Speaker Spotlight: Ben Cameron on Audiences Beyond the Concert Hall

Where do we find audiences? In this post, Ben Cameron—Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—argues that the concert hall is only one place we should be looking. Ben Cameron joins us in San Francisco on Sunday, May 13 for our free Talking About Audiences event. Register today!

Ben CameronHow questions are framed inevitably guides and often limits our thinking. I am especially struck by the observation in this blog that “…the core orchestral presentation—a live, on-stage concert—is essentially unchanged over the past 100 years. Will that, can that, remain the case for the next 100 years?”—a “can” that seems to imply an aspiration to retain that format and an overall frame that provokes several questions of my own.

Are there reasons that the experience of the last 100 years should be definitive? While I do not work in the orchestral field and am not a musical scholar, I think I’m right when I say that the live onstage concert is quite different today than it was 200-300 years ago—a time when musicians played with the “house lights” up and the illusory division between musician and audience was less pronounced, when programming formats were a far more eclectic mix of popular and what we would today call “classical” music, when excerpts of pieces were often played without playing pieces in total, when audiences clapped between movements, when audiences were known to drink (often copiously) and sometimes even eat as musicians played, when audiences were not expected to sit in total silence or even to remain seated as the orchestra played—all practices that we would today define as anathema to the live on-stage concert format we tend to prioritize as optimal. The format, its ambience, and its rules governing audience behavior that we take for granted are but one chapter of a larger history but arguably should not be considered definitive or proscriptive.

And for whom has the live, on-stage concert been the core orchestral experience? As someone who grew up in a Southern state without a local orchestra, my core orchestral presentation was not the live concert. My allegiance to the symphonic repertoire was nurtured by Fantasia, Disney movies, Bugs Bunny cartoons (I still think of Elmer Fudd and his version of the Ring whenever I hear certain key phrases), the local classic radio station, and by recordings by von Karajan, Walter, Toscanini and others—all long before I ever sat in a hall and heard a live on-stage concert. Today, thanks to YouTube, DVD’s and broadcast, I can watch as well as listen to, not only the great MTT and San Francisco Symphony, but to Bernstein (who indeed was a pioneer in recognizing the incipient power of media and whose broadcasts and lectures do not meet the “core experience” definition), Kleiber and Sinopoli, to name a few. Indeed, Alan Brown, the audience researcher, has been heard to say that the environment in which most Americans experience classical music most significantly is the automobile—especially given the ability today to listen not only to radio but to CD’s and iPods through superb audio systems.

These observations, a bit tongue in cheek, perhaps, nevertheless are pointed in one direction: the live on-stage concert performance may be the core presentation for musicians, but it may well NOT be the core presentation for the audience. And in a moment of enormous change in the landscape in which the arts operate—changes in audience composition, in generational perceptual frameworks, in technological capabilities and more—we can either focus on preserving a narrow delivery system—the concert, with its attendant limits of seating capacity, price, and inconvenience– or we can focus on preserving and expanding to greater and greater numbers a spiritual experience.

For isn’t that really why we listen? To experience delight? Absorption? Rapture? Awe? Surrender? Waves of emotion that defy verbal description? In fact, isn’t one of the great benefits of the orchestral experience that it teaches us to listen more deeply, more sensitively, more attuned to nuance, shading, and more—capacities that surely have value in other areas of our lives. Indeed, I would argue that—especially in a time of disintegrating civic discourse, of demonization of others, of over simplification and sound bites– we need those very capacities more than ever if we wish to survive and prosper as a society in the future.

The concert format will survive, I think, but may well occupy a less dominant place in the way we think about sharing symphonic music. How might we move forward in fantastic new ways if, instead of asking how to preserve a format, we asked instead how we might promote deep listening—a quest in which the concert will play a part, but only a part, of the answer?

—Ben Cameron

Register today for our free Talking About Audiences event with Ben Cameron in San Francisco on Sunday, May 13.


  1. Rick Robinson says:

    Amen Ben! I’m glad you pointed out the need to step back a bit from worrying about “preserving the art” (what I call the “museum model”) and highlighting the living, breathing spirituality qualities of classical. I realized in recent years that we musicians are not in the MUSIC business but in the INSPIRATION business. That’s what people are looking for. And that means more than just playing the music and offering traditional (pure) concerts. Fortunately, it’s not either/or.

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