The acoustically pristine concert hall of the New World Symphony’s New World Center will resound with the vibrant playing of its young classical musicians Friday night — and will also throb with the kind of electronic dance music that fills South Beach nightclubs. Instead of sitting silently, listeners will be able to wander about, chatting and sipping cocktails, getting up close to peer at the DJ or the sawing arms of cellists and violinists.
Not your grandfather’s, your father’s or even your older brother’s classical music concert, the event — called Pulse: Late Night at the New World Symphony — is part of a slate of innovative concert formats at New World aimed at drawing new and younger audiences to classical music. The Pulse events are on the cutting edge of similar efforts by orchestras around the country as the classical music world looks to refresh a shrinking, aging audience and make an art form often perceived as elitist more accessible and inviting to younger listeners.
Thus far, Pulse seems to be succeeding. The first outing, held soon after the New World Center’s opening last January, drew 900 people, while the second, in April, sold out its 1,500 tickets a week in advance. Half the audience for those events was under 40, and the April crowd was animated and dressed to the hilt, filling the lobby and concert hall with excited chatter while neon lights and imagery flickered overhead.
Among them was Charlotte Piro, 38, a real-estate agent who enjoyed nightclubbing before her two sons, ages 2 and 5, were born. A New World regular, she found an invigorating new energy at Pulse.
“I loved it,” Piro says. “It was a very fresh approach to classical music, very young.”
She particularly enjoyed being able to engage with friends and with the musicians who were stationed around the hall, allowing a close-up look at their music making.
“Even though I was there for the music, it was also very social,” she says. “What I liked most was that it was really informal. That was fabulous. The musicians are very young, so it was great to be close to them.”
Luis Amato, 48, was so taken by Pulse that he became a VIP member of Friends of the New World Symphony, a support group for younger audiences.
“I am very tired of the regular concert format, where you just sit there,” Amato said. “This is a way to integrate yourself. This format is fantastic, revolutionary. It will attract a lot of young people to classical music, which has been a kind of taboo thing that nobody understands.”
Those are exactly the kind of reactions New World directors hoped for. “If they associate having a good time with classical music, that’s a good thing,” says orchestra president and CEO Howard Herring. “Then they can enlarge their classical music experience on their own terms. We think it will be a bridge.”
Other musical bridges NWS is building include half-hour concerts for $2.50, hour-long concerts with narration and video called Symphony with a Splash and longer “Journey” concerts that explore a single composer. There are also plans for “gallery walk” events at which audience members will move among the center’s various spaces to hear music by small ensembles.
New World received two $500,000 grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to not only produce but study the success of the experiments and share the findings with other orchestras. It’s all of a piece with NWS’ broader goal of opening the center and the symphony to the public, a mission incorporated into architect Frank Gehry’s design with its open spaces, glass walls and free Wallcast concerts, in which performances are projected live onto an exterior wall to picnicking audiences in the surrounding park.
“This all springs from our impulse to share our music,” says Herring, who hopes Pulse will provide a seductive opening that will lure people to more traditional concerts. “We are very aware that in the digital reality of the 21st Century our audiences have access to all genres of music,” he says. “If we can create relationships between electronic dance music and classical music, we can show them the lines are blurred and perhaps nonexistent.”
Creating connections between classical and more popular music could be crucial. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts and the League of American Orchestras show the percentage of Americans of all ages who attend classical music performances, as well as other arts events, has been declining for more than 25 years, most sharply between 2002 and 2008. And the classical music audience has been getting older faster the rest of the population. Its median age in 1982 was 40, just one year older than the general population, but by 2008 it was 49, four years older than the U.S. median.
New World is at the forefront of experimental efforts to find new audiences, says orchestra league president Jesse Rosen, but it’s not alone. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has staged late-night raves, the Memphis Symphony has performed in blues clubs and incorporated rappers and dancers, and the Indianapolis Symphony has a happy-hour program.
“Part of what keeps an art form alive is it has to keep evolving and changing,” Rosen says. The Pulse effort “strikes me as a very natural evolution of the art form, which is what it needs to do to stay connected to the public, so I think it’s a wonderful thing. It could also fail, which is fine. The good thing is trying different ways of presenting and combining music.”
The combination of classical and electronic in Pulse was conceived by Bay Area composer Mason Bates for events he calls Mercury Soul. Bates, 34, first encountered and began spinning club music in the mid ’90s while studying composition at New York’s famed Juilliard Conservatory. He found similarities in the focus on pure sound, the lack of lyrics and vocalists and a sensibility that eschews musical formulas.
“In electronica the harmonies, the beautiful textures, the rhythms have to bump up,” he says. “Putting that in a field like classical that is so focused on a hyper-listening vibe, I realized the possibilities were huge. If you imagine your orchestra as the world’s biggest synthesizer, it starts to click a little bit more. … It’s like welcome back to the future.”
Bates has built a successful career on mixing the two genres. His orchestral compositions with electronic-music elements have been performed by the Chicago and San Francisco symphonies, where he has been a resident composer, and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.
He DJ’s and selects the live music for Pulse and Mercury Soul events, collaborating with conductor Benjamin Schwartz and designer Anne Patterson at venues that have included Chicago and Bay Area clubs. The musical selections, both electronic and classical, tend to be cutting edge; Friday’s Pulse includes pieces by contemporary composers Thomas Ades, Nigel Westlake and John Adams.
While part of Bates’ goal is to jolt listeners into hearing music in new ways, he also aims to make that experience a deep one. “For us to make this work, it has to be something that stands on its own legs musically,” he says. “You want it to be the real thing.”
For some, however, Pulse can’t be the “real thing” if it dilutes the classical-music listening experience.
“I think a lot of people are attracted by the social or club atmosphere,” says Lawrence A. Johnson, critic and founder of Chicago Classical Review and South Florida Classical Review, which provides stories and reviews to The Miami Herald.
“Whether people who attend events like this will also attend an unplugged Brahms symphony is another question. I like the idea. And anything that gets new audiences or young people interested in classical music is great. But if people are talking and drinking, then they’re not really listening closely, and it becomes background music. I’m not sure this combination produces terrific music, and ultimately it’s th
e quality of music that brings people back.”
To Bates, talking and drinking don’t have to get in the way.
“If you’re someone who gives people dirty looks for clapping between movements at a Mahler symphony, then this is not for you,” he says. “But the vast majority of musicians are thrilled to see this art form can withstand a hell of a lot of production and change and people hanging out. The novelty might draw people in, but once they’re part of it I think it’s hard to feel you didn’t experience something very exciting.”
Herring acknowledges that some classical music lovers are never going to enjoy their Mozart with a martini, at least not in a concert hall. But catering to the curious doesn’t mean abandoning the purists, he says, and events like Pulse will ultimately help classical music to grow.
“It will not harm or diminish our commitment to traditional forms of presentation,” Herring says. “The idea is to invite people to a new way of listening and experiencing the music, and what they do with that experience is up to them. I believe that eventually we will have several audiences, not just one, and that will be for the betterment of the audience, the art form and the musicians.”