The first post-pandemic full season of Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts (WLCC) drew to a close with a beautiful rendition of Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, played by pianist and artistic director of the series, Duncan Honeybourne. This glorious piece of music was written by Schumann as a gift to his beloved Clara; for Duncan, playing it at the close of his concert, and the finale to the series’ 20th anniversary season, it also felt like a gift to our audience to thank them for their ongoing support.
I’ve been Concerts Manager for WLCC since November 2019. Shortly after I took over the role, the pandemic hit and we were forced to suspend all our performances. We resumed in a limited way in the autumn of 2021, presenting just two socially-distanced concerts before we were obliged to suspend the series once again. Throughout this time, our audience supported us, returning enthusiastically, though in vastly reduced numbers due to the constraints of socially-distanced performances (we could only allow 25 people in a church which normally seats 80), and adapting to new ways of doing things, including an online box office and advance booking system.
Having now completed my first proper season as Concerts Manager (absent a Christmas concert due to the omicron wave), I have seen at first hand the importance of trust between artistic director/organiser and the audience. In fact, it was my husband, who has been regularly attending WLCC concerts in recent months, who highlighted this significant aspect of the series’ success. Our audience place a great deal of trust in Duncan Honeybourne’s stewardship of and artistic vision for the series and because of this, they reward us with their loyalty, returning to the concerts month after month, regardless of who or what we are presenting.
So how does this trust manifest itself? For some audience members, Duncan is a friend, and this friendship fosters a sense of trust. He is also well-known and highly regarded in the local community, as well as in the wider British musical world, with a 20-year record of running WLCC, a reputation that counts for a lot. But I think above all it is Duncan’s unsnobbish, authentic and enthusiastic approach to music-making which makes audiences feel confident that they will enjoy the concerts. (And it’s worth noting at this point that the series specialises in presenting lesser-known and rarely-performed music and composers alongside classical favourites and well-known works.)
Promoters, programmes and audiences
As concert life returns to normal after covid, promoters and venue managers – and musicians too – need to rediscover or reconfirm a sense of trust with their audiences. From the most basic aspect of making people feel comfortable and safe when visiting the venue to the planning of programmes and featured repertoire, I believe a sense of trust should be cultivated at all times.
Unfortunately, it strikes me that some venues have a rather casual, untrusting attitude to their audiences, and I see this most clearly in the type of programmes being presented. I sense a certain unwillingness to trust audiences’ taste/discernment and instead to impose programmes, repertoire and composers on the audience. In some instances, especially with regard to contemporary music, a didactic, almost patronising attitude prevails – that one must listen to this music because “it is good for you” or because it has “an important message”. This misses the point of why, in general, people go to concerts: most of us want to escape the hectoring and finger-wagging of politicians, public health “experts”, commentators and others, at least for a few hours, rather than endure a polemic in music. And now, more than ever, because of the lack of live music over the past two years, many of us want to go to concerts to socialise as well. Concert managers and promoters need connect with their audience in such a way that shows they understand them: the most basic aspect of this is presenting the music the audience wants to hear. If you’re spending upwards of £25 on a concert ticket, in addition to the effort and expense of traveling to the venue, you probably want a guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the concert.
The anti-popular, anti-classical favourites advocates seek to impose their ideas of what audiences should be listening to and then wonder why tickets don’t sell and concert halls are half-empty.
Sadly, an attitude prevails in the contemporary music world in particular that the music matters far more than the audience and that considering the audience is an egregious form of pandering which devalues the “art”.
Music is there to be heard – a particular concern for contemporary classical music. But that music won’t be heard if the audience feels alienated but the way it is programmed and/or presented. Advocacy of new or neglected music is important, and audiences should be given the chance to hear that music for themselves. But in the end, however hard you argue a case for the music, audiences either will or won’t like the way it sounds, and there’s not much one can do about that!
A more trust-oriented way of doing things would be to plan programmes which include well-known repertoire as a “hook” to entice audiences, while also featuring more unusual, less familiar, rarely-performed, or contemporary music. Presented in a non-didactic way, audiences may enjoy the chance to discover new music, while hearing it alongside the more familiar. Thus, you can build a degree of trust with your audience by gradually expanding the repertoire alongside popular classical favourites. Open the concert with something familiar, so people don’t arrive late, then give them something new or less familiar. Programme another such piece after the interval but end with a box-office favourite so people stay to the end.
Musicians and audiences
The relationship between the musician and their audience is, or at least should be, founded on mutual trust.
If the audience doesn’t trust you, it won’t turn up for the concert. If there is no trust, people will be reluctant to listen to and engage with the performance – and, by the way, audiences are very good at sending whether or not the performer trusts them!
When I hear of A Famous Pianist complaining about audiences or insisting that they sit through 2-hour programmes without applause or a comfort break because that would “interrupt the flow” of the performance, or sneer at a perceived ignorance or lack of discernment in current audiences, I sense a lack of trust between performer and audience. In fact, this musician perhaps does not trust audiences at all, instead preferring to impose his will upon them.
Many performers are expert at creating a sense of connection and trust between themselves and audience from the moment they walk on stage – or even beforehand through posts and exchanges on social media (the British pianist Sir Stephen Hough is particularly skilled at this). Verbal and non-verbal cues can quickly set up a sense of shared experience and even friendship between artist and audience. Speak to the audience but in a language they can understand. Introduce the programme in a way that allows audiences to feel a connection to the performer – why is this music meaningful to them, for example? – rather than simply parrotting programme notes. Know your audience and where they’re coming from and respond accordingly. Show your gratitude to the audience – by playing encores (if appropriate) or by greeting them after the concert in the green room or at a CD signing, for example.
Concerts are a customer-facing activity, and while some may baulk at such a phrase in relation to classical music, accepting and understanding this can go a long way to making audiences feel welcome and trusting. Do more “Put the customer first”, and audiences will reward you with their support and loyalty.
Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash