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Anti-Aging Strategies

March 23, 2009

Arts organizations -- especially ones commonly viewed as being harbingers of "high art" (whatever that means) -- have been tackling the problem of how to "stay relevant" (whatever that means) in the face of aging audiences, dwindling ticket sales and disappearing media coverage for some time now.

New York's Metropolitan Opera is renovating the operatic artform by bringing in top-tier theatre directors like Mary Zimmerman and the late Anthony Minghella with visionary approaches to staging, and drawing crowds from all over the country with high definition screenings of opera productions.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony are going for innovative programming to revamp the classical concert format. Last week, I blogged about the LA Phil's collaboration with French electronica artist M83. Though I had reservations about the concert from a musical perspective, I was impressed by how full Disney Hall was on the night of the event and how young the concert goers looked.

On Friday, I got a chance to sample one of San Francisco Symphony's strategies for giving classical concertgoing a new lease of life. Davies After Hours, a new, free program by SF Symphony, is basically a musical after-party following a mainstage concert event. After a memorable performance conducted by Nicola Luisotti of Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bloch's cello concerto, Schelomo (Michael Grebanier, soloist) and Brahm'sSymphony No. 4 in the main auditorium of Davies Concert Hall, hundreds of audience members flowed up to the Second Tier Lobby for the After Hours event.

At first, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the crowds. I couldn't hear the music, getting anywhere near the bar seemed out of the question and people were jammed into what seemed to be an extremely small space, like the neck of a bottle. It felt very claustrophobic and I wondered whether the organization had thought the event through properly from a logistics perspective.

But once I managed to get past the initial clump of After Party-ers, things became much more manageable. I found a spot right in front of a small stage at the far end of the lobby and plunked myself down on the carpet cross-legged just as cellist Alex Kelly (pictured above) was starting up his set. Kelly is an extremely versatile player whose unusual repertoire is perfect for an intimate setting like the one proffered by the Symphony on Friday night. The cellist played several of his own compositions which varied from pieces that sounded like whalesong to muscular, rhythmic works with a driving blues bassline. Kelly creates dense textures by using loop pedals, a keyboard and a laptop. His repertoire was particularly interesting because it featured several pieces composed directly in response to works we had heard in the concert hall earlier on in the evening. As a result, he had a captive audience of at least a hundred people. And many more stood back or on the sidelines, half-listening and half-chatting, as at a music club.

Following the solo set, Kelly was joined by the Mark Growden Sextet. The ensemble's eclectic output of spiraling blues, folk-rock and klezmer numbers, many of them love songs, included everything from a solo played by blowing through a set of bicycle handlebars (which created a surprisingly sweet, flute-like sound not unlike an ocarina) to a medley featuring a bellicose baritone saxophone melody, assorted percussion, and the chance for the audience to join in with singing the chorus.

By the time Growden, Kelly and co had finished playing, it was about midnight. The crowd had thinned out, but at least 50 people probably stayed to the end of the proceedings. One thing that impressed me was the age range of the concert goers who made their way to the second tier lobby following Brahms. The After Hours event attracted young hipster types in jeans, old couples in suits and smart dresses and pearls and everything in between. The crowd wasn't particularly diverse from an ethnic standpoint -- I think I only spotted one African-American punter that night. But maybe this will change if the events gather traction in the coming months.

In terms of opening itself up to new audiences, I think that the After Hours event is a great idea. The concept certainly appeals to me more than the Symphony's 6.5 program. The 6.5 series is built on concerts that start earlier than usual, at 6.30pm, with the idea that people can pop in to hear some music for a bit before bustling off to dinner at 8. To my mind, 6.5 sends out the wrong message to concert goers. It suggests that they might want to "cram in a spot of culture" before going on to relax and enjoy the rest of their evening at a restaurant or bar. It pushes people out. After Hours sends out a different and altogether more positive message, I think. Because it invites us to linger after a concert to enjoy more music in an intimate setting, it makes Davies our home for the evening -- a place we want to hang out at rather than leave.

Here is a list of upcoming After Hours events:

Friday 24 April following Poulenc's Organ Concerto:
SFS Orchestra members Bill Ritchen (electric bass and synthesizer), Christina King (electric violin and synthesizer), and Raymond Froehlich (drums and percussion) are joined by Neal Walter on guitar and vocals to perform in their power rock group NTL.

Friday 22 May following the world premiere of B-Sides by Mason Bates:
SFS Resident Conductor Benjamin Shwartz and DJ Masonic, the alter-ego of composer Mason Bates, present a spinoff of their club events where classical music meets electronica.

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