There is a lot of talk in classical music about audience engagement and getting new, namely younger and more diverse, faces in the seats at concerts. Generally anytime I hear the new audience conversation it ends up with something like this: Yes, we need and want new audiences. Yes, we’re struggling to reach them. No, we haven’t figured out the perfect formula to get and retain new listeners.
On Sunday, my attendance at the Chicago Philharmonic’s concert Speck-tacular Beethoven was really fantastic example of audience engagement, and one of the better I’ve seen. It all started with the programming.
My friend who was at the concert with me was the first to notice how diverse the lineup of performers and music was. From Beethoven to a contemporary tuba piece and the always dramatic and romantic Camille Saint-Saens, there was literally an endless opportunity to engage with the wildly different pieces. I was excited for the performance before conductor Scott Speck and the orchestra even played a note.
But the diverse programming wasn’t the only thing that kept the audience’s attention, but also the performance by conductor Scott Speck, whose first time with the Chicago Philharmonic certainly won’t be his last. The author of Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies has often been reviewed as “energetic” and “masterful”. I’m adding warm and welcoming to the mix. His friendly attitude and approachable style made the concert feel more like a conversation and like we weren’t being played “at” but played “for”, a very distinct difference. Speck’s enthusiasm for the works was as infectious for the Chicago Philharmonic as it was for the audience, based on their performance and the latter’s applause.
There were a few extra details about the performance that made things particularly interesting, including the surprise announcement that the tuba played for Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Tuba Concerto in F minor was the one the piece was premiered on. And right before the performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Speck brought local audiologist Brian Urban on stage to talk about the impact of Beethoven’s hearing loss on the creation of the symphony. The symphony is often performed and easily accessible, but the new context for the familiar piece made me, and the audience based on their overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction, listen to the famous symphony with heightened attention. It was a nice touch.
As for the actual performance, the Chicago Philharmonic performed, as they usually do, beautifully. The energetic burst in the overture to Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, started the concert off on an enthusiastic foot. Rex Martin’s performance of Ralph Vaughn-Williams’s tuba piece was impressive and proved to be one of the most fun pieces to watch because Martin performed so well and made a not-so-typical piece--with its almost primitive sounds and unusual chords--fill the entire concert hall in a way that felt new and easy to understand.
Lyric Opera’s concertmaster Robert Hanford, violin in hand, took Camille Saint-Saens's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso head on and did a beautiful job making an already emotional piece resonate deeply. Announcing the pieces from the stage, Speck laughed that Saint-Saens usually didn’t have a hard time composing music, and Hanford made the complicated piece look effortless in his performance.
As the classical music novice that I am, I am encouraged by Sunday’s performance where the programming was right on, the performance by Speck impeccable and accessible, and the performers were there to really engage listeners in new ways. The little extra context and truly welcoming performance made me wonder if this is the right recipe to get new faces engaged in live classical music—and judging by the students and number of families in the seats, my guess is that it’s a good start.