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Where Are the Live Audiences?

Introducing Guts & Rosin, a classical music column by violinist Gary Levinson of the Dallas Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.

published Monday, September 18, 2017




Anyone reading about the performing arts in recent years has my profound admiration. Apart from reviews of performances, they are practically inundated with terms like “unsustainable,” “aging” and “dinosaur” from the “expert” media. What a downer when commenting on art forms their readers happen to love! So how do we wrap our brains around what is reportedly one crisis after another? I believe we need to separate fact from fiction. The performing arts have many fans who represent wide-ranging demographics. These people are passionate about the art form, whether it is opera, orchestral, chamber music or theater. These are people in whose every day lives the arts play a huge role, rather than the dwindling outcasts some would have us believe are music and theater regulars.

If there is a crisis, it is in attendance of classical concerts. Opera seems to do marginally better, but not necessarily financially speaking, because of high operating costs. This is a complex topic. There is the substantial cost of the tickets, parking and goodies such as the obligatory glass of generic Chardonnay at intermission, all of which elevates the cost. The fact that patrons are being charged in the neighborhood of $20 for a glass for wine that retails for $18 a bottle does not help matters. The message is either a) we hope you don’t know the profit margins or b) we’ve got you, so what are you going to do, drink water?

Then there is the separate topic of online media. Between free media such as YouTube and Vimeo and paid media such as Medici and Virtual Concert Hall, many people are misled into thinking that they can get the same concert hall experience gratis or at a vastly reduced cost, while saving time, angst and the trouble of attending a performance. This is a naïve position to say the least.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Gary Levinson

Let’s consider a sports analogy. No sports fan in his/her right mind would equate attending a football game, an auto race, or a tennis match with the experience of watching it online, even streamed on a QLED/OLED giant screen? When given a chance to buy tickets to a NFL game, an NCAA Game, or a PGA golf tournament, fans gladly pay more than face value for a ticket to experience the feel of the game, the excitement of fellow fans, and the idea that they can watch what they choose rather than what the show’s director will let them see. The NFL has done a good job of online games as a supplement to actual games whilst they encourage patrons to attend in person with campaigns like Football is Family. The NFL knows that millions of dollars are riding on actual people physically seeing live the logos and products which fund the games.

Why is it any different for classical music? Our “stadiums,” complete with stars, supporting casts and concessions are acoustically designed auditoriums. Many, such as the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, were specifically designed for their respective art forms. Both venues have achieved their purpose. Yet, few single ticket buyers can name what the hall is known for, let alone understand what the acoustics have to do with their listening enjoyment. Is it different for season ticket buyers? Surely when investing in a season of an arts organization by buying a series, they are more connected to the organization’s success.

If the non-profit PERFORMING ARTS ORGANIZATIONS spent more time educating our audiences about what aspects of live performance are non-reproducible, they would find a whole range of fans they never knew existed. Audiophiles often spend many thousands of dollars on a system which faithfully reproduces a great concert hall. But a majority of today’s audience will turn to the phone or, at best, a computer sound system—which is far from a faithful reproduction of acoustical music.

Music students (a short search of our music schools reveals hundreds if not thousands majoring in performance all kinds of instruments) are another demographic that is rarely taught to appreciate the nuances of tone and projection. It is in part because they spend most of their time in acoustical neutral spaces (practice rooms, professor’s studio) and listen to their musical idols on acoustically inferior equipment. Given that most arts organizations provide free or very inexpensive tickets to students for live performances, a lot of the blame for not flocking to live performances lies with the students themselves. Yet, how often are marketing departments speaking directly to the people who may be the very performers those same marketing departments will be asked to sell in a few short years?

All performing arts lovers as well as arts non-profits need to be accountable for what is exciting about the live performance. There is no substitute for the moment before the overture starts; when the conductor’s baton comes down for a dramatic chord played by the entire orchestra, or for the virtuosity of a string quartet playing as one. The kind of drama that is being delivered from a live performance on a stage can only be fully experienced by people in the seats. Anything else is a facsimile. The only question is what kind of facsimile is it and is it good enough for a given listener?

The 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition struck a wonderful balance between showing the drama of the competitors, the conductors and the orchestra and enticing people to attend its live events as much as possible. The numbers speak for themselves: 4.8 million views on the webcast, with an average view time of 70 minutes (what happened to the ADD generation?), 40,000 attendees at Bass Hall, and 4,500 live telecast in an open public screening at Fort Worth’s Sundance Square (according to the Cliburn stats). The Cliburn is an institution that is garnering new and existing audiences by showing that there is more than one way to experience a concert, rather competing live vs. online. Similar organizations such as Santa Fe Opera and the Aspen Music Festival have been able to attract new audiences to their respective performances by showing them THAT the details of an art form are not antiquated or too hard to fathom. They believe in the work and let it stand on its own for the audience to enjoy, without gimmicks or simplifications. Maybe the marketers at large could attend more such events and notice the world of great discovery that many patrons are thirsting to discover for themselves.


» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.

» Guts & Rosin will run on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones.

» You can hear more from Levinson in last week's Between the Barlines, the debut podcast from pianist Jonathan Tsay Thanks For Reading

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Where Are the Live Audiences?
Introducing Guts & Rosin, a classical music column by violinist Gary Levinson of the Dallas Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.
by Gary Levinson

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