Classical music waltzes with digital media

The classical music industry loves Nikita Pacheco. They don't know the 29-year-old graphic artist personally. But she represents their future and they're striking every note in their new digital media handbooks to please her.

To many, digital media is the sound of salvation for classical music. To others, it's another power chord crushing the soul of the art form itself.

Take the "tweet-cert" held by the Pacific Symphony last month at its summer home, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Determined to draw people like Pacheco into classical music through the language of her generation — 140-character tweets — the Orange County orchestra encouraged audience members to please turn on their smart phones and tweet or text during the outdoor concert.

Pacheco and her husband, Jorge, 33, of Norco, attended the concert on their monthly date night. They were jazzed by the idea of tweeting during the concert, though got the tickets because they included a Bristol Farms picnic meal and cost $39 each.

As the concert opened with the overture to "The Marriage of Figaro," Pacheco clicked on her iPhone and began following tweets posted by the Pacific Symphony (actually hired-hand Jonathan Beard, an L.A. composer) and the marquee guest performers, the sibling pianist group 5 Browns (when they weren't onstage).

The tweets popped up as real-time program notes. During Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," Pacheco read: "The 'kangaroo-hopping' effect you hear is accomplished musically via the use of grace notes: small quick notes added just before each beat."

Pacheco was delighted. Under her Twitter name, curicogirl, she tweeted, "enjoying the moon rising behind the amphitheater ... What a beautiful night!"

A few days later, Pacheco admitted she had mixed feelings about being on Twitter at the concert, which featured a total of 300 tweets during the performance.

"For me personally it was kind of distracting because even though the music was really good, I just wanted to see what other people had written," she said. "Every 15 minutes I was checking to see who had posted what."

At the same time, Pacheco said, "I totally see its benefit to get more people to come to these concerts. We need to get more younger people there! Me and Jorge always feel out of place. There's maybe five couples our age at these events."

People have been lamenting classical music's graying audience since before the Beatles' first album. Still, it seems astounding that in 1966 the median age of the classical music audience was 38, reported a seminal performing arts study at the time. Today at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance, the average concertgoer is in her or his "high 50s," said Shana Mathur, the orchestra's VP of marketing and communications.

But that's not the grim tune. This is: Since 1982, attendance at classical music concerts among people 18 to 24 has dropped 37%, according to a 2009 study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Attendance among people 45 to 54, who likely grew up with some idea of who Leonard Bernstein was, has dropped 33%.

More than two-thirds of today's orchestras operate at an average deficit of $700,000. The L.A. Phil, with its $94 million annual operating budget — and a lustrous concert hall and dynamic conductor — is an eminent exception. And while the $18-million Pacific Symphony plays in a different financial league, it balances its budget.

Still, the struggle to forge new audiences might be illustrated by the tweet-cert. Though the much-publicized 5 Browns helped draw a respectable 7,000 people for a classical concert — the amphitheater was still less than half full. So it's no wonder the Pacific Symphony, L.A. Phil and orchestras around the world are now passionately pursuing audiences where they live: Facebook and Twitter.

"Classical music has been a relatively closed art form," Mathur said. "It's been elitist, not very approachable, and something people experience cerebrally and on their own. Now we're exploring how digital media can enhance sharing and a more universal appreciation of it."

Mathur, 40, though, sees the irony in her job. "The flip side of engaging people through digital technology is that digital technology is actually the reason why people's attention span has decreased," she said. "Now what's our attention span? Nine seconds? It used to be three minutes. I'm one of them. I can barely sit still for more than a couple of minutes without thinking 'what's on my phone.'"

"What's so lovely about the older generation is their ability to just listen to music. And no matter how hard we market, that's a really hard thing to transform in younger generations. So it's the obligation of the industry to start adapting to that reality."

Like digital marketers everywhere, the L.A. Phil preaches the gospel of "engagement." It uploads videos, photos and personal stories about composers and musicians — and from readers — on http://www.laphil.com and its Facebook and Twitter pages, fishing for followers and email subscribers to whom it can ultimately sell tickets.

