Orchestras experiment with innovative ways to reach audiences

Orchestral experiments

The line forms at twilight outside of an empty San Francisco warehouse. Tickets are scanned as guests walk through a dimly lit passageway leading to a bar. But the 500 or so people are not waiting for a rock concert, reports CBS News’ Jamie Wax.

San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas CBS News

They’re in for a very different kind of experience: SoundBox – an annual 10-concert series that runs from December through April at the San Francisco Symphony, one of the most respected in the country. Led by world-renown conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra started a bold experiment two years ago.

“What does it feel like for you as a lifelong conductor of classical music to turn around and see that audience in that venue?” Wax asked him.

“I guess the SoundBox audience is different in that they’re not there to respect the music,” Thomas said. “They’re there to be amazed by the music, surprised by it, discover something that they never knew inside of the music.” 

SoundBox with the San Francisco Symphony CBS News

The program is divided into three sections of about 25 minutes each, with two 20-minute intermissions. Each act features a piece of music spanning centuries of compositions. It’s aided by a multimedia light display and the Meyer Sound Constellation system that can replicate the acoustics of any space, from a large cathedral to a small recording room.

“Has there been any resistance from the traditionalists to what you’re doing here?” Wax asked.

“No, not really,” said Brent Assink, the symphony’s executive director. He took Wax through the barren rehearsal space that now moonlights as a vibrant concert hall.

“Is this in part to answer the challenge to reach new audiences?” Wax asked Thomas.   

“SoundBox is a way of bringing people into a space that is in many ways more comfortable and more diverting for them,” Thomas said. “They can move around. They can get drinks, they can use their mobile devices. I think it’s been very surprising for us that the attention of the audience in this situation, in fact, has been more focused, more quiet, more attentive than many of the ‘regular’ subscription concerts.”

Over the past two years, interest in the classical music art form has crescendoed in pop culture with the success of Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” even as the show posed an existential question early in its first season: “Is classical music dead?”

To capitalize on the show’s buzz, Miller Theatre at Columbia University produced a spoof of a reality show competition to promote it’s Pop-Up concert series. The monthly concerts where the audience can sit on stage with the performers is free – as is the wine and beer.  

In Miller Theatre’s Pop-Up Concerts, audiences sit on stage with the performers. CBS News

“How important is venue?” Wax asked flutist Claire Chase.

“Venue is hugely important. And I think it’s long overdue that large institutions are venturing beyond their comfortable, large concert halls,” Chase said.

Fifteen years ago, Chase founded the International Contemporary Ensemble. The artist-run collective performs original compositions for free in exotic locations like Greenland, inside elementary schools and more traditional venues. This summer, Chase participated Lincoln Center’s five-week-long “Mostly Mozart Festival,” which was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“You just have to be in the room. And getting people in the room, it’s access. Once people are in the room, I’m the eternal optimist. I think that music speaks for itself, and I think that what we’re looking for in music is an adventure. … This is why people have done music since the beginning of human history,” Chase said.

It’s not just the audience who benefits from these experiences.

“For me musically, it’s been enthralling,” said Jacob Nissly, principal percussionist at the San Francisco Symphony. “It’s putting us as the percussion section more at the forefront, and it’s in such an intimate space where we can communicate with the audience afterwards, where we can have the opportunity to really feel and thrive off the energy because it’s so close there in those quarters.”

His maestro, Thomas, has led the way to make classical music accessible for nearly 50 years. And he’s still trying to convert as many people as he can.

“As I said a while back to somebody or other, I said, ‘Well, if you had to choose between impressing the professors or the guys at the gym, who would you choose?’ I said, ‘The guys at the gym, anytime,’” Thomas said.

There is concern over alienating existing patrons or members, Thomas said.

“I have great respect for traditional listeners who say, ‘I am totally involved in hearing this music. I just want to be in a quiet place, undisturbed, and let my mind freely go where it wants to go.’ And I’m very committed to the idea that they should have that experience,” Thomas said. “I don’t want classical music 100 years from now to be a kind of light-show or petting zoo. It’s more on the scale of a national park. It’s like this vast park containing meadows and glaciers and rocky escarpments and vast plains, and all these things are there. SoundBox gives people more of a chance to quickly access that kind of experience. And maybe it’s a positive thing that they can see something, hear something that’s very vivid for about 15 or 20 minutes, and then right away they can talk to one another about it. ‘Was it good for you? It was good for me.’ That kind of thing.”

This new season of SoundBox happened to launch on the same day as the new season of “Mozart in the Jungle.” It’s probably a coincidence, or maybe the 18th-century composer Mozart is pulling strings from above.