Here’s My Program—Where Do I Fit?

by Edna Landau

To ask a question please write Ask Edna.

Dear Edna:

So wonderful of you to take questions!

I run an ensemble called “Ljova and the Kontraband” which primarily performs its own original music. Its sound is informed by the classical, folk, jazz and world music traditions.

Whenever I hear an artist speak about music they’d like to perform or compose, the conversation often touches upon the concept of “genre” in music, and borders between musical genres (classical/jazz/opera/musical theatre, etc.). Artists feel confined and want to tear down these borders to create music that draws on a variety of influences and backgrounds. It seems that presenters have a similar mind. They just want to present that which is good and hope that the audiences will follow. How important is genre to an audience?—Lev Zhurbin

Dear Lev:

Thanks for your insightful and very interesting question.

One of the reasons that artists are so fortunate to be concertizing at this time is that boundaries separating various genres of music are, in fact, less defined than ever before. Presenters know more about their audiences than they did in the past and are more willing to take chances in order to grow those audiences. They are also communicating more personally and directly with them and, consequently, building greater trust that everything they are presenting is compelling and worth hearing, regardless of genre. The icing on the cake is that journalists who have spent a large part of their careers reviewing traditional classical music concerts seem ecstatic about reviewing programs that draw from various musical genres.

That said, I did a rather hasty, informal survey of some long-time concert presenters’ season offerings and found that they still divide their performances into series with the traditional titles you would expect, such as Chamber Series, Jazz Series, Orchestra Series, and the like. I smiled broadly when I saw the University of California Santa Barbara’s “Out of the Box Series”, which offered, among others, Kayhan Kalhor with Brooklyn Rider, and the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Many presenters put such groups on a “Special Events” series. What this underscores for me is that artists can be as adventurous as they like in their performances, “drawing on a variety of influences” (as you have written), but if their music can’t be easily classified and if it doesn’t fall into one of the usual categories, they may be competing with others for very limited spots. Presenters may be eager to widen the spectrum of their offerings but they don’t want to take their audience by surprise if they are expecting traditional fare. (This means that it may take a while before you see your group included on a Chamber Music Series alongside the Pacifica Quartet!). One solution that some have embraced is to list all presentations as single events and give ticket buyers the opportunity to create their own series.

It is inevitable that some concertgoers will not be interested in buying tickets for music with which they are unfamiliar. They might prefer to hear excellent performances of music they already know or which has been written by composers they recognize. To those people, genre is all-important.  For the others, what matters most is the promise of a fresh, entertaining, enlightening (you choose the adjective) experience. If a group or its programming is new to a city, it is probably beneficial for the presenter and the artists (or their manager) to speak in advance about how to advertise the event and communicate directly about it to subscribers, perhaps in the artists’ own words. If they receive such a letter in the months or weeks prior to an event, they are likely to enter the concert hall already feeling a bond with the artists and anticipating how their words will come alive on stage. It might also be beneficial for the artists to offer their own program notes or to consider giving brief introductions to at least some of the works on the program, in lieu of program notes.

In the end, what matters most is the quality of the artists’ performance and their ability to communicate their excitement over the chosen program in an irresistible way. Once that happens, it ensures that audience and presenter alike will share news of their happy and stimulating experience with their friends and colleagues so that, eventually, substantial word of mouth has built up about your group and it hardly matters what genre describes you, or where you fit.

To ask a question please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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