How to … create intimate and intense ‘classical music’ experiences

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How to … create intimate and intense ‘classical music’ experiences



An ensemble of violinists, guitarists, percussionists and guitarists perform on stage at Bridgewater Hall in front of a concert audience. They are backed by yellow and white lighting.
© The Oracle at Bridgewater Hall. Photo by Gaelle Beri

By Adam Szabo

SUMMARY

Adam Szabo reflects on his experience as Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Manchester Collective and what practical steps it is possible to take to shape audience experiences.

The focus of this guide is on classical music performances, although curators of all types of live performance may find synergies with their work and practice.

Within the guide, Stephanie Pitts, Professor of Music Education at the University of Sheffield, and Director of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre, also highlights some of the key academic research relating to classical music audience experience and the questions the research raises for practitioners.

Read the guide below, or download (PDF document) by clicking the button above.

Introduction

As curators of live music, we have two big decisions to make every time we put on a show:

1. What is the artistic content of the performance or event

2. How do we want that performance or event to feel?

For the last 200 years, the heritage classical sector has almost exclusively concerned itself with the first of these dimensions. Quite rightly, we have always placed great importance on the artistic decisions that govern repertoire, performers, interpretation, performance practice, structure, genre, and much else besides. We’re living through an exciting time in the classical world, where many of the conventions in these areas are being interrogated and, sometimes, overturned.

However, this is the subject of another guide altogether. Today, our subject is the second dimension: what should the experience of a performance or event feel like for those who attend, and how can we shape that experience?

In 2016, I founded an arts organisation called Manchester Collective. I was a practicing cellist and my co-founder Rakhi Singh was a brilliant violinist. We set out to build a company that would produce live shows with classical music at their heart. So far, so ordinary.

Our work at the Collective was motivated by a shared set of frustrations that Rakhi and I had with the heritage classical world. We felt that in the course of our careers, we were often asked to perform music drawn from a very small subset of the ‘classical’ repertoire – generally, music composed between about 1700 and 1925, written by one of a small number of white, male, European, and often German-speaking composers. Secondly, we had observed that the audiences we were performing this music to were overwhelmingly affluent, very white and very old.

We quickly realised that if we wanted to attract a more diverse audience for our newly minted Collective, we had to start creating work that looked and felt different to the work coming out of the classical mainstream. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The idea that curators of classical performances have a responsibility to proactively design events from an audience experience perspective is still far from mainstream. Indeed, if you were to press the mute button on some kind of cosmic remote control, most classical concerts would be virtually indistinguishable. Design conventions in mainstream, heritage classical music are extremely well established and almost universally adhered to.

For the enterprising curator of classical events, this low bar represents an opportunity: by making small, often inexpensive changes, we can radically alter the experiences that our audiences have at our concerts.

Intimate, intense concert experiences

Intimacy in concert design is about creating the impression of closeness between performer and audience member.

From the beginning, the design goal for 95% of our work was to create shows that felt personal, immediate and smaller than they actually were. We were interested in human connection: internally, we spoke about ‘sharing something you love with someone you care about’.

At a time when classical convention dictated that concerts took place in large halls, that musicians dressed in formal evening wear, that lighting was bright and uniform, that musicians did not speak as part of performances, we happily did the opposite in all of these areas and many more besides.


A different kind of classical concert…

Excerpt from ‘Sirocco’, a 2018 Manchester Collective collaboration with South African cellist Abel Selaocoe

Before we get to the design decisions that can help create intimacy and intensity in performances, I want to issue a health warning: none of what you are about to read is particularly novel or innovative by itself.

The way a live experience feels is shaped by hundreds of small decisions we make, often unconsciously. Each of these decisions is, on its own, banal and unimportant. However, through the cumulative effect of many of these decisions, we can significantly move the needle on how our shows feel for our audiences.

So, in no particular order, here are some key considerations when designing live classical events.


1. The physical arrangement of performers and audience members

This is a big one. Obviously, if your show is taking place in a traditional concert hall then your hands are tied when it comes to the setup of the venue. However, even in this scenario, the way that you "dress the hall" is important. Unless every seat in the house has been sold, think carefully about where to seat audience members.

