Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the January 3,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Elaine Strauss: What Sells, What Doesn’t

As a working critic who may attend up to 40 or 50


annually, the question as to why some concerts attract


audiences and others fill only a third of the hall remains a mystery

to me. Even Zdenek Macal, artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra, which has been outdistancing itself season after season

under his leadership, is puzzled. Personally skeptical about baseball,

which he finds unexciting, he nevertheless says, "We can learn

from baseball marketing. Five thousand dollars for a seat and after

an hour the score is 0-0." More seriously, Macal attributes large

audiences to an ongoing process of building of trust between


and listeners.

A rainbow of reasons presents itself when attendance at concerts is

low: ineffective marketing, poor performances, uncomfortable seats,

unfortunate scheduling, bad weather (and good weather), acts of God.

Managers and performers, presenters and audiences, each in their own

way, find an empty hall disquieting.

For myself, as a plain vanilla audience member surrounded by empty

seats, I feel uneasy. Small comfort that I can use one of them as

a coat rack. I imagine myself exposed and very visible. I feel the

burden of responding with the enthusiasm and sound of a dozen people.

My heart goes out to the performers, who have spent years practicing

and weeks agonizing over a meaningful program. I hope that their near

relatives are not there. I wonder, guiltily, if I might have recruited

some friends to have attended. The intensity of my feeling is probably

insignificant compared to that of the people whose futures depend

on the healthy bottom line that a full house represents. An empty

hall, to them, is a vision of death by drowning — in red ink.

Even to me an empty hall fans the cold fire of demoralization.

How energizing it feels, on the other hand, to be part of winning

enterprise, and to have a place on the ship that everyone wants to


Charleston, South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival, which

I attended this spring, was a network of performances from which


visitors might fashion their individual mix of programs. Four or more

times a day a choice of opera, dance, chamber music, or theater,


from the 18th century to the present, wooed audiences. (Princeton’s

music community was there, too: Joseph Flummerfelt, artistic director

and principal conductor, and Andrew Megill, both of Westminster Choir

College; Flummerfelt is Spoleto’s director for choral activities.)

In addition, Piccolo Spoleto, a fringe festival using the many


arts facilities tucked away in Charleston, added a layer of off-beat

programs to the festival. Amid the teeming swirl of music activity,

visitors vied for spots in Charleston’s inviting restaurants and


for the bicycle jitneys driven by muscular undergraduates. In the

upbeat atmosphere, strangers talked to each other with unapologetic

pleasure. The capacity audiences at the performing spaces enhanced

the palpable sense of festivity.

Still, such an atmosphere of magic does not require large forces.

Pianist Andras Schiff evoked a similar mood of wonder during six


Bach concerts in New York, one of which, "The Goldberg


he played also in Princeton’s McCarter Theater. With his McCarter

"Goldberg" in October, Schiff enabled area audiences to sample

his mind-boggling solo performance of all Bach’s major keyboard works.

Particularly compelling was his Carnegie Hall performance of Bach’s

"Well Tempered Clavier, Book One." The audience in the packed

hall emitted not a single cough during the long program. Furthermore,

by delaying their applause, they respected the frame of silence which

Schiff wished to place around the work. Anticipating excellence,


people to compose several urban areas in Iceland traveled to the set

of concerts and had their prediction fulfilled. To my mind, the


of such a multitude contributed to the high spirits of Schiff’s


Nevertheless, disciplined and devoted performers can overcome the

small-audience barrier and generate a level of enthusiasm that


the size of the body listening. Princeton University Concerts’ Chamber

Music Series in Richardson Auditorium is an example of this


Consistently, the concerts in the series are unexplainably


True, the seating in Richardson is cramped. Many six-footers who


in folding themselves into a seat in the balcony just stay there


intermission out of fear of not being able to reconstruct how they

arranged their body parts to fit the space.

However, uncomfortable seating cannot be an explanation. The New


Symphony Orchestra consistently sells out its Richardson series by

subscription. Could it be that some concert-goers stay away on the

assumption that the hall is always sold out?

Richardson Auditorium has been the site of a number of memorable


in the year 2000, and special kudos are due to the artists whose


achievements were unaffected by the paucity of listeners. The


and devotion of performers who turned in stellar performances for

scanty audiences made me forget my discomfort. What were they


Did they pretend that every person important to them in the musical

world was present in the small audience? Did they play with the belief

that the music itself had a lofty independent existence separate from

the number of listeners?

Typical of the excellent concert-but-low attendance syndrome at


were a variety of chamber music performances during 2000. Some of

them seem characteristic case studies worth brooding over. The


cellist David Finckel and his pianist wife Wu Han opened the year

with a splendid performance on January 13. Each of them has an


variety of sound; together, they act with purposeful unity. In a


program, they treated the audience to a rare pleasure: a


1978 sonata by Alfred Schnittke. Would more people have heard it if

their program had included pieces by Mozart and Beethoven?

