500 People Were Forced Into a Classical Concert

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend the Berlin Seminar, a conference hosted by the German Fulbright Commission bringing together outgoing German Fulbrighters with current US Fulbrighters in Europe. While the majority of people at the conference were based in Germany, the crowd also hosted the entire Swedish Commission and Fulbrighters from the UK, Spain, France, Turkey, Ireland, Netherlands, Hungary, and many more countries. The Fulbrighters were a mixture of graduate students (meaning those that have finished a bachelors degree--not necessarily in a graduate program) and ETA's (English Teaching Assistants). 

I provide this background to give an idea of with whom I spent the week: a number ranging from 2 or 3 of us wandering Berlin to 500 packed in a recital hall. The majority were young (I was one of the older attendees at 29), educated, and socially conscious. The group was culturally and socially diverse, though a quick look through stats would definitely show certain predominance in race and socio-economic backgrounds. Still, the US Fulbrighters were from all over the US, and while there could still be considered an easy majority, a great many different backgrounds came into play.

We could break down the demographic w/o bearings on race or specific socio-economic numbers (to which I don't have access) as 22-29, equally distributed male/female (by observation), educated, and socially and culturally aware (based on anecdotal evidence).

What follows is the first in a series of posts (labeled "Berlin Seminar" in the labels section--which I'm abusing less and less as time goes on). These posts attempt to look at cultural differences in Sweden, Germany, and the US in regards to music. They will look explore not only perception of the different groups involved, but also marketing, state sponsorship, and a bit about the idea of cultural heritage.


The opening ceremony for the Berlin Seminar occurred the evening of the first day of the conference. We'd already had a chance to meet other Fulbrighters, a breakout session where groups discussed various issues. Mine started out as a conversation about Berlin theater, and it very quickly degraded into a talk about finances. It was not a discussion I had wished to have at the conference, or at least at 11am the first day of the conference. Still, I took the time to discuss some of my observations regarding the corporate culture of the large American institutions, and the growing issue of sustainability, and how that idea is approached from what is, increasingly, one of two viewpoints. I won't recount that discussion, as there will be a posting about it later by the official secretary of the group. Instead, know that my conference started out with more sighs than I'd normally like to begin a morning.

One issue I brought up was the idea of marketing--we talk about the desired audience, but we never really pin down who it is beyond "young." We never really discuss sustainable ideas for bringing in this audience, instead focusing on initiatives that are short-term ideas. "Let's do one concert like this..." is not a long-term option, and if only done once doesn't give a good idea the merit of an idea. My assertion has been that the problem isn't really young people--they're open minded and willing to show up. It's a matter of 1) cost 2) knowledge and 3) availability.

The opening ceremony was a combination of short talks--all ranging from 10-15 minutes in length--and a concert. It was if they accepted that the attention span of young people would only hold for a short time. The concert itself was under an hour, with a variety of works. All in all, the entire program didn't even span 2 hours, which got the crowd out to the important part; socializing, drinking, and since it is Germany, smoking (Note: smoking is much more prevalent in Germany, with each shop having a wide variety of rolling tobacco available at even the smallest bodega. This is unimportant to some, but for me at the moment, it was a stark contrast to Sweden).

I sat in a section with people I did not know, beyond a few I had seen in the morning session. And unsurprising considering where I chose to sit, I saw a fair number of people who had introduced themselves as doing research in music. We all made for the middle of the concert hall, as a general guess at how most recital halls act would dictate.

The concert was as follows:

Sonata II from Sonate concertate in still moderno Libro II--Dario Castello (1590-1658)
Division on Vestiva i Colli--Francesco Rognoni (1570-1626)
--Elicia Silversteen (BM Colburn Conservatory of Music, pursuing masters in Amsterdam)--Baroque Violin
--Jacob Street (MA Oberlin, currently in Lübeck)--harpsichord

Deep River--arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
The Little Horses--Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
--Derrell Acon (DMA candidate Cincinnati Conservatory, MM CCM, BM and BA Lawrence U)--Bass
--Joseph Nyckel (Northwestern, U of Illinois, Hackschule fur Musik in Freiburg)--Piano

Karakurenai--Andy Akiho (1979)
Lizard and Riding the Tiger from Wind-Rose-Wood-Cuts--Baláza Juhász (1980)
--David Degge (Performance--Peabody, Music Education--Abilene Christian University)--Percussion (Marimba)
So, a fair smattering--Baroque violin sonatas, contemporary marimba, and traditional style vocal pieces. No Romantic or Classical repertoire, and no pieces really outside the Western styles, though there were small flavours in Karakurenai and Wind-Rose-Wood-Cuts. I wouldn't consider either of those pieces more related to a regional style, more the watered down globalized, borrowed style, where small elements are added to what is basically a Western aesthetic.

The concert was quite good. All the performers were masterful. Silversteen and Street performed well together, communicated directly, and gave a strong performance. One bit that struck me was Silversteen employing some half-step non-diatonic trills. For many performers, that'd fall outside the generalized notion of Baroque ornamentation--most ornaments are meant to be performed diatonically. However, I enjoyed the aural effect--it gave the pieces more of a folk flair, making the embellishments actually draw even closer to the original note. As to their authenticity, I have no idea, but considering this is Silversteen and Street's main area of study, I'll accept it as an interesting, unique, and engaging choice.

Acon's velvety bass voice was clear and beautiful, though it at times felt lost in the hall. It was a large hall at the Universität der Kümste, and the acoustics were a bit on the dry side. Still, I greatly enjoyed the performance, as Acon and Nykiel did a good job using a wide dynamic range, and gave each piece suitable solemnity or flair when needed. The Little Horses gave Acon and Nykiel a fine vehicle to show the wide range of style, from patter to an almost mournful lullaby.