At the Collective, it's unusual to open up sales in the circle (upstairs) until we've sold out all the seats in the stalls (downstairs). There is nothing worse than the feeling you get as an audience member when you're one of 650 concert attendees evenly distributed across a 2500-seat hall. As performers, we're trying to create energy and connection with the audience. This is very difficult if the front three rows are empty, and there are huge gaps between pockets of listeners.

Rosewood at The White Hotel © Chris Payne

When dealing with less formal concert spaces (gig venues, warehouses, outdoor spaces), we have much more freedom in how we design the seating. Generally, formality will work against intimacy. I used to be completely obsessed with straight lines of chairs – before doors opened, I could often be found out in the venue, moving each chair by a couple of centimetres to create uneven rows. The worst offenders in this regard are stackable chairs that connect to each other, locking into rigid rows. Embrace the chaos! If your seats are slightly less formally arranged, audience members will feel more relaxed.

If you can completely abandon the concept of rows of listeners facing rows of performers, even better. At The White Hotel in Salford, a somewhat notorious club that is a regular Manchester Collective touring destination, we perform on a stage in a corner of the room. In that venue, you often have audiences listening from three sides, making for a very special atmosphere. Arranging performers in looser ways is also an element to explore. We've long taken to standing rather than sitting where possible – we feel it gives the musicians a sense of physical freedom and an ability to move around the stage when appropriate.


2. Choice of venue

It's important to remember that as soon as audiences step into a traditional concert hall, they start making assumptions about what the work will be like. As curators and performers, we then have to work twice as hard to get them to unpick those assumptions and listen with fresh ears. Alternative venues do a lot of heavy lifting for you. The chain of classical convention has already been broken and audience members are ready for a different kind of experience.

What does the academic research tell us about new approaches to classical music?
By Stephanie Pitts, Professor of Music Education, University of Sheffield

Alternative presentation of classical music is still under-researched, and so the evidence of audience experiences of new ways of doing classical music is limited and in need of further study. Julia Haferkorn (2018) characterises the changes in classical music promotion since 2010 as "dancing to another tune", noting how Nonclassical, The Little Orchestra and other ensembles draw upon the practices of jazz, pop and rave music to create an environment that appeals to younger audiences.

The audience’s motivation to "make a night of it", as Sarah Price (2022) describes in her study of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Friday Night Classics, is often underestimated in the traditional presentation of concerts: the music is assumed to speak for itself - and indeed it does, very powerfully, to established concert-goers, while remaining inaccessible to people who would never consider going through the doors of an imposing, traditional concert venue.

The concert ritual of "still and silent listening", critiqued in Jonathan Gross’s (2013) ethnography of the BBC Proms, is not quite like anything else in modern life: for some listeners this has particular appeal, while for others it is hard to connect with. Taking the "audience eye view" (Pitts & Price, 2021) and thinking about where a concert-going experience fits with the rest of an audience member’s life is a potentially useful frame for classical music promoters. For established audiences, it fits with an existing love and knowledge of the "canon", and the challenge is to stretch that experience a little further with new and diverse repertoire.

For new and younger audiences, the cultural references will be different, and the expectations of how to spend an enjoyable evening might include informality, a chance to chat with friends, and a sense of connection with the performers.

 

Bold Tendencies © Louisa Rechenbach


3. Lighting

When it comes to lighting design, consider making aesthetic decisions that amplify the emotional narrative of the music. Traditional concert lighting does not usually play an artistic role – white or amber stage washes are a neutral design choice, serving only to illuminate the space in which the musicians are performing.

If we embrace lighting design as a key artistic aspect of producing shows, then suddenly we have a range of exciting decisions to make. Would this quiet passage feel even more mysterious in a low, half-light? Could a spectacular musical climax be even more effective if supported by a blaze of shining, heavenly light?

This all said, in our experience, less is usually more when it comes to lighting design. Our shows are primarily about the music, and I believe lighting should support, but not upstage, what is going on musically. We tend to avoid having a consistently low level of light on stage; I want the audience to be able to see the faces and expressions of the performers. A bit of haze always makes everything look better, but beware, as some older haze machines are very noisy. Always use a water-based haze fluid. If you're touring, having a simple lighting package with you is handy and can save you from nasty surprises when you get to the venue.


