Putting People In Seats

Putting People In Seats

Steve Metcalf
Photo by Paul Cryan

[Ed. Note: When Steve Metcalf was the classical music critic for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, I had always found his comments insightful and refreshing. Over the years, I always tried to get him to write an essay for NewMusicBox but other than contributing one of the brief commentaries in our former “Hymn and Fuguing Tune” section—remember those—nothing ever panned out. Though seemingly never at a loss for words, Steve always humbly claimed he had nothing substantial to add to our ongoing new music debates here. However, when he started doing consulting work for concert halls, I finally cajoled him into offering us some pearls of his wisdom which seem all the more timely in juxaposition with this month’s “butts in seats” banter between Bill T. Jones and Daniel Bernard Roumain. – FJO]

Bulletin: Putting people in seats is no piece of cake. Those of you who have been running halls for all these years are, with good reason, rolling your eyes. I don’t have any easy answers, of course. But based on a couple of seasons of trying to breathe a little new life into the classical music efforts of a multi-purpose hall in a smaller city, I do have a few thoughts. Here are three that have been on my mind lately:

1. We who are trying to fill concert halls have to stop saying—and thinking—that the main problem is the lack of music education in the schools.

There actually was a class called music appreciation in my junior high school, which we all had to take. And the teacher actually did drop the needle in the middle of the record and ask what the piece was. We “learned” a couple of the Brandenburgs and Till Eulenspiegel this way. But even for a music-minded kid like myself, this class was mostly a chore. And, though I haven’t kept up with my eighth-grade classmates, I think I can say with some confidence that this class did not produce any lifelong concertgoers.

Like any sane person, I believe that music and the arts should be a central part of public school curriculums. And I want superintendents and school board members who take away these programs to be bound and forced to listen to the complete works of Tim Janis every day. I’m as irritated as the next parent when I go to school concerts and hear the band play bad arrangements of Celine Dion tunes or the choir sing, in December, neutered “holiday” music that’s been manufactured in some Sunbelt scholastic music factory.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The problems of the concert hall arise from huge changes in our culture, from rapidly evolving social habits, from the way music functions in modern life, from the growing availability of music from other sources, and on and on. If it were just a matter of making sure that schools were doing their part, then all the school systems that still have good music programs (including the one that my own kids enjoyed in our town of West Hartford) would be producing fresh waves of dutiful adult concertgoers. That’s not happening.

Blaming the schools for the problems of the concert hall is, I’m afraid, a cop-out. It excuses us from the harder task of inventing genuinely compelling new concert models and thinking up compelling new ways to sell them to an over-stimulated and distractible public.

So, yes, let’s support music education and arts education unto our last breath. But let’s stop pretending that this will magically fill our halls.

2. If we’re going to understand how music is working these days, including live music, we need to start with the iPod.

The iPod, I’m convinced, has more to teach us about contemporary music habits and desires than all our foundation-sponsored task forces and think-tank position papers combined. During this past Christmas shopping season, Americans bought iPods at the rate of more than 100 a minute.

The estimates are that 40 million of us have one. Virtually every college and high school-age kid in the country who can find the money owns one, and many of them are on their second or third upgrade. An impressive number of adults now have them. I know a smart, accomplished, 60-ish professional woman who chases down fellow employees in the corridors of her workplace and begs them to share playlists with her.

I’m no social scientist, but I think I know a Big New Thing when I see one. This is not just a Walkman that’s smaller and holds more stuff. This is a different way of organizing, experiencing, gathering, discovering, and communing with music. It means people can—and do—carry music on their person virtually their entire waking lives. It doesn’t take Marshall McLuhan to figure out that this will have an impact on the live concert experience.

I realize it’s dangerous to theorize at this early point in the game, but it seems like we’re entering an age in which the old ways of categorizing music, and assigning them to genres—as record labels and radio stations still tend to do—is of less and less interest to people. In fact, it’s possible that such categories are becoming impediments to enjoyment. Perhaps this is one reason why record labels and radio stations are struggling.

And to take that thought a small step further, concerts of, say, all-Baroque pieces may not be positioned for growth, either.

3. Classical music could use a few new superstars. Or one, even.

To say that there are no classical superstars is a bit of an overstatement, but not much of one. Maybe a slightly more accurate way to say this is that there aren’t any superstars outside of the major cities anymore.

If we speak of instrumentalists who can reliably sell out a house somewhere other than New York or L.A., we have basically Yo-Yo. After that we have a roster of names that are known mostly to aficionados and the readers of Gramophone, but who are unknowns to everybody else. You don’t realize the extent to which this is true until you start working with and around people who pay no attention to serious music, which is most people these days. Try dropping the name Leif Ove Andsnes in your company cafeteria.

Singers are a little different but not all that different. You have a few unaffordable celebrities (Fleming, Terfel, Domingo, now maybe Gheorghiu, Netrebko, Voigt), and then you have everybody else.

But the real star crisis is among composers. The classical world desperately needs a few living composers who are genuine culture heroes, who could credibly turn up on Letterman or Extra! once in a while. It has none. John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov may have a shot, but they’re not there yet.

For sure, there are a lot of fine composers out there, and in general they do write music that is much more calculated to attract an audience than the music of their elders was. And we know that Adams, the most celebrated of these, has a real following, although it’s worth noting that his two most successful pieces are his shortest and most superficial.

But no living serious composer has anywhere near the cultural impact that, say, Paul Simon has, or Joni Mitchell has, or Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney or Stephen Sondheim have.

Despite countless commissions and premieres, we haven’t really made much progress on the question of how to make contemporary concert music feel like something relevant, much less indispensable. And all the while the clock continues to tick. We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of Rite of Spring, the unofficial dawn of musical modernism. In music, a hundred years is a huge span—it’s the length of time between Beethoven’s Ninth and Rhapsody in Blue.

Whether we’re talking about filling a 2,000 seat conventional hall or a tiny contemporary arts space, this is music’s central issue, and it’s one that we can’t talk or market or fund-raise our way out of. Like I say, putting people in seats is no piece of cake. But it would be a tad easier if we had a 21st century Gershwin or Bernstein.


Steve Metcalf was the staff classical music critic for the Hartford Courant for over 20 years, beginning in 1980. He has also been a regular commentator for NPR’s Performance Today and a contributor to numerous musical publications. In 2002, he accepted a buyout from the Courant’s owners, the Tribune Company of Chicago. Since then, in addition to doing freelance journalism and composing, he has been serving as a consultant for several arts organizations, including Hartford’s main performance hall, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

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