Inspired by the hit computer game Guitar Hero, L.A. Phil's director of digital marketing, Amy Seidenwurm, 44, who earned her marketing cred promoting indie rock bands in Seattle, dreamed up the engaging Bravo Gustavo, an online game and smart phone app that allows you to "conduct" pieces of music. More than 50,000 people have downloaded the app over the last two years.

The key to engagement, Seidenwurm explained, was perfecting social media's casual tone. One day she posted on Facebook a photo of Gustavo Dudamel's empty parking space in the L.A. Phil garage with the headline, "Dudamel, where's my car?"

"We got so many more followers from that than almost anything we'd done," she said. "That was a turning point. People would rather see posts like that, or a photo of people crammed into an elevator with a bunch of tubas, than hear us talk about our educational initiatives over and over."

Classical music's new school of marketers, though, may still need to work on their pitch. Earlier this year, the New York Philharmonic launched a marketing campaign called "Vix in the City" for its staged production of the Janacek opera, "The Cunning Little Vixen."

Inspired by "Sex and the City," the campaign featured a woman tweeting about her hectic life in New York. Her tweets linked to short videos of her adventures on the blog site, Tumblr. One tweet read, "Meet my roommate, and judge for yourself. I still say he looks like a badger... but honey, Vix don't care!" The roommate was a Photoshopped John Edwards (yes, that John Edwards).

On her sassy blog, "Life's a Pitch," classical music publicist Amanda Ameer, 29, asked of the campaign, "who is it for?"

"It was for a very young, very pop culture-savvy audience," explained Eric Latzky, the New York Philharmonic's VP of communications. "We always want to be reaching out to younger audiences and welcoming them in on their own terms."

In a recent interview, Ameer said it may be heresy for her to admit, but she doubted the efficacy of social media as a promotional tool.

"Being on Facebook or Twitter is like being at a party with your friends," she said. "In the middle of talking about what you did that day, the things you love, why your boss is a jerk, you don't all of a sudden try and sell your friend a Pepsi."

Arts organizations, Ameer added, weren't fooling anybody by trying to sound young and hip.

The New York Phil removed the "Vix in the City" tweets and videos from its Internet pages. Latzky said it wasn't because of the criticism. The "campaign was done."

Nothing amplifies the discord between classical music and digital media like the prospect of allowing audience members to tweet, record or take photos with their smart phones and tablets inside concert halls.

Forget for a moment the concertgoer who seethes at the sound of somebody unwrapping a mint. This is not a welcome idea among many performers, such as violinist Hilary Hahn. The 31-year-old soloist said when she's onstage she can definitely see you with your smart phone or camera.

"I get distracted," she said. "I see that light, I see the flashing lens. People don't realize that when they have something aimed at you, and it's illuminated, and the rest of the place is dark, you see it flashing at you. It affects my mind-set. It throws me off."

Hahn loves to tweet, blog and surf YouTube, researching pieces and new composers. But the beauty in a rush of notes, she said, was also in the silences between.

"What I think people get out of classical music is a chance to get away from everything that is chaotic and everything that's happening in the outside world and just enter this space where the focus is on something entirely different," she said. "The beauty of a classical music concert is that everyone is focusing on the same thing and they're not focusing on each other. They're all in it together."

Carl St.Clair, 59, the gracious music director of the Pacific Symphony, said that of course he was sympathetic to musicians and audience members who love classical music as a respite in a noisy world.

But he was heartened by the tweet-cert. "It tied everything together and kept everyone connected with the music in more than just one way," he said. Its success convinced him that interactive concerts, inside traditional concert halls, were inevitable.

As classical music journeyed across the digital Rubicon, St.Clair said, it was now up to the industry to ask, "What do we hold sacred?

What is it that we hold dear and will not give up in this transition?"

There was no turning back, St.Clair said. Classical music had to keep stride with today's plugged-in audiences. "We have to cross these bridges," he said. "If we don't cross them, and find new ways to connect with people under 45, we're going to find ourselves with empty concert halls in the near future."

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°