The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: An orchestra conductor suggests 10 ways to improve concerts. The Ear adds two more. | November 2, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently came across an opinion column about how to improve concerts and maybe generate bigger and younger audiences.


That is not such an unusual topic, especially these days when critics and professional musicians worry about the aging and diminishing audiences for classical music.

But what made this column particularly interesting and relevant is that it comes from an orchestra conductor: Baldur Bronniman (below).

Baldur Bronniman

But before you get to his 10 ways to improve concerts — including allowing certain uses of an iPhone or other smart phone — The Ear wants to add two of his own:

MAKE CONCERTS CHEAPER. (Ticket prices too often reflect the income gap or wealth gap, and seem less and less middle class.)

MAKE CONCERTS SHORTER. (About 90 minutes with no intermission is what The Ear hears a lot of people say, and he often agrees. Of course this is difficult to do with some things like longer symphonies by Gustav Mahler or Anton Bruckner or operas.)

The first is a function of the current economic circumstances that go back almost a decade.

The second is a function of technology, which encourages a shorter attention span and multi-tasking, and hectic personal schedules, for both work and personal activities, with too many things to do and too little time to do them in.

Now, here are the other 10 ways to improve concerts and some reactions. Read them and see what you think.

And here are reactions to the original list:

Then let us know what you think of those suggestions and whether you have suggestions or recommendations of your town.

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. I recently had a personal experience with one of these ideas and it did NOT enhance the concert. I took an international student to an MSO concert and despite my informing him cell phones could not be used, and no texting, he soon had his phone out. There was no sound, but the light was very distracting, breaking my concentration, and I’m sure, others around him. I had to place my hand over the screen, and during the break try to convince him that he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t convinced but agreed he wouldn’t do it again. If you allow them a little electronics they will try a lot.

    Definitely no drinks. They make noise when they are set down and more when the person in front of you gets an ice bath.

    Crying kids? Not at my concert! I love to see children of seven, eight or ten engrossed in a concert, but too young children can neither appreciate nor understand what is going on and can be a major distraction.

    I enjoying seeing the formal wear but would accept dark long shirt tees, or perhaps even a red hankie in the jacket breast pocket. I do not see how dress is going to attract new audiences, except perhaps if it is exposing a lot of flesh. Do we want this to be the attraction, and not the music?

    I like Jake’s two ideas but do not believe the others are necessary, and some are just a plain bad idea.

    Daryl Sherman

    Comment by Daryl K. Sherman — November 4, 2014 @ 10:44 am

  2. As someone who has performed and sat through thousands of concerts, I think the proposals by Maestro Bronnimon are not very good ones.
    1. Clapping at the end of movements. This isn’t really going to change much about the audience, orchestra relationship. And why not keep it for the end? It could be disruptive to the orchestra/performers.
    2. Tune the orchestra backstage? This is really nonsense. I love the sound of the orchestra tuning up and they are silent for some time before the beginning piece anyway so his rationale makes no sense.
    3. Allowing mobile phones to be used in a silent function. This is the one I most dislike. If you are so indifferent to the music being played as to use your phone, why are you even attending the concert? And this will be disruptive to other people even if you are in a “silent mode”. This is stupid!
    4. Programs should be less predictable. I understand what he is saying but audiences love to hear the old “warhorses” for a reason. i suggest instead, a well known work coupled with perhaps shorter, and less well known pieces: but that is done routinely today.
    5. Allowing people to take drinks inside. Nope. That too has the potential for disrupting others (“sorry about spilling my coffee on your tuxedo, but just think of the new freedoms we have”!). This is another “dumbing down” proposal (like #3) that makes little sense.
    6. Agree that artists should engage with the audience. Here’s something simple: if you play an encore, announce it to the audience. Maybe even explain why you chose it. I like the idea of “mixers” after the concert with audience and performers together.
    7. I understand but like the idea of this kind of formalism. Yes it’s old school but it also means you are going to see something out of the ordinary. I’d hate to see an orchestra in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
    8. Sorry, I have no sympathy for taking babies to concerts. They should be banned. Noisy and they do disrupt others. Families are fine, but they don’t mix with such performances. Spend a few bucks extra on a babysitter.
    9. On the use of more technology, he is not specific enough to respond to this.
    10. All programs should have a comtemporary piece. Why? There are plenty of pieces (very good ones) that are either by “minor” composers or are “minor” works by the majors. No need to force feed people with this.
    I would make these other suggestions to make classical music more accessible:
    1) concerts should be streamed live if sold out and if by students/music school performers and also archived for just a small fee for users. This would be a great way for UW Music to raise some money and expand its imprint. This was done effectively with the Yo Yo Ma Concert (but that should have been archived too and made available afterwards, especially since the performers charged such a hefty fee);
    2) the MSO should be offering more concerts (not less) than they currently do. They have almost nothing programmed for November and December. With great facilities, use them more and bring in more people.
    3) expand talks (at a low cost or free ) about classical music to the public. Perhaps before a concert series or concerts. This is done to some extent now but could be enlarged.
    4) set aside more “cheap tickets” for students and seniors.
    5) program more often local talent and less often the highly expensive international “stars”. “Stars” are wonderful and have their place, but open more performances up to local and young performers.
    6) expand the programs whereby concerts (and audiences) pick new and upcoming talent.
    7) while I don’t like crying babies in audiences, have more programs especially for young people. Bernstein’s Young People Concerts were wonderful and educational. Try pursuing more of that.
    8) expand the ties between classical music organizations and media (like WPR) so there is MORE programming.
    9) try to make a break with the “star” system of conductors (that also drives ticket prices up). Maybe it is less essential today to have “a chief conductor” and a series of guest conductors might bring more flexibility to programming too.

