How to put on a classical concert for newbies

On Monday 25 August the Ulster Orchestra and conductor Jac van Steen presented this BBC Proms season’s Free Prom. Aimed at new audiences, it had a purposefully relaxed atmosphere that even embraced clapping between movements. Nevertheless, when I came to reviewing, it I lamented that its efforts to be welcoming resulted in a mediocre performance. It missed an opportunity to show new audiences what classical music is capable of. So it got me thinking, what are the best ways of attracting new audiences? What kind of music should programmed for those who have never been to a classical concert before?

Conductor Jac van Steen

Jac van Steen conducted the Ulster Orchestra in a concert aimed a newcomers to classical music

Putting on a concert for first-timers is fraught with difficulties. There is no getting away from the fact that, generally speaking, classical pieces are longer than those from other genres. Attending a classical concert involves sitting for a prolonged period and listening without distractions. This kind of listening is foreign to most new audiences; hence concerts aimed at newbies will tend to play shorter works. Famous tunes from films and TV might make an appearance too, with an assumption that familiarity results in accessibility.

Yet this risks patronising new audiences. If they have already made the decision to attend a concert, then they should get a full taste of what classical music is – including its length and its exploration of the new. Perhaps some minds will find concentrating for longer than the length of a three-minuet pop song impossible. But other newcomers could gain the satisfaction of having sat through an hour-long symphony and enjoying it. Regular concertgoers know the elation felt after hearing something new and discovering something amazing. Why rob new audiences of this experience? Exploring the unfamiliar is a fundamental part of appreciating classical music, making it dishonest to present only the most well known works from the repertoire.

Nevertheless, the benefits of classical music can be difficult to access for new listeners. I can recall my mind getting distracted a few years ago when I listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony for the first time. But I found the same work absolutely thrilling at a concert last week. The first time I was simply not used to sitting down and listening to a 45 minute-long symphony. Perhaps there is something to be said for first listening to shorter works first, before building up to lengthier symphonies.

Classical concerts aimed at new audiences need to find a balance between being accommodating and challenging. Failing to do so results in the biggest deterrent to new audiences: a boring concert. It will be boring if the music is too easy or familiar, and could become offensively patronising. But it will also be boring if the music is inaccessible. Their minds will wonder and fail to become engaged.

The programmers for the Free Prom obviously tried to find this balance. Dvorak’s populist Slavonic Dances, lasting merely minutes, are hardly the most rewarding works. Arnold Bax’s symphonic poem Roscatha might have been to compensate. Though written in 1910, this was its first performance at the BBC Proms, and it might have been an attempt to show new audiences the exploratory side of classical music. But it was an odd decision to include a work that had never received a test run. As it turned out, Roscatha is not a work that the Proms have been sorely missing for the past 100 years. For newcomers, if this was the unexplored terrain that classical music has to offer, then the Roscatha did not give them an incentive to delve further.

The Free Prom’s programme had its faults. Yet I wonder whether concerts aimed at new audiences ever really work. There is something inherently patronising about them, the implication being that new audience are incapable of enjoying a full classical music concert. Instead they must start with ‘easier’ works, even if these can hardly compare with the great staples of the repertoire. The fact that classical music is often anything but easy is what distinguishes it, making one question whether an ‘easy’ classical concert can really claim to be a ‘classical’ concert at all.

If a new audience member is brave enough to try something new, then they should not be patronised by mere titbits from the classical repertoire but be given the best that classical music has to offer. Concerts aimed at newcomers should be up to the same standards as those populated by regular concertgoers, as why should new audiences deserve anything less? Forget classical concerts for newbies, if you want to experience classical music in all its glory, face up to its difficulties and lengthiness. Go to the real thing.

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