Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Symphony, a Ritual?

It bothers me when I attend a symphony concert. So many people come out to see the NACOrchestra play Mozart, the Boston Pops, or whatever’s on that week. NACO seems to get a large crowd for their 2000-or-so seat hall and on a bad day they might still get about a thousand in there. The program booklet has a full page of corporate donors written in small print (although the donations are made to the Arts Centre itself and not to the orchestra), and people see it as a ‘valid’ or ‘proper’ thing to be doing if your were to go out one evening.

I feel as though there’s a social hierarchy to different kinds of concerts. No other arts organization in town gets that kind of cash in terms of private and corporate donations. Also, if you were to go to a chamber music concert or a choral concert in town, there’s just no comparison with the size of the audience. Southam hall, NACOs auditorium, doesn’t usually get used regularly by any other group in town, as it is so expensive to rent, so most ensembles perform in churches around town (some of which are very nice).
It’s interesting to look at the reasons that people give when asking why they only attend the symphony the concerts and no others. Often there’s not really a reason, “I’ve been going since I was small and I like to go” is one I’ve heard quite often. On a few occasions I’ve offered to take a few of my symphony-going friends out to a baroque music concert in town, either the Ottawa Baroque Consort or the Ottawa Bach Choir, and they were, for the most part, resistant.
I understand that baroque music doesn’t fall under the category of ‘mainstream’ classical music, but there are many other classical groups in town who struggle to fill a room for a concert. For example, Isabel Bayrakdarian performed an incredible solo recital this past November and, although the church floor was pretty well covered, there still could have been another 200 people squeezed in. There really couldn’t have been a better evening to be had that day.
All of this makes me wonder if the regular symphony audience attend because they feel it’s a class thing, as if being a subscriber gives them some sort of status. Maybe they feel that going out to see NACO is what people their age should be doing? Maybe I’m way off on this, but if I am why don’t the 13 strings fill up every concert? Or the Chamberfest series?
When I talk to audience members at chamber music concerts they, for the most part, want to go because they enjoy the music or are enthusiastic about the particular program of the evening. Not to say that there aren’t people like this attending the symphony as well. So why can’t we make the smaller, less well-funded, ensembles the symbol of status for the rich private donors and corporations who feel they need to patronize something musical? It seemed to work very well for 300 years or so.
When talking at a party, wouldn’t it be such a one-up for you to say “Yes, well I/my corporation patronize The ________ Ensemble, they perform at my house twice a year” over the usual “Yes, well I subscribe to the Symphony”?
So let me end with a few questions:
  • Do you feel more secure with your money if we donate it to an established institution, such as a symphony or university, over a group currently establishing itself?
  • Do you feel that going to a choir or chamber music concert is just as much of a “night out” as going to see the symphony?
  • Do you go to the symphony to see a show, or do you go because you want to hear a particular piece of music?
  • How many classical music concerts do you go see a year, how many of them are at the symphony and how many of them are not?
  • If you were planning to donate $1000 to either the symphony or a group who were still establishing themselves, who would you give to? Remember that you would be in personal contact with the ensemble, and only in contact with the marketing dept. of the symphony.
  • Do you prefer not to attend concerts held in churches? even if they have a secular program?
Happy Christmas!

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