Have you ever sat in the audience for a classical music concert and wished you understood the music better — even for a piece you were familiar with?
National Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor Emil de Cou feels your pain.
De Cou is writing a series of messages on Twitter designed to draw the audience into Thursday night’s NSO performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, better known as the “Pastoral Symphony,” at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, which is the summer home of the NSO. Wolf Trap is encouraging audience members on the outdoor lawn to follow on their cell phones during the concert.
Following a similar experiment in 2007 involving iTunes and podcasts, audience members who are interested in learning more about this symphonic work can follow the Wolf Trap Twitter feed. During the intermission of Thursday’s concert, tweets explaining the composer’s intent behind the music will be sent both to those at the live performance and for those playing the piece at home.
This particular work was not chosen by accident. Many pastoral symphonies were written before and after Beethoven’s time, but his remains the best known. It’s a genre that audiences of the 1800s were very familiar with — a context with its own musical themes that is largely lost to modern audiences. So sample tweets like “Measure 37: A grove of trees filled with singing birds” will give any listener a visual context to go with the performance.
Such efforts are not without critics who feel a classical music experience doesn’t need technological enhancement. De Cou, the NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor, thinks otherwise when it comes to engaging audiences. “If you do the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same result,” he said. Meanwhile, “the classical music audience gets smaller and smaller.”
Many orchestras, including the NSO, have looked to social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace) to engage with new, potential and particularly younger audiences with information like music trivia, ticket contests and concert notes. The difference with the Twitter effort is its “real time” nature.
In fact, what de Cou wants to accomplish this week is nothing short of a major shift in the classical music orchestral experience. He thinks of orchestral performance not as a finished object like a painting, but as a living, breathing, organic art form. “If you don’t give it lifeblood and change, Beethoven becomes like a butterfly stuck on a piece of Styrofoam,” he said. “People like to think of Beethoven as a bust on a piano, but I’d rather people think of him as a grungy foul-mouthed guy…to look at his music not as Holy Scripture, but as the primitive markings of some genius, and really make it come alive.”
Should the experiment go well, fans should expect similar things starting with next summer’s concert season. De Cou is looking for ways to allow for more audience interaction via technology, including voting for an encore selection. He would also like to produce a library of audience aids — he refers to them as being like “museum guides” — which audience members could take to any concert to break down the barriers of unfamiliar classical music.
In an era when every classical music institution is searching for ways to lure in new and younger audiences, breaking down as many walls as possible could be a good start. Newcomers to classical music may often feel out of place and may not return without some guidance.
Besides, said de Cou, “You know who would hate the snob audience? Beethoven.”