The final pieces performed by Degge were virtuosic in nature, though in very different ways. Karakurenai features an ostinato in one hand with a difficult polyrhythmic melody in the other. And it never lets up until the very end, when the hands gradually shift phase into the same tempo. When the melody started up, every in my section all groaned a little--not in a bad way, but in a "Oh, this feels uncomfortable." When Degge was able to keep the ostinato rolling along and keep the polyrhythm rolling along in its own time, the section gave short gasps and subtle shifts. It's a difficult feet to keep your hands separated so completely for roughly 4 minutes. The other piece was less striking to me, more about the speed at which Degge could run up and down the keyboard--the sort of virtuosity I've grown accustomed to seeing. Musically, Wind-Rose-Wood-Cut was straight forward, tonal in nature, and nice, but nothing that struck me as interesting.

Enough of the short critique: what happened after is of far more importance. The demographic has been explained, the concert has been described. Now for the important part--the reaction.

One critique against classical music is that it doesn't reach a younger generation, that groups must resort to gimmicks or unique settings to draw a crowd. And then, hopefully, once the unsuspecting audience has arrived, the music will draw them in deeper. However, nothing was more traditional than this set-up. We were in a large concert hall. Everyone was more or less required to wear some sort of dress casual (which, for all those saying people don't want to dress up, I'd remind them that 1) tuxes are NOT required for attendance and I rarely if ever see them and 2) young people LOVE a good excuse to get dressed up--like, say, going to a club...which for all those unaccustomed to club life should find out usually includes some sort of "dressy" attire, or at least not dirty jeans and a tee-shirt. And who was the ONE person that complained and wore something more relaxed? You guess it...).

The concert performance was straight-forward: performers entered, played pieces, people clapped between movements and no one cared (again, a misconception--I see this regularly and few people give the stink eye. Maybe only at the NY Phil...so, perhaps, we should stop comparing the world to them?). Everything stank of traditionalism, except for perhaps the demographic of the crowd.

And did the crowd ever love it! The clapping was enthusiastic. Approaching performers afterwards was almost difficult, as it seems they attracted quite the posse. Everyone I spoke to said they loved the music, were impressed by the virtuosity of all the performers (I heard "That percussionist is a badass" more than once), the beauty and lyricism of Acon's voice, and the overall excitement from the pieces themselves. The more wine that flowed, the more people opened up about how they loved the experience, and wanted to go to more concerts.

This was a crowd that wants to be included, a crowd that is open to a wide variety of experiences. These are the cultural omnivores I read about in Jon Silpayamanant's blog. On his blog, he mentions a study that one reason for the decline in the arts is the decline of the cultural omnivore. But this seems to make an assumption about taste creation--that it is an inherent trait, rather than a learned trait. However, taste is developed through experience, and cultural omnivores are created by having a wide variety of experiences. So, if cultural omnivores are dying, it's because we, as a society, are killing them. I do not think this is true.

Instead, I think it's a question of marketing and availability. As I said, this concert was compulsory. However, not one person was complaining going into the concert. There was mostly curiosity. I fielded questions about the pieces, however I only knew the vocal works. I gave some learned guesses on the Baroque pieces and didn't even hazard a guess on the marimba works. Most people I spoke to simply stated "I'd love to go to more concerts, but I don't even know they're happening," or "I loved going to the symphony, but they just raised ticket prices, so I'm not sure I'll still be able to afford the tickets." These are simple problems.

No one complained about getting dressed up (besides me...), no one complained we were sitting in a concert hall, no one took issue with any of the traditional elements. Of course, they did have drinking to look forward to after the show, and were able to engage first hand with the musicians, two major differences than most large concert venues (but not so different than many chamber concerts I've attended).

So, let's look at a few facts:

  • One demographic groups want to reach is the 18-35 age range. That is the only stated demographic. This is far too broad to address in any efficient or sustainable fashion.
  • a smaller demographic, 22-29, educated, male and female, bi-national (US and German), large differences in background, but with the shared background of being Fulbright grantees (either currently or heading to the US) were curious and then excited by the concert.
  • This smaller demographic complained of lack of marketing, availability, and pricing. There were no complaints about traditional structures when I asked. Most were open and interested in the experience
  • The newer works brought more enthusiasm from the crowd, but almost everyone seemed wowed by the virtuousity of the performers.
  • The concert length was not discussed directly, though a fair number of people I spoke to said "Fewer talks, more music!" Considering later in the week we all attended a 3 hour dance party without batting an eye, and then many went off to clubs afterwards, concert length really shouldn't be an issue (though regular breaks for a cigarette are helpful).
  • People enjoyed being able to approach performers afterwards.
These facts, to me, are of importance, even if they are anecdotal in nature. They're important because 

  1. I took the time to identify a focused demographic. If you talk to anyone in business or marketing, it's about creating a focused group to approach, not a wide audience. Each initiative/advertisement/pitch has to be more individually tailored
  2. Specifics questions about performance are addressed to a group that is not self-referential. By this I mean I wasn't talking just to people who identified as musicians, artists, or a part of the music industry...quite a few weren't regular concert attendees (though it was great to speak to so many people who had been involved in music and the arts for a long while, and it still holds importance in their lives. Maybe that should be another avenue to really discuss?).
  3. People were far more concerned with the music than anything else, and made that known from the beginning of the conversations.
These are just a few points I found from opening night. Later, I'll write about how people reacted to my project in casual conversation, my trip to the Deutsche Opera Berlin and their amazing performance of Les Troyens, and some thoughts about cultural advertisement I noticed in Berlin, as well as possibly discussing funding differences and issues between the disparate methods of the US vs. Germany and Sweden. 

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