Saturday, April 4, 2009

New World Symphony

This last season, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has been trying out a new format, the "Best of ..." series. Other orchestras have a "Best Of ..." cycle, which trot out a sort of greatest hits plus rare gems. The idea is to attract new audiences who want the potential at least to hear the classical themes they are familiar with through popular culture. NJSO has gone one better (or worse, depending on your viewpoint) with this idea by shortening its "Best Of ..." series to four one-hour concerts, each concert performed without intermission and each starting in late afternoon so audiences can go out to dinner.

Down in Miami, the news is that New World Symphony is pushing the envelope even further, offering $2.50 concerts that are each 20 minutes long. The group offers three concerts on a Friday and people can buy tickets to all three for about the cost of a movie. More than likely, they'll just buy a ticket to one. A nice break from the rest of your day, yes? Twenty minutes or so listening to Michael Tilson Thomas conduct masterworks? I think we could all stand a little of that.

The old-school method of bringing in new audiences was to offer "rush" tickets. Typically, "new audiences" then meant college students and young professionals, mostly white. I was one of them, standing in line to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts for $2.50 a pop. In these days of attenuated cultural illiteracy and the shrinking relevance of the classical tradition, "new audiences" means reaching across boundaries of that may include racial and national background, religion, social class, gender, age, education and just plain preference. This area, for instance, is a reservoir of dedicated tattooed blues and rockabilly fans that the NJSO would love to syphon into its theaters' seats.

These new concert formats are a nod to the relatively fast-paced lifestyle of New Jerseyans, and the pressures to make the most of our free time. How true such pressures actually are I'm not really sure. I think a lot of it is more cultural than real, a snowballing fantasy that we're all living lives of near-crisis pitch. But we feel those pressures--that much is a certainty. We buy into it. And as long as we do, efforts by orchestras to package the repertoire accordingly will not be in vain.


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