What us classical music audiences take for granted

Earlier this week the London Symphony Orchestra announced details about a free open air concert in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 22 May.

The concert, the fifth concert in the Orchestra’s annual BMW LSO Open Air Classics series and conducted by Valery Gergiev, features an all-Tchaikovsky programme, including the 1812 Overture and Symphony No 4. There’s also an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake suite for which 42 young musicians from East London from the LSO’s On Track programme, and 23 musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama play side-by-side with members of the LSO.

Expect thousands at the event which has sustained an enviable air of celebration about it. For the fifth year running a UK orchestra with a global reach is rooting itself in a now iconic public space in London. The event is fast becoming an annual tradition, a reminder when London and its population was transformed by a string of communal artistic endeavours and played host to the Olympics in 2012.

BMW’s involvement is key, making it possible for people to experience live music for free. That isn’t new, nor is it unusual. But, like the last phases of the OAE’s crowdfunding project this week, it is a situation which concert-goers either aren’t aware of, or take for granted.

For all the moaning about ticket prices and concerts not being accessible enough (whatever that really means), the reality is that orchestras up and down the country are already subsidised and its that which, to a greater or lesser extent, makes it possible for them to stage the concerts in the first place.

The OAE were looking for around £1600 for their 2016 Night Shift Pub Tour – a Night Shift concert in a London pub every month (see their promotional video above). At the end of yesterday they’d exceeded their search and pulled in £1881 from 58 backers in 28 days. It’s that money which helps maintain their ticket prices at £10, in turn making it an attractive proposition to potential concert-goers. Without the funding, the concerts can’t go ahead.

They’re not the only ones of course. There are a great many other orchestras who know, for example, that the limitations of the venue they’re performing in means that the cost of staging the concert won’t be met by ticket sales even if they’re playing to a capacity audience. Each concert staged is done so knowing its going to make a loss.

This is not an earth shattering revelation. It’s the reality that keeps marketeers and fundraisers awake at night. But it is something I sometimes forget as a concert-goer. And if I forget it – or rather, if I take it for granted – I wonder just how many other concert-goers and classical music newbies do the same.

That got me thinking. Do orchestras need to be a little more transparent about the way they work to the average customer? Do they need to be less austere and less pompous about their need for funding? Do they need to be less apologetic with their audiences about the realities of their business model? Why not be as clearcut as the OAE have been since 2011 about their Night Shift Tour: in order to X, we need Y, so that you, audience member, only have to pay Z to hear great music.

Stop presenting ‘giving’ as something retired people (if they have the funds available themselves). Instead, speak directly to the punters and explain the realities of how your organisation works. Stop putting your donations section at the end of the programme book bought at concerts, and lead with it instead. Tell the story of how it was possible the orchestra came to be on stage tonight, instead of making it part of the appendix.

Perhaps orchestras and venues think they are doing it enough already. Personally, I think they can go further. There is no shame in talking about money and your lack of it (just make sure you don’t come across as pompous, entitled, desperate or overtly political).

Without that critical subsidy, such joyously communal experiences like the LSO Trafalgar gig, and a whole host of other events we’ve come to take for granted, would be impossible to stage.

The LSO Open Air Classics Concert is on Sunday 22 May 2016 at 6.30pm in Trafalgar Square, London. The programme consists of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, an arrangement of his Suite from Swan Lake, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Valery Gergiev is conducting. More details on the LSO Open Air website.

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