    Comment by fflambeau — November 3, 2014 @ 1:44 am

  3. As a violist, who has played many concerts, I both agree and disagree with Bronniman’s list. Like Mikko, I’ll go down the list and give my reactions.

    1. Clapping between movements: Personally, I really don’t like it, but I understand where those who do do it are coming from. For me, it breaks up my concentration on the music, and when the piece is supposed to be played without a pause, as some are, it becomes a true interruption for everyone.

    2. Tuning backstage: Why? What’s the point? Lohengrin and Co. can arise out of the silence after the on-stage tuning just as well, if not better because one doesn’t have to sit and wait for the orchestra to get themselves all settled in their seats, with all the attendant chair wiggles and scrapings that entails.

    3. Mobile phones in silent mode: NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!! Not only are the lit-up screens disrupting, but there will ALWAYS be at least one person who doesn’t think that the “Silent Mode” restriction applies to them. And the price of the ticket, no matter how inflated, does NOT give you the right to make a recording or take pictures (especially since no-one will bother to turn the flash off in their camera app). The orchestra and the performance have already paid big bucks for those permissions, and they sign contracts to the effect that no recordings or pictures or videos may be made without prior written permission from the publisher/copyright holder.

    4. Programming predictability: True. Programs SHOULD be less predictable, but there stills needs to be something on there that will get those “butts in seats” (as we put it in roller derby), and that is going to be the tried and true pieces. Admittedly, only one of those is needed per concert program, but there still has to be some kind of connection between the pieces on the program to keep those butts in the seats and to bring them back for another concert once they’ve stayed for the first one.

    5. Drinks in the concert hall: Um, no. A classical music concert hall is not the place for your glass of beer or wine. And really, I don’t like having an extra shower when I’m sitting in my seat waiting for the music to start.

    6. Artist/audience engagement: Ideally, yes. But when it’s appropriate, not right before the soloist sits down to play that Rachmaninoff (or whomever’s) concerto. Having to break their concentration to banter with the audience isn’t good for the artist or the orchestra, let alone the music. After they have played, at intermission or after the concert, of course.

    7. Tails vs. no tails: Personally, I really don’t care if the orchestra is wearing tails or not, as long as they play well. I do think that there should be some kind of dress code (for want of a better term) for both the men and women on stage, mostly in terms of how much of what is showing, to avoid distraction from the real reason people (supposedly) go to concerts, i.e., to listen to good music.

    8. Family friendly concerts: Yes, but. I really think there should be a bottom age level under which children should not be attending, mostly because they simply don’t have the attention span needed for the majority of classical concerts. And yes, I do realize that this reasoning could be applied to other members of today’s audiences who (one would assume by virtue of their age), should have the necessary attention span, but don’t. There are concerts specifically geared to children (“Peter and the Wolf” and others like that), but at the same time, children should be trained in the ability to listen to the more non-programmatic pieces too.

    9. Cutting-edge technology in the concert hall: Most concert halls built today already have it. The older ones, in general, are being retro-fitted with it where possible, but it shouldn’t be something that is used for the concert, unless it is absolutely necessary. Let the music speak for itself.

    10. Every program should have a contemporary piece. I totally agree. I may not enjoy that piece, but I would argue to the death it’s right to be on that program. How else would we have future “warhorses”?

