Should classical try something different just to increase its audience?
In last week's Boston Phoenix, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz (a long-time Fresh Air regular) reviewed Chorus pro Musica's performance of Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation." As you can read, this was not just your standard concert performance of a great work. Rather, a young British video artist called Joss Sessions produced a series of video projections which were "performed" (i.e., shown) while the work played on. As usual, Schwartz does an excellent job describing what took place and assessing the quality and wisdom of what was going on. Indeed, Schwartz is a leading exemplar of"The Fifteen Commandments of a Reviewer" which critic Terry Teachout recently posted on his blog. He's very good at what he does. As to what he says; well, there I have some problems, And where I have repeatedly disagreed with Schwartz over the years can be summed up in the final question of his review: "Is it ever a good idea to be different just to sell tickets?"
Trust me, I've been reading Lloyd Schwartz long enough to know that his own answer to his question would be no. Keeping Teachout's Fifteen Commandments in mind as I review the reviewer (maybe more like critique the critic), I think I can fairly characterize Schwartz as a staunch upholder of serious 20th century classical values, and as a protector of the art form against the evils inflicted upon it for the sake of either stylistic fads or commerce. With some exceptions (e.g., his advocacy of the grossly overrated Peter Sellars), Schwartz does not put up with any funny business.
My answer to Schwartz's question is yes. It is sometimes a very good idea to try something different to see whether it increases audience size. For me, presenters try to increase audience size not "just to sell tickets" — funny how crass and commercial audience-building sounds when you put it that way. They do it also to increase the number of ears theyre reaching, and the number of lives they're enriching, with the presentation upon which they've lavished so much care. And more is better. Besides, unless you try something different once in a while, how are you going to find out what works and what doesn't? After all, someone (this Wikipedia article credits Lofti Mansouri of the Canadian Opera) had to be the first to project titles (i.e., English translations) during an opera performance, no doubt hoping to increase the appeal of his company's productions. It worked, despite the doubts of many at the time, and is substantially responsible for the rising fortunes of live opera in the last 20 years. What North American company would not now provide a similar service? And if someone hadn't tried it, how else would we know it works?
Of course, not every different idea is a good idea, or ends up a success. Lloyd Schwartz gave his opinion of Chorus pro Musica's different idea in his review; their patrons also gave their opinions by staying or leaving, no doubt with comments, and by other means. Maybe it was a dud. But should we then say that trying different ideas to see which might increase audience size is a bad thing? It strikes me that not only is it instead a good thing, but that the way things are with classical audiences, we could use a heck of a lot more of it.