solution.

Here’s a proposal that, I believe, would change the dynamic of the concert experience and challenge orchestras to be more imaginative in presentation without compromising their artistic missions: They should redesign concert halls for performance in the round, in Greek-styled bowls—the musicians and conductor centered on the floor, surrounded by the audience.

This would eliminate bad seats—or at least create many more good ones—allowing the entire orchestra to be seen while creating experiences far more visceral than orchestras can achieve in a proscenium.

It’s not such a radical notion. Germany's Berlin Philharmonie  cast the model a half-century ago. In 1978, Boettcher Concert Hall , in Denver, became the first in-the-round home for a professional American orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. More contemporary examples are the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland, and Sala Filarmonica de Belo Horizonte , due to open later this year as the 1,500-seat home of Brazil’s Philharmonic Orchestra of Minas Gerais. 

Music Hall, designated nearly 40 years ago as a National Historic Landmark, certainly has the interior expanse for this kind of conversion. Only architectural engineers could determine whether Music Hall has the bones for it. The people spearheading Music Hall’s renovation would be smart to study this before committing to other work that won’t address the issue of intimacy. By the way, the Brazilian project cost is $75 million—less than half the costs for the renovations now envisioned for Music Hall. 

As we evolve and adapt through generations, so do our tastes, our attractions, our expectations. It’s natural we should also want our mediated experiences to evolve.

We can start with a less daunting proposal: Make room in

the concert etiquette for applause between movements. And when it comes, I’d love to see an over-the-top reaction from the musicians. You know, perhaps a smile.

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