How WASO tackles audience challenges in a big state

​Music Australia looks at the ways in which Australia’s state orchestras are seeking to build new audiences. Operating in a state of 2.6 million square kilometres, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra reaches out to its more far-flung audiences via a range of live broadcast platforms. Communities even in the Pilbara region are able to hear its performances. Written by Graham Strahle for Music Austrralia.

How WASO tackles audience challenges in a big state

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The challenges facing orchestras in the twenty-first century are manifold and by now familiar. Declining subscriptions, pressure to lessen their reliance on government arts funding, tougher competition for the entertainment dollar, and changing consumer behaviour in a world of downloading and streaming: these are some of the major problems they must deal with.

The situation for Australia’s six state orchestras is no different. To build future sustainability, both economically and in terms of maintaining a relevant place in modern society, they need to go looking for new audiences outside their traditional subscriber base.

How they do this can sometimes sounds straight forward. The Australian’s Eamonn Kelly,in his review of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Town Hall series, suggested as much.

“The secret is programming popular greats of the classical canon and performing them at high standard in a venue that is as loved for its imperfections — cramped seating, front-of-house idiosyncrasies and passing tramway rumbles, to mention a few — as for its plump acoustic and historic interiors,” he wrote.

Kelly makes a good essential point that, in seeking to widen their appeal, orchestras need not reinvent what they already do well. However, whether it is as simple as programming works of popular appeal in more dressed down, informal venues, is debatable.

Orchestras must also tackle the challenge sector by sector, by offering specifically programmed family and community concerts, ‘pops concerts’ (a broad term that encompasses anything from playing rock and pop arrangements to teaming up with tribute bands or collaborating on new projects with contemporary musicians), and playing movie or computer game soundtracks.

All might seem like good ideas, and they may draw high attendances, but costs can be high. Community concerts need sponsorship if they are to be free, and collaborative or multimedia events require more time and money to develop. So the conundrum arises: the traditional concert format (overture-concerto-symphony or some variant of that) tends to prevail, and this is not necessarily at all what draws newcomers to live orchestras.

Three Australian orchestras will be profiled to see how they are developing non-traditional audiences: the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO). It turns out the task of building new audiences is indeed uppermost in their thinking. By no means, however, is it confined to targeting younger age groups.

Craig Whitehead, WASO’s Chief Executive, explains: “We are driving for diversity in our audiences. For us we want to be as relevant as we can to the broad community, and that includes younger audiences as much as older audiences. The target is broad, from pre-school up to senior citizens. For us it’s about how to make us as relevant as possible for as many people as we can to engage with orchestral music.”

“The risk is homogenising any sector or demographic. To pigeonhole one group as any one thing is the wrong approach to take. We find there are people in our established audience base who love risky programs; similarly those who hate the thought of new music and just want the classics. In younger audiences there are the same divisions, so it’s important not to pigeonhole.”

WASO runs two main concert series of traditional orchestral repertoire. These are theMasters Series, which is typically headed by a concerto soloist, and aClassics Series of “orchestral favourites”. ABaroque Seriespresents major occasional works of that era (such asMessiah) with St George’s Cathedral Choir. Aimed at general and school student audiences is the orchestra’s shorter daytime concert series calledMorning Symphony. Then there is itsPops Series, which in 2016 consists of ‘Cirque de la Symphonie’ and ‘From Broadway to Hollywood’.

I think we need to be very careful about how we might hold on too tightly to what we value

Whitehead speaks about ‘threshold anxiety’ as one of the main obstacles that may inhibit newcomers from attending a concert. This often centres on the kind of audience behaviour that accompanies a performance, he says. “Threshold anxiety is certainly something we are trying to break down. Partly it is about perceptions, but partly it is also about how the audience itself perpetuates them, for example in withholding clapping until the very end of a symphony. This can be off-putting for first time listeners who feel the need to clap between movements.”

“Withholding applause is a relatively recent phenomenon – only in the last hundred years have we listened in silence. Mozart in his symphonies is begging us to clap between movements. I think we need to be very careful about how we might hold on too tightly to what we value.”

Venues in themselves do not change this or offer a secret antidote, says Whitehead. WASO’s home venue, the Perth Concert Hall, is used for all its aforementioned concert series, including its Pops Series, and he sees no problem with that. “Whether you are looking at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, the Sydney Opera House or the Perth Concert Hall, these are pop and rock venues too. Perth Concert Hall provides a total concert experience, equally to newcomers or those who have been there a thousandth time.”

“It is more a question about the perception of the artform and the code of conduct that is associated with classical music. For the first-time attendee, we work on providing them with information on other concerts; so we have a concierge for them to talk to and give opportunities for feedback.”

One area WASO has identified for significant new audience take-up is playing film scores. Over recent years it has presented WASO at the Movies in which visuals are projected on big screens, and in 2013-15 it performedThe Lord of the Rings to screenings of the movie trilogy.

Says Whitehead: “The film music audience is important in their own right. Sixty per cent of the audience fromThe Lord of the Rings went onto our database, which was a huge leap. We don’t have any empirical evidence that people who listen to a movie concert then go to hear a Mahler symphony. One would need to study that over a 20-year period to really know. But the point is movie audiences know we exist, and they know that we provide something that’s relevant to them.”

Whitehead sees much scope for orchestras adopting more visuals and multimedia into their performances. He particularly admires “the great work” of conductors such as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas in introducing digital projections and semi-theatrical elements into their concerts. “There is certainly a lot like this being done over the world, but it tends to be choral works and not ‘standard’ orchestral concerts,” Whitehead says.

He talks particularly highly of the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox experimental performance space program, which we covered here (“by day a rehearsal venue, by night a backstage cavern”), the Philharmonia Orchestra’sinstallation projects that enable listeners to walk into and feel part of a performance, and the LA Phil’sVAN Beethoven that offers casual listeners a virtual reality concert experience via headsets.

WASO’s adoption of new technology might look modest by comparison. “We did a co-production with the Perth Festival in 2009, John Adams’ operaA Flowering Tree, which was semi-staged and used digital technology,” says Whitehead. “If we could afford them we would do more”.

But the orchestra also does a lot in terms of bringing its live performances to audiences beyond the concert hall, and it illustrates how successfully an arts organisation can engage with regional and remote communities around a big state.

“We live stream, beaming some of our concerts directly into arts venues around WA,” says Whitehead. “These include countless community resource centres including post offices, shopping centres. You might have 50 or 150 people huddling around a big screen, or 700 people in Albany.”

We live stream, beaming some of our concerts directly into arts venues around WA

Last December’s Symphony in the City was a good example. This attracted 20,000 picnic-goers at Langley Park and was broadcast live to community venues in Albany, Kalgoorlie and Margaret River, as well as regional centres via satellite television (Westlink VAST Channel 602). The concert was also broadcast live on webcast via Livestream.com.

Also servicing outlying regions, as far north as Onslow in the Pilbara, areWASO’s education programs; ensembles drawn from the orchestra fly to Karatha, then drive five hours to schools into the region. And in the southern Perth suburb of Kwinana, WASO runs an El Sistema inspired for disadvantaged kids.

Operating in a state of 2.6 million square kilometres, WASO has more than the usual share of challenges for a symphony orchestra, but it really does seem to take its state-wide and community responsibilities seriously. That can only bode well in its efforts to build future audiences.

by Graham Strahle

via Music Australia

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