This week I’m in Mexico City conducting the Mexico City Philharmonic. I have to hurry up and write this post fast because my concert is at 6pm! It’s one of a number of things that are different here.
If I’m not mistaken, this is the largest city in the world, and the amount of people and traffic is astounding. In a city like this, with so many colors and traditions, orchestral music seems to play a niche role in the visual landscape of the city, rather than the central one it plays north of the border. In so many American and Canadian cities, the concert hall is in the center of town, a grand, expensive monument to Western Culture. And it isn’t really perceived as an accessible place.
Granted, Mexico City does have a grand concert hall called Bellas Artes, but the hall I’m working in is in the south part of the city, an unassuming bungalow painted with earthy stripes like high school in San Diego. The orchestra is huge and plays big programs every week; the hall is filled to 80% capacity each night the orchestra plays. But here’s the biggest deal: the tickets are 20 pesos (that’s less than $2US!). Can you imagine what orchestras would be like north of the border if the tickets were that inexpensive? Who would come to the concerts? How would the low-key hall and the cheap tickets change the experience for the audience? It really boggles the mind.
The only thing I could think of that came close were the $1 seats at the Hollywood Bowl when I was younger. I was going to tons of LA Phil concerts then, buying tickets in the back and then just moving up (there were plenty of empty seats further up on a Tuesday and Thursday night). A lot of people feel special when they shell out the big bucks for a concert they’re into, but I felt special because someone was letting me see an amazing orchestra for only $1. I felt like they wanted me there, and not just my money.
A few weeks ago at the Kitchener-Waterloo symphony, we had an open house in our new home and rehearsal space, the Conrad Centre for the performing arts (above). It’s a fairly low-key building right on the main street. Something was going on every half hour: there was dance, theatre, and singing (not all classical). For our part, it was casual, There was no conductor entrance or exit — I just stood around and chatted with people in the audience before and after. And it was a new audience — different people, different ages, different ethnic backgrounds. It was who we wanted, and it was free and low key.
I think if we want new people to love orchestral music, we have to invite them, and make them feel comfortable. With orchestras constantly worrying about the bottom line, this is a challenge, but it would work. We have to make our new audience feel important and the center of our focus, not like strangers in a strange land.