I’ve played a lot of differently formatted concerts over the last few weeks. Concert formats matter. A good concert format has the potential to radically change an audience member’s perception of the complete concert experience. That subjective perception of concert experience quality in turn influences the audience member’s willingness to buy tickets in the future. (For concrete examples of how concert format can be altered to significantly change the traditional concert experience, see this recent study by the New World Symphony in Miami: http://www.nws.edu/pdfs/FinalAssessmentReport.pdf)
The overture/concerto/symphony concert format has become the traditional “three course meal” of the orchestral world. A short and often energetic piece arouses audience interest and demonstrates the ensemble’s virtuosity. A lengthier piece follows in which a guest soloist’s command of their voice or instrument is thoroughly showcased. After intermission comes a substantial work which is often the intellectual centrepiece of the program – though as with all of theses rules of format, this need not be the case. Overture/concerto/symphony is a total programming cliche in the orchestral world, so it’s strange we only had one such performance this month.
Our first show this month really went off the beaten track of concert formatting by involving a yoga instructor who led the crowd in a series of movements and guided meditations with the intent of involving our audience more deeply in the listening experience. The program ran a little over an hour with no intermission and took place at the Conrad Centre (the downtown venue where the symphony’s offices are located), in a smallish black-box theatre. The musical selections involved in this show were mostly individual movements of larger works, although we did also play the entire Stravinsky Octet and Peter Hatch’s oboe concert, titled Undr. This concert was part of our Intersections series, which is our usual avenue for turning concert format on its head.
We then moved on to our Paris Festival – two totally different Signature series programs in one weekend at Centre in the Square. Each program used a theme to give the music we were presenting context within the intellectual and artistic currents of turn-of-the-century Paris. Sunday’s program was the one “traditional” concert of the month, devoted Parisian salon culture. The Friday/Saturday show dealt with the traditional, conservatoire-trained composers of the period in the first half before exploring the anarchic world of the cabaret beginning at intermission. This exploration was not only musical – one of our administrators spent intermission “sleeping” on stage in a monkey costume, our two conductors battled each other with an inflatable hammer and on one of the evenings our guest soloist came out to join us for our encore in a pig suit.
The next week found us in the same venue but this time backing Latin Grammy winners Tiempo Libre, with a couple orchestral showpieces thrown in for good measure. The week after that had us performing montages from Pixar films synched to video. It was a huge technical challenge to rehearse and pull this all off in concert, as we had to be right in step not just with the visual cues, but also a couple of audio tracks (sound effects and the odd guitar riff).
What interests me about having so many different concert experiences in a compressed period of time is being able to really compare the apparent audience response and energy level with each of them. I can’t speculate on what reached the audience best (there’s inevitably a separation, both psychological and physical, between what happens on stage and how sound and light reach the folks in the seats) but there’s something comforting about the fact that each of these wildly different concert experiences got an enthusiastic response. There’s something fundamental about experiencing live music that speaks to the people’s humanity. The thirst for live music will be what keeps orchestras alive as we continue the eternal struggle to stay financially sound and artistically vibrant.