The Lindsay String Quartet, in residence at Princeton, presented all

the Beethoven string quartets in two three-concert chunks, of which

the second took place April 6, 7, and 8, in Richardson. They played

with notable balance, expressive intonation, and dramatically


pacing. Could it be that three successive evenings of Beethoven string

quartet music was too large a commitment for listeners?

Could Mark Kaplan, playing all the Bach works for solo violin on two

successive evenings in October, have similarly put off potential


because the programs were restricted to one composer? Those who stayed

home missed a chance to hear an unassuming virtuoso turn his


authority to getting the whole musical spectrum out of some very



All of these artists seemed to place communication uppermost. Soprano

Dawn Upshaw, America’s ambassador to the world, and choral director

Donald Dumpson of Westminster Choir College, whose Jubilee Singers

attract sell-out audiences, agree. Each artist, using almost identical

language, has spoken explicitly in these pages about their desire

to perform in a way that will change people’s lives. The public has

to be present for them to do so.

Curiously, too big an audience most of the time, and too small an

audience on the Friday after Thanksgiving, mark the Richardson


of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO). Since the NJSO concerts

are sold out by subscription, the only single seats available come

from subscribers unable to attend, who happen to turn in their unused

tickets. If a subscriber fails to notify the NJSO, the unused seat

stays empty. While NJSO concerts are generally well-attended, the

NJSO habitually plays to a relatively empty house in the concert which

it habitually puts on at Richardson during the Thanksgiving break.

Between the demands of the Princeton University schedule and the NJSO

season, the timing of the NJSO November event cannot be tweaked,


to NJSO spokesman Brian Skwirut.

For most concerts there are ways to guess whether a

concert is likely to be worth attending. Here are some clues that

might point potential listeners toward the box office:

1.) First of all, pay attention to the presence of a


In that department, a leading candidate is the NJSO’s Macal. He has

gained the affection of his orchestra and his audiences by keen


leadership, imaginative programming, and a quirky publicly-displayed

sense of humor. In a concert at New Brunswick’s State Theater, for

instance, a loud sneeze broke his concentration just as he lifted

his arms to give the downbeat for a Rachmaninoff symphony. Stopping

to collect himself, but without turning away from the orchestra, Macal

broke the tension by waving a hastily-produced handkerchief in the

direction of the sneezer.

2.) In opera, look for a stage director with a strong

sense of drama who can give life to the sonic basis of a performance.

The late Albert Takazauckas, who consistently infused vitality

into Opera Festival of New Jersey performances, will be missed. Here’s

hoping that the company will look on him as a model when they work

out details for their 2001 season. The repertoire selected consists

of Mozart’s "Magic Flute," Puccini’s "Turandot,"


"Orfeo ed Euridice," and a double bill of Dallapiccola’s


Prigioniero" and Bartok’s "Bluebeard’s Castle."

3.) For any festival, look for strong leadership. In a

move to strengthen SummerFest, Rutgers’ summer festival, George


the new dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, has named

seasoned New York flutist, chamber musician, and impresario Sato


director of SummerFest. Moughalian replaces the dean’s administrative

staff as the coordinator of the concert series. The program is



4.) Collect recommendations from trustworthy people


about particular performers. Maybe they will come back. Here is my

list of artists whom I have particularly enjoyed hearing in the year

2000. (Check also with other concert-goers. Omission from my list

means merely that I didn’t hear a concert by the artist.)

In order of their appearance during the year I nominate:

The Chamber Chorus of New York, heard in the Princeton

University Chapel as part of the NJSO Rachmaninoff Festival. The bass

voices are a visceral thrill. The group re-appears in the NJSO’s


Festival in January.

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, heard at McCarter. A


and unpretentious group.

David Daniels, countertenor, heard at McCarter. An unusual

voice of great musicality.

The Miro String Quartet, heard as part of the Princeton

University Summer Chamber Concerts. A rich, full, almost orchestral


The Miami String Quartet, heard in Nicholas Auditorium

at Rutgers’ SummerFest. They use tempos that make the music


and the entire musical construction audible.

Christopher O’Riley, pianist, heard at SummerFest. He

plays so well that he can make an unappealing piece compelling.

Violinist Pamela Frank, heard at NJSO’s Amadeus Festival.

Her exuberance caused the knowledgeable audience to applaud at the

end of the first movement of a Mozart concerto.

Violinist Pinchas Zukerman and chamber music friends


Cynthia Phelps, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, bassist Timothy Cobb, and

pianist Yefim Bronfman, heard at McCarter. The very model of chamber


Pianist Lang Lang, heard at the Peddie School, sponsored

by the Hightstown-East Windsor Concert Association. An 18-year-old

virtuoso who plays with a cushioned sound.

Whatever you do, keep going to concerts. You may not solve the

enigma of underpopulated concert halls, but you could have a fine

time if you simply keep your ears open.

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