Over the summer I attended a dinner hosted by the Dallas Opera at a fashionable Dallas restaurant. The stated purpose was to celebrate the company’s upcoming season, but the evening was also designed to attract fence-sitting or brand new opera-goers to the community of people who support the Dallas Opera.

I sat with a young couple who had just moved from Minneapolis, just the sort of people for whom arts organizations yearn. They explained to me they had been looking for a way to get more involved with the city’s impressive but often intimidating cultural scene, and this was just what they were looking for. Through this event, the Dallas Opera reached this couple before the symphony, the art museum or any other organization. Both parties in the exchange came out ahead.

Similarly, the Waco Symphony Orchestra has two groups for young professionals (differentiated by age 25-40 and 40-45) that gather before each concert to enjoy dinner at a local restaurant. Such “outreach” programs are effective because they introduce people to the social aspect of attending something like an orchestra concert. Crucially, these programs don’t seek to make the art experience itself something other than it is.

With the turning of the calendar now to September, orchestras and opera companies begin their new seasons and a simmering anxiety about declining audiences bedevils executives and their boards.

Inevitably some organizations act on the widespread but generally erroneous assumption that people don’t attend orchestra concerts because of the formalities of the concert hall, the ways in which patrons dress or behave or because the concert experience itself isn’t “diverse” enough.

Change of attitude

It’s not, however, the experience of attending an orchestra concert that needs modification, as if encouraging patrons to cheer and whistle between the movements of a symphony is all that’s needed for sell-outs. Rather, it’s the public attitude toward orchestral music that needs to be cultivated.

The decline comes not from the formalities of the concert hall experience, but from the erosion of the idea that classical music is worth knowing. People don’t come because they don’t care.

“Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil,” critic Philip Kennicott recently wrote in the New Republic, “in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies.”

Symphony orchestras are the guardians of a rich, diverse tradition of a certain musical experience. That’s their purpose. The problem is that teaching an appreciation of orchestral music to young people has been abandoned through a confluence of an increasingly materialistic curriculum and a lack of conviction regarding the value of orchestral music in the face of multiculturalism.

Kennicott contends that the League of American Orchestras, the national organization that ostensibly champions the concerns of orchestras, “thinks at the level of an airline magazine.”

Informal dress

Apparently one recommendation from the latest league meeting meant to address the decline in audiences was for orchestra musicians to dress however they wanted on stage. And this is supposed to save the institution?

It will require much more. It will take a strong conviction that the effort is worth it and the courage to explain the ways in which orchestral music is more richly rewarding than some other musical forms. Such conviction however, is increasingly difficult in today’s egalitarian culture that insists all art forms are of equal value.

Absent that conviction, only the music that’s most aggressively and shamelessly marketed will get into the ears of children. And then not only orchestras will be the losers.