TAITMAIL Despite the odds, orchestras are hooking new concert-goers

This weekend, for two nights, the enormous 40,000 seat La Defense arena - which doubles as a concert venue and a rugby stadium - will be filled with excited youngsters eager to hear, not a pop star or a rock group, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

They will be no ordinary concerts. For a start there will be 250 musicians and singers on stage, and as I write 37,000 tickets have been sold.

But the music is far from the standard repertoire of a British symphony orchestra. Under the baton of the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, the RPO’s new composer-in-association, the programme will include his music for the worldwide hit animated fantasy of last Christmas, The Boy and the Heron, Hayao Miyazaki’s creation for his famous Studio Gibli. It won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe, and grossed £140m.

It’s likely to be a wild confirmation of something the RPO has joyously discovered through its series of annual audience surveys: young people are discovering orchestral music and the concert hall experience, most of them for the first time. This is the modern young person’s guide to the orchestra, and its Albert Hall  presentation later this year is already a sell-out.

This week the RPO’s 2024 survey, rather awkwardly entitled Embracing the future with confidence: The Evolution of the Orchestral Audience in the Digital Age, surprisingly shows that, despite Covid, Brexit, inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, subsidy chops, more people are coming to hear orchestras now than before 2020 and the start of the chapter of disasters. And most of them have never been before.

“What’s been fascinating for us has been being able to track the sense of an upward trajectory in interest in orchestral music in the population as a whole” says James Williams, the RPO’s outgoing managing director. “It’s an incredibly positive picture this report has painted, about audiences coming to concerts, the demographic changing, the audience diversifying.

“For the first time we’re seeing more newcomers versus core attendees coming through the door – and it’s not that the core audience is reducing.”

These newcomers are not plunging into the deep end of large Mahler symphonies in their quest, but through new channel they are coming to the big music, Williams says. “We need to hook them in first”.

According to the report those new to orchestral music – last year’s report eschewed the word “classical” for “orchestral’” to  reflect the growing range of what the RPO perceived audiences are looking for – was up from 79% in 2018 to 84% last year; more significantly, those searching for new music genres has gone up sharply from 10% of audiences to 25% in a year; and the  new areas we’re looking for in our concerts are music from musicals, film soundtracks like for the Paris extravaganza, pop-classical crossovers, TV soundtracks, family-friendly concerts and video game (which are actually the subject for some concert programmes).

It says the newcomers account for 54% of the new audience, which is made up of five distinct groups: life-long classical music lovers, music students (who tend to go for modern and contemporary composers and are also aware of the importance of orchestral music to popular culture), new discoverers, casual fans and first timers.


Picture above of Joe Hisaishi, the RPO's composer-in-association, by Nick Rutter; main image of RPO by Ben Wright

And crucial has been the development of new technology since the pandemic. The survey finds that two thirds of adults had had their engagement with music changed by streaming, that young people are already au fait with media forms like augmented reality and video game soundtracks, and more than 60% of concert goers see the stage experience being completely different in ten years – how is a fascinating area of speculation.

So the RPO is, he says, curating its offer to be both in response to what it perceives this new audience wants as well as what the orchestra’s habitual followers have come to expect. The kids at La Defense this weekend may not have heard of Brahms yet but the RPO’s reading of the research suggests that they’ll come to it.

There is risk to this strategy, and in June the orchestra will discover whether their ploy to take back control of its own box office will work with its music director conducting a Sunday afternoon concert of Rachmaninoff and Elgar at the Royal Festival Hall with all tickets £15.

Those who came to orchestral music online during the pandemic are largely still there, many of them translated into live audiences - and whatever the future technology might offer live audiences will always be essential. The RPO is talking to web developers about how to adapt augmented reality for live performance.

The ensembles all know the dangers and the imperatives, and are listening and learning from each other, especially in the realms of health, community development and education.

Gaps in music education is another element that’s affecting the industry, and most of the newcomers to the audience are not coming from school experiences but through having their imaginations fired online. This autumn Williams is moving on to be director of the Royal College of Music and he sees the conservatoires, traditionally aloof to the non-professional music making, having liaisons with the Arts Council’s music education hubs on, for instance, career development. The problem, he thinks, remains that the departments of culture and education don’t talk to each other.

And the other problems remain, the chief one now being what Williams calls the cultural ecology. “Orchestras are reliant on a such a range of stakeholders – promoters, venues, freelance musicians, subsidisers – and what’s dangerous is where bits of our ecology keep being taken out.

“There’s a very strong rhetoric coming from Westminster around levelling up yet we’re not seeing it. The culture secretary instructed the Arts Council to take a lot of money out of London, but (regional) local authorities are crashing and burning their cultural budgets so the supports aren’t there anymore. There’s not enough resources and we have to somehow ensure that elements of that ecology are not diminished enough to become destructive of the music industry.”

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