Breaking through the traditional frame of a classical concert, is what seems to interest musicians around the world in the last years.
Whether it is about bringing more audience or attracting new and younger listeners, we all try to overcome the ever-growing distance between a traditional art, and a world which changes dramatically every day.
Countless projects, programs, concert series and ensembles were initiated aiming to address this issue, with very different results.
Lately I played with my friends of the Else Ensemble two concerts in the foyer of the Philharmonie in Berlin as part of the Lunch Concerts series, initiated in 2007. These concerts happen during the season on each Tuesday at 13:00, they are open for public and are admission-free. Every Tuesday a small wooden stage rises in the middle of the broad entry hall, facing some chairs for seniors or disabled. On the day of our concert we gather on this stage for a general rehearsal which has to be done by 12:00, because exactly at 12:00, the doors of the main entrance open and about 1500 people rush in, eager to find a good spot. Seconds ago the space was still and chill, now it quickly changes its ambiance as people of all ages fill in every corner: they sit on the stairs and on the floors, they stand on the balconies, they bring their picnic bags and baby cradles – all waiting for a concert which will begin only in one hour. This happens every week, and on most Tuesdays there are many more who are left outside – security limits audience-capacity.
Our ensemble was fortunate to play in this wonderful series three times. Each time we experienced the love and appreciation of a huge public. People who choose to take a break right in the middle of a working week, pausing their daily routine. They come to listen to a very “normal” concert. Classical music performed in the same way we do it since centuries. Sure, the atmosphere is different, but the content and means of delivery are very traditional.
The Philharmonie is one of the most famous venues for classical music worldwide, home to one of the best orchestras in the world. If there was ever a venue where classical music is done in its most traditional way – this is it. By nature, this is exactly the kind of place which could intimidate young or modern audiences; this is exactly where one would expect to be obliged to sit still, breath as little as possible and sneeze only between movements. But as we stepp on to the improvised stage, we are surrounded by the most vital public: teenagers lie on the floor – heads on backpacks, babies mumble, disabled people park right next to us with their wheelchairs, bankers and secretaries eat sandwiches as they listen to us from a balcony above.
Within three different concerts, we performed Mendelssohn and Mozart, aside contemporary music; well known classical pieces aside forgotten or less played composers such as Walter Rabl and Erwin Schulhoff. One of our musical missions is to give performance to women composers, therefor we performed pieces by Shulamit Ran and Noa Guy, both contemporary composers who write in a style which isn’t necessarily well received by all audiences. But the 1500 people who came to listen to us during their lunch brakes had listened to us with open ears and full attention.
Maybe this is something that can happen only in places such as Berlin, where art seems to grow on trees; where the size and variety allows each individual to be strange in his or her own way, without really being strange. Musicians all over the world come up with different projects that are aimed to attract exactly this kind of public. While in many cases this is done through some level of degrading classical music – thinking that in order to bring it to “the people” we have to lower its level – the Lunch Concerts in the Philharmonie do exactly the opposite. Classical music at its best level is offered to the audience in the form of a rather normal concert. How come such a variety of people – teenagers, businessmen, families of tourists – all come as early as three hours prior to the beginning of the show just to make sure they have a spot? How come this is such a huge success exactly with the kind of audience which is considered difficult to attract?
I truly believe this has everything to do with quality. While so many great musicians fall into the believe that they have to diminish their art in order to reach the mainstream, projects which offer best quality without a hint of arrogance – win the audience.
It brings to mind a very interesting conversation I had lately with a gentleman who is in charge of several concert series in Ljubljana. While working out some programs for next season, he told me, that so many of the concerts in the city are admission free. He immediately continued to say that exactly for this reason – the content has to be absolutly and brutally of top level, otherwise the free admission isn’t considered an opportunity or generosity, but rather questionable and suspicious. He told me: “You cannot offer poor art for free”.