Unfinished symphony: orchestras, audiences and amplification

Recent comments by the conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, anticipating that orchestras 'have only a few more decades left at most,' bring to mind an article several years ago, in which the late Jonathan Harvey proposed abandoning the idea of conventional audience behaviour at concert halls, in a bid to attract younger audiences. 

With developing young audiences of the future a concern for arts organisations, it is important to engage them without burying live experiences beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off; younger audiences are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.                       

Harvey advocated amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.

There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.

Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Glass' Einstein on the Beach, written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.

There is of course (but not always) something of a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, Steve Martland or Andriessen, amplification is almost de rigeur.

Fischer's comments echo Harvey's prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is perhaps some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract new audiences. Groups such as Ensemble Modern, Alarm Will Sound and Icebreaker emerged in response to a developing non-traditional orchestral repertoire. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift programme presents classical music in a night club setting. As an expressive means, writing orchestral music continues to attract new composers; and the sound of a symphony orchestra in full flight can be a deeply thrilling experience.

Continuing to defy predictions of its demise, the orchestra still plays a part in contemporary music and in the concert-hall; keeping it that way is perhaps about how we present and programme them in the future. We're not finished with the orchestra yet.

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