Recently I was contacted by a marketing company working for superstar Dutch violinist, composer and concert master André Rieu. In addition to inviting me to review Andre’s latest CD ‘Roman Holiday’, I was also asked if I might help advertise “André Rieu themed parties”.
For many “serious” classical music fans, André Rieu epitomises high schmalz and low culture: the Disney-esque concert master with the curly mullet, his concerts brimming with Viennese waltzes and polkas, the women in his orchestra resplendent in bouffant crinolines. Ye gods! The man even has his own tv series on Sky Arts. However, for many people he also represents an accessible way into classical music: his concerts sell out, he makes millions in CD sales, he has undeniably clever and powerful marketing and PR. The latest strand in the André Rieu empire is “themed parties” where, presumably, people sit around listening to his new CD (mullets and crinolines not necessarily obligatory). Whilst enjoying a joint guffaw with my musician friends and colleagues on Facebook, a number of people suggesting that these parties might be like updated Tupperware or Anne Summers parties which take place “guiltily behind closed doors”, the idea of a classical music themed party began to gain some credence – for me at least…..
How to engage new audiences is a constant preoccupation of almost everyone in the classical music industry. Many things have been tried, from The Late Shift (classical music in a pub) and Speed Dating with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to performers eschewing formal clothing in favour of comfy sneakers and jeans and swearing a lot while talking about Bach’s sex life, or asking the audience to pay only what they think the concert is worth (a recent initiative from the Hallé). These days you can enjoy contemporary classical music in a carpark, or Baroque music in a semi-ruined church (The Asylum in Peckham). I’ve hosted and performed in several concerts at Brunswick House, part of the London Architectural Salvage & Supply Co, where you can buy the chair on which you are sitting, or even the piano, as everything in the building is for sale.
Performers, promoters and concert organisers are constantly trying to find new ways to rebrand the notion that most classical music was written by “dead white males” to sex it up for new audiences and the younger generation. Trouble is, the younger generation can spot an older person trying to get on down with the kids a mile off, or recognise when they are being patronised – and to be honest, classical music doesn’t really need sexing up: it’s quite sexy – and exciting and varied and heart-stoppingly wonderful – enough as it is.
Is the idea of a “themed party” where one enjoys classical music really such a preposterous one? Once upon a time there were record clubs where people met to listen to LPs and enjoy and discuss the music/performers they heard. If not André Rieu, what about a Philip Glass themed party, or a Mozart party (with the option to wear powdered wigs and brocade waistcoats), or a Messiaen party where we all wear shades of mauve and orange with flashes of sky blue? Joking apart, such events could be another way to engage new audiences by allowing people to sample classical music in an informal setting (someone’s home or a small intimate venue), where there is no etiquette (beyond good manners), no need to worry about clapping at the wrong time, or not knowing enough about the Second Viennese School….. (In fact, this notion is not so far removed from something I was involved in until recently – the London Piano Meetup Group, an informal group of pianists and piano fans who met in various venues to perform, share repertoire and generally rave about what we love about the piano and it’s literature.) You see, I believe that if people are allowed to explore classical music on their own terms in a friendly and unpretentious environment, they might just consider buying a ticket to a concert at the Southbank or Wigmore Hall. In some ways, it’s just about giving them to confidence to make that leap from living room to Leipzig Gewandhaus…..
Returning to Mr Rieu, here is an intelligent and entertaining article on what mainstream classical musicians and orchestras might learn from André. After all, he must be doing something right, given his full houses and million-dollar CD sales….. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
More on engaging audiences for classical music here