4. Dress

Uniforms reduce visual differences between people on stage. In general, I tend to be in favour of drawing attention to visual diversity and personality rather than seeking to negate it wherever possible. Formalwear on stage can create a lovely sense of occasion but often works against our desire to create an intimate concert environment.

There is no artistic or musical reason musicians shouldn't be allowed to wear clothes they feel comfortable in. Gender-neutral dress codes are the future and have already been adopted in many orchestras worldwide.

Like lights, dress offers us an artistic opportunity to tell the audience something about the work that they are watching. What story do you want to tell? How do you want the listeners to feel?

Black Angels at Lakeside Arts © Alan Fletcher


5. Front-of-house staff

This includes ushers, box office, cloakroom and bar staff but also management personnel and anyone else "working" at the event. The way these professionals interact with audience members is hugely important. To create an informal, relaxed and intimate environment, these interactions need to be personal, compassionate and clear. Making sure that staff are properly briefed on the impression we are trying to create is essential. When we speak with members of the audience, our job is to help them to have the best possible time at the event.

What can researchers and evaluators learn from front-of-house staff?
By Stephanie Pitts, Professor of Music Education, University of Sheffield

Front-of-house staff have insights on classical music performance that are very often overlooked in research and practice. They know their audiences, can spot the familiar faces, listen to the post-concert conversations, and feel the vibe after an exhilarating or disappointing performance. They are the best-positioned ethnographers or intelligence gatherers that any researcher or marketing director could hope for - and yet they are under-valued in this role in all but a few cases. 

An insightful exception is Stefania Donini’s (2022) ethnography of the public foyer spaces in the Barbican Centre, London, where the flow of people through the building includes not just those who become "bums on seats", but those who pause to listen to informal performances, encountered deliberately or accidentally. Ben Walmsley (2018) calls this "deep hanging out" - paying attention as a researcher to the public space and the people within it, rather than being entirely fixated on the performance event. There is much to learn, after all, from people who come into a concert venue and then leave. 


6. Silence

Funeral parlours, art galleries and concert halls – these are all places that I have felt extremely uncomfortable in the past due to awkward silences combined with nervous whispering.

Creating a relaxed atmosphere at a show is important. Either hold back on opening the doors to the venue until there are enough people ready to come in and create a comfortable base level of chat, or generate some other sound in the hall before the show is due to start – music, field recordings, you name it.

It's worth mentioning that some audience members hate hearing recorded music in concert halls. However, for attendees who are not accustomed to spending time in traditional arts venues, a bit of background music can help them feel more comfortable.


7. The 'fourth wall'

When performers speak, make eye contact and share space with audiences, it all helps create the impression that the performance is a shared experience. Don't ignore your audience. There is nothing stranger than a musician pretending that there aren't 800 people in the room, watching their every move.


8. How we speak and what we talk about

If the goal is to create experiences that feel inclusive and intimate, then the use of accessible language is paramount. Musical jargon should be avoided or explained. Musical terms in other languages should be defined. Nobody wants to feel stupid, and it’s very easy to feel alienated if everyone else in the room is nodding sagely as the performer talks about an "allegro ma non troppo" movement.

In our shows, we have always embraced the subjective over the objective when it comes to speaking about music. I’m interested in personal stories, opinions, conjecture and gossip. I’m not really interested in birth dates, cities or harmonic analyses. A smile and a welcome go a long way. Audiences connect with people, not with facts.

To talk or not to talk? What does the research tell us?
By Stephanie Pitts, Professor of Music Education, University of Sheffield

Hearing performers talk is a feature of concerts that is appreciated by audiences at Music in the Round in Sheffield, where my students and I have undertaken various research projects with new and established audience members (e.g. Pitts, 2005; Pitts & Spencer, 2008; Pitts, 2015; Dearn, 2017). The communication from the performing area - not a raised stage, but the floor between the "in the round" seating that gave the concert series its name - helps to create a feeling of "knowing" the performers. Audiences form a sense of connection by hearing about their musical enthusiasms, gaining insight on the rehearsal process, or learning their foibles (like the time the violinist apologised for the security tag on his jacket, purchased in haste after a lost luggage incident). 

Yet the talking has to be done well if it is to draw the audience in: it needs to be welcoming, not exclusive, to judge the level of musical experience so that it is informative, but not patronising, and to make the performers feel like people the audience members are glad to spend an evening with. This is all an additional demand for the performers, who are about to concentrate on playing and might find the change of focus a huge distraction. 

