The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
The relationship between professional presentation and amateur participation may be the most urgent topic in the arts today. In Baltimore, some intrepid musicians are showing us a way back to the future.
Grim news about declining audiences from the SPPA and the new National Arts Index. Shrinking endowments. Contract renegotiations. Programming cutbacks. You might expect a struggling orchestra to pull out the film scores and bring on as many star soloists as it can afford, or reemphasize its musical excellence and world-class stature.
You might not expect it to invite a few hundred amateur musicians to join the professionals onstage without so much as an audition.
But that’s what the Baltimore Symphony did this week, thanks to Marin Alsop’s warm-blooded understanding of the participatory shift underway in contemporary culture. As Anne Midgette explains in yesterday’s article, Alsop decided to call a pair of concerts “Rusty Musicians with the BSO” and invite “anybody older than 25 who played an orchestral instrument and could read music” to “have a chance to perform serious orchestral repertory with the BSO players.”
It worked better than anyone suspected (judge for yourself), in part because most of the musicians are fairly serious amateurs who happen to work in other fields, and in part because the amateurs were interspersed with BSO players, often sharing a music stand just like regular desk partners.
All of which sounds pitch perfect to me. “Rusty” tells both the amateur musicians and the audience (tickets were $10) that it’s okay if things creak a bit, and it implies that the amateurs are different from the pros not because they’re intrinsically less talented or less worthy, but because they don’t practice as much and haven’t kept up their skills as assiduously.
The whole experiment conveys that we’re-in-this-together spirit, a lovely contrast to the vibe most nights in most concert halls. For the audience, the presence of amateurs onstage gives us a proxy for ourselves and reminds us that even the professional musicians are humans and individuals just like us — exactly the sense of connection that patrons have wished for in our research studies, and that many orchestras have been trying to create in their marketing materials and meet-the-musicians events.
There have always been amateur and community orchestras, of course, not to mention choruses of all kinds and plenty of private and social music-making. But for the last century or so, as both Midgette and Joshua Levine in a recent Newsweek piece note, the amateurs have been segregated from their professional cousins, or rather subordinated in a hierarchy that valued specialization and perfection over participation and conviviality.
Alsop’s Baltimore program and a few kindred initiatives around the field (like the gala concert of Bernstein’s Mass that will be sung mostly by amateurs at London’s Southbank Center in May) suggest that the wall between the two realms may be crumbling.
If so, it’s timely, because the same studies that show attendance declining for traditional arts categories like symphony-going and ballet attendance also show growth in the amateur dance and music scenes, not to mention painting, writing, and other manifestations of the expressive life.
Participatory engagement with the arts is coming back into balance with presentational engagement. As Levine observes, this is “less a new development than a return to an old way of life.”
Traditionalists will point out that, after the novelty wears off, nobody’s going to pay to hear a bunch of engineers and social workers play Elgar. But Alsop’s concerts weren’t about the audience, at least not the one in the house for those concerts. It was about giving a new audience a way of connecting with their local symphony. Midgette points out that most of the amateurs, despite playing orchestral instruments and loving classical music, didn’t attend the BSO frequently.
Which isn't surprising if you think about it. They didn’t have a place there. Now they’ve been given one, if only temporarily and symbolically. Let’s see what happens.
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