Riot redux: How exciting are YOUR events?

The WQXR blog (one of my favorites) dipped into a question yesterday about the legend of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debut. If you’ve ever taken a class about 20th century music, you’ve probably heard the tale:  boos screamed, cat-calls shouted, musicians, dancers and concertgoers afraid for their safety… My favorite bit was something about one audience member getting so excited that he was tapping with both hands on the noggin of the guy in front of him. That’s the way I heard it — more evidence that apocryphal details abound. The scene may not have been true mayhem like the very real riot pictured above. In fact, the word “riot” was apparently attributed to the premiere years after the actual event. But the durability of the legend leads to questions such as, “Why isn’t classical music that exciting anymore?

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), impresario and legendary creative rabble-rouser

A better question

What if the story isn’t true? Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russes, the troupe that performed that first outing of the now über-famous work, was known to be a master publicist, even in the days before the 24/7 news cycle and our modern cavalcade of social media options and a viral internet. It’s clear that Diaghilev and Stravinsky definitely had spectacle in mind from the start, they would have been ready to jump head-first into controversy, whatever the actual reaction. In reality, the work raised some eyebrows in the moment, but was almost immediately applauded and embraced into the repertoire. The accompanying buzz may have been manufactured, or may have just caught a decades-long wave of public imagination. So the story endures, in all its dramatic glory.

James Bennett II‘s article on the radio station’s blog does a good job of outlining the questions and offering suggestions to what might really have happened, so there’s no reason to rehash that here. But this rather amusing journey into not only the past, but how the past is still taught, brings up some interesting questions about how we conceive of and promote our own programs today. If your own vision is to put together a nice program of music you enjoy playing, what kind of impact are you really having on your audience, and what are you contributing to the arts? Shouldn’t we, too, be aiming higher, and reaching more regularly for the audacious?

Modern presenters are proving this over and over, and ticket buyers, media and funders are taking note. Our own local landscape is dominated by arts groups who regularly push the envelope, even if they occasionally fail. The Industry, LA Choral Lab, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Opera Project are just a few examples of how local orgs have done good, and are not only reaching, but keeping new audiences. Their directors put sometimes excruciating thought into each program, and while no one succeeds with every project, upstart presenters like these are rarely, if ever, boring. They play with conventions in venue, direction, costuming, lighting, supertitles, publicity, outreach, printed programs, or even refreshments. They collaborate with artists from other disciplines. They create events so hip that audience targeting is almost irrelevant, drawing diverse crowds and regularly selling out their performances, as the art becomes one element in a broader experience. That maverick approach to arts presenting takes balls (or brass ovaries, thank you), a little bluster, and some serious intention. But done well, it’s fun, it’s meaningful and it’s revolutionary, over and over again. That’s the key word we all need to not only espouse, but shout from the rooftops.

Are you on board?

This post is yet another heads-up for the change that is already afoot, and a trend we’ll be yakking about more and more as the List lives on. We’ve learned a few things in the five seasons of unSUNg concerts, for instance. With our focus on “Songs Sacred and New”, my fearless cohort (Ariel Pisturino) and I have presented works that were transcendent, and those that fell flat on their faces. No, I will not say which is which. You had to be there. Either way, it was fascinating, and we learned something from every passionate artist.

That is the drama of live events. That is the tightrope of being a presenter. That is the rush of trying and failing — it makes the successes so much more thrilling and precious. But there is a broader purpose, well beyond personal artistic fulfillment. If we want classical music to evolve and thrive as it did a century ago, we must irrevocably change expectations about how we present that music. There is no more room for the same old thing. That has been proven over and over, and yet there are still so many organizations reaching for chestnuts, when new and worthy gems are waiting in the wings, ready to be polished.

I’m mixing metaphors at a rapid pace, but there’s a point to that, too. Fusion is the future, and we must start applying our classical skills to the most vibrant, life-affirming, challenging ideas we can muster:

Delve into other styles and genres. Mix it up and see what happens. Partner with other artists you might never have thought of as colleagues. Seek out those who are different from you and then find what you have in common. Play on both sides of that coin. The act of creating is not a solo endeavor, after all, and throwing ourselves into something completely new can be one of the scariest and exhilarating experiences — for us and for our audiences.

We don’t have to start a riot to be relevant. But shouldn’t a strong reaction be an essential part of the vision? What if the very conception of new programs was more improvisatory than pragmatic, reaching for the consequential more than for what will put butts in seats? If we’ve learned one thing in recent years, these things are not mutually exclusive, and you never know what the result might be. Taking a real risk could be your savior instead of your downfall. It could be a real start to the future you deserve. Just ask the American who spent his summer in Bayreuth, and turned Lohengrin on its head.

The Lister Revolution starts now

This new season marks a serious change for our work at the List. While we’ve already been focusing more and more on the unusual and innovative presenters in our midst, this is more than preference. It’s a heartfelt rallying cry. More classical is good, but better, more wildly inventive classical is crucial to this music’s survival.

So if you want to get attention from our blog from now on, show us something different. We’ll be featuring and reviewing the groups and individual artists who are willing to stretch themselves and their audiences. We’re looking for those who commit to experiential presenting, not just putting on a concert or show to keep themselves busy. It doesn’t have to be new music, or outrageously weird. But a new spin or some kind of innovation is essential, and even if you’ve already planned your season, you can still bring new elements to each event.

Just think – if you can grab the attention of bloggers who are already paying attention to the arts, you’ll have a much better shot of cutting through the noisy world to reach those who might be ready to try chamber music, opera, or some other classical music for the first time.

And so, another gauntlet has been thrown.

Stay tuned for more, as we’ll be posting fairly regular rants on the subject, and from a variety of sources. (For those of you who know my INAY mantra, this is official confirmation — it’s not about me, either.) Send us your suggestions. Tell us what you love, what you’re doing, and what you’d like to see.

Shake it up, people! We’ll be watching!


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