    Comment by bratschespeilerin — November 2, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

  4. Sure, if you want to bring drinks in, I don’t care. But many of the rest of these are simply not good ideas. I went down the list when someone posted this to Facebook – my thoughts, distilled, are:

    1. Sure, if this will actually help (I doubt it). If they like it, clap. But then again, for some music that would be horribly distracting and get in the way of the performance.
    2. Tuning backstage is good sometimes, but I remember loving the sound of an orchestra tuning when I was a kid. There’s something magical about the sound coalescing into something unified and beautiful that engages the ear. It is an unmistakable signal for ORCHESTRA CONCERT – what other kind of music has that? I found it entrancing.
    3. Absolutely not. It’s horribly distracting to the rest of the audience to have glowing screens all over the place (ruined Beethoven 9 two years ago at WCO for me), and introduces all sorts of legal issues with recording. You absolutely do not have the right to record something because you paid for a ticket.
    4. Sure, it’s a nice gimmick. I don’t think it’s necessary in the least, and I personally want to know what I heard for reference after the fact, but if you think it’ll engage your audience, go for it. Just be sure the listing is available SOMEWHERE.
    5. Great.
    6. Yes.
    7. Personally, I LOVE formal clothing. I think tails are awesome. And, as the article points out, I don’t think the orchestra’s image changes substantially because of what they wear. But again, if it actually brings in a bigger and more engaged audience (which would surprise me), then do it.
    8. Yes and no. I totally agree about having childcare available at concert halls, and preferably areas you can take a child that are visually clear but acoustically insulated. However, crying children can easily disrupt a concert, and pull you out of the piece. Just because this writer has never minded doesn’t mean most of us don’t, including the performers.
    9. I guess? If you can afford a videographer to have live footage of close-ups on a big screen, sure, go for it. If your hall’s acoustics suck, renovate – although I don’t think mikes should be the solution. But I want the concert hall to be a space we can unplug, personally, so I’d rather stay away from this – again, I don’t want people looking at their phones during my concerts or anyone else’s.
    10. I do this when I can, but mind you – it is VERY expensive. Many orchestras can’t do this, and it won’t actually bring in a young audience if the program is people they’ve never heard of; mostly it just alienates your old one.

    Another excellent response: “Classical concerts are great – stop apologizing for them!”

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — November 2, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    • I just read the Aaron Gervais piece and realized what classical concerts are missing! The mosh pit! We should be body-passing the conductor through the audience! That would surely make classical music relevant and attract a young audience. (Apologies to the young person whose post I am responding to – he is clearly not the audience we’re supposed to be trying to attract.)

      Comment by Steve Rankin — November 3, 2014 @ 10:53 am

  5. I don’t expect, nor would I, pop concerts or jazz clubs to become more like classical concerts; why should we think the reverse is a good idea? Some people enjoy both, some people enjoy one kind but not the others. Why do we need a musical equivalent of MacDonald’s so it’s the same everywhere we go? I go to classical concerts to hear complex music to which I have to pay close attention. Distracting audience behavior spoils the experience.

    What’s driving this is that producing classical concerts is expensive and ticket sales don’t begin to cover the costs. Larger audiences and lower priced tickets doesn’t accomplish much in the short term. The only thing that might really rescue classical music is a huge cultural shift in our society, and I don’t see that happening.

    Comment by slfiore — November 2, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  6. My pet peeve is cell phones, Ear. Even on silent mode, the light of the gizmo disturbs me, as well as someone obviously interested in something else. Go outside, I say. Ditto food and drink. Thanks for not spilling on me. I AM for applauding between movements if the performance was just so terrific you want to show your enthusiasm. Definitely yes to family friendly but not sure about crying babies. Please no hats, ladies, no perfume. Ah me. I sound difficult.

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — November 2, 2014 @ 8:22 am

  7. “No” to most of these suggestions. “Yes” to JS’s two ideas. Drinks, smartphones, modern music, family-friendly (?) applause inside movements, these are things which are not gonna make the experience any more amenable to our techno-population. The clothes are already changing, so that is not a new idea. Tuning backstage, what is wrong with being onstage? It shows how things are done. Talking to the audience is a totally individual thing. Many players are not there to speak, the music is supposed to do that. Conductors are not the sole representatives of an orchestra’s perspective.
    A lecture/performance is always billed as such.

    Comment by 88melter — November 2, 2014 @ 1:50 am

    • I agree with MBB above. Cheaper tickets would definitely help, as would slightly shorter performances. Even allowing drinks inside might be okay… The rest I found would do nothing to increase attendance by the young.

      The Isthmus and other papers sure could do a better job of covering classical music ahead of time so people could plan classical performances into their schedules. They give a heads-up for every type of music except classical. What a shame!

      Comment by john pass — November 2, 2014 @ 7:32 am

      • Hear, hear! The “Isthmus Picks” section seldom includes classical events and they seem to be opposed to publicizing classical events featuring young performers. I think being an advertiser helps for getting into that section.
        Cutting intermission while adding drinks may mean losing your audience to mid-concert bathroom breaks.

        Comment by Steve Rankin — November 3, 2014 @ 10:46 am

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