The pianist Susan Tomes (2012) recounts conversations with fellow performers who feel "more vulnerable" when talking than when playing: they find their concentration "frazzled" and while fully recognising the value of talking for the audience, it takes different kinds of brain power than performing, not to mention being a skill that is better suited to some personalities than others.

 

An ensemble of violinists, guitarists, percussionists and guitarists perform on stage at Bridgewater Hall in front of a concert audience. They are backed by yellow and white lighting.The Oracle at Bridgewater Hall © Gaelle Berri


9. Jeopardy

Audiences are fascinated by danger in live performance. As listeners, we’re attracted to high-stakes work, high-wire performance and artistic risk-taking. Polish, security and professionalism can sometimes work against us here.

If there are safe ways to keep a little human chaos in the work, to keep it risky, then it might not be a bad idea. Audiences are not interested in watching robots perform. We’re attracted to the human.


Summary

This list scratches the surface of the many ways in which we can curate the experiences our audiences have. Producing audience-focused work is all about the small details, but the potential upside is huge – especially for culturally aware non-attenders who may be used to more progressive arts events.

Intimacy and scale are not mutually exclusive. One of the most exciting artistic challenges that we have faced is how to create a personal and relaxed environment in vast, formal spaces – at the Royal Albert Hall, for example. It is not impossible – contemporary touring acts do it all the time.

After all, if Taylor Swift can have an entire arena eating out of the palm of her hand, then surely we can figure out how to create more human connections with our audiences in the concert hall.


Reflective questions

• In your own work, think through the conventions that inform the way things are usually done. Some of these traditional ways of working will exist for very good reasons; others may not be as useful as they once were. Common practice is not always best practice.

• What gets between you and your audience? How can you remove barriers and increase connection?

• Call three people who currently engage with the work you create, and ask them what one thing they would change to improve the audience experience. You may be surprised at the responses. If two or more people come back with the same suggestion, you should give it very serious thought.


Further reading

Gross, J. (2013). Concert going in everyday life: An ethnography of still and silent listening at the BBC Proms (Doctoral dissertation, Birkbeck, University of London).

Haferkorn, J. (2018). Dancing to another tune: classical music in nightclubs and other non-traditional venues, In C. Dromey & J. Haferkorn, The Classical Music Industry (pp. 148-182), Taylor & Francis.

Pitts, S. E. & Price, S. M. (2021) Understanding audience engagement in the contemporary arts. Routledge.

Price, S. M. (2022). In defence of the familiar: understanding conservatism in concert selection amongst classical music audiences. Musicae Scientiae, 26(2), 243–258. https://doi.org/10.1177/1029864920940034

Donini, S. (2022). Thresholds. In M. Reason, L. Conner, K. Johanson, and B. Walmsley (Eds) Routledge Companion to Audiences and the Performing Arts (pp. 522-528). Routledge.

Walmsley, B. (2018). Deep hanging out in the arts: an anthropological approach to capturing cultural value. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 24(2), 272-291.

Pitts, S. E. (2005). What makes an audience? Investigating the roles and experiences of listeners at a chamber music festival. Music and Letters, 86 (2), 257-269.   

Pitts, S. E.  (2015). On the edge of their seats: Comparing first impressions and regular attendance in arts audiences. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1175–92. 

Pitts, S. E.,  Spencer, C. P. (2008). Loyalty and longevity in audience listening: investigating experiences of attendance at a chamber music festival. Music and Letters, 89 (2), 227-238.

Tomes, S. (2012) To talk or not to talk. Retrieved 21st September 2023 from http://www.susantomes.com/talk-talk/


About the contributor

Adam Szabo is the newly appointed Director of the BBC Philharmonic. Until December 2023, Adam was the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Manchester Collective. Known for their experimental programming and daring collaborations, the work of Manchester Collective has expanded at breakneck speed since their formation in 2016. They now play in concert halls, warehouses and factory spaces across the UK, Europe and the USA, performing a combination of cutting-edge contemporary music, classical masterpieces and staged work to a hungry, new audience.

Twitter: @szabo_music / @manc_collective

Instagram: @szaboadam / @manchestercollective

Published: 2023
Resource type: Research