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
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:
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.
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."
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
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:
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.
and unpretentious group.
voice of great musicality.
University Summer Chamber Concerts. A rich, full, almost orchestral
at Rutgers’ SummerFest. They use tempos that make the music
and the entire musical construction audible.
plays so well that he can make an unappealing piece compelling.
Her exuberance caused the knowledgeable audience to applaud at the
end of the first movement of a Mozart concerto.
Cynthia Phelps, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, bassist Timothy Cobb, and
pianist Yefim Bronfman, heard at McCarter. The very model of chamber
by the Hightstown-East Windsor Concert Association. An 18-year-old
virtuoso who plays with a cushioned sound.
enigma of underpopulated concert halls, but you could have a fine
time if you simply keep your ears open.
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