The concert took place in the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, a modern yet traditional concert hall. In this performance, the separation between stage and auditorium was retained, but the setup on stage significantly reorganized. Instead of placing the orchestra in front of a standing choir, the orchestra musicians were assembled in a semi-circle on the outer stage, leaving enough room for both the soloists and choir members to move around and enact the Passion. In the background, diverse images were projected on a large screen: dead animals, trees, Christ statues, Aleppo in ruins, and so on. Musically, the Passion was enframed by a prologue and epilogue composed by Van Parys, and Odeh-Tamimi's piece L'Apokalypse Arabe was situated as an intermezzo between the two parts of the Passion. The original work was thus accompanied by additional layers of meaning in the form of new music, as well as new visual and theatrical elements.
I was very curious to see how the audience would react to that, taking into account that the majority represented the traditional audience profile of middle-aged, affluent white people. Through observation and conversations after the concert, I found out that the multimedia performance was in general highly appreciated. A lot was happening on stage, which stimulated attention to shift continually between the screen, the enactment, and the orchestra. Through the theatrical involvement of the singers, especially, the dramatic aspect of the work came to life, and the story behind the music was emphasized. I was told numerous times that the shifting attention was not perceived to be detrimental to a full experience of the music, since the additional perceptive elements were experienced as underscoring the music rather than distracting from it, amplifying its message. Nonetheless, many people also reacted by occasionally closing their eyes and withdrawing themselves from the influence of the visual input in order to concentrate purely on the auditive experience.
In this example, the theme of a classical work, in this case pain and suffering, was connected to contemporary political and social issues to show how relevant it can be if placed in a new context. This practice revealed that a piece like the Johannes Passion can be more than just a moving musical work from the past – full utilization of its thought-provoking potential and relevance lies in the hands of the performers.
Brainwaves #2 (Leiden)
The LUDWIG ensemble describes itself as a flexible musical collective with “an entrepreneurial spirit and a broad societal vision” (LUDWIGlive). Their goal is to liberate classical music from the barriers that have been constructed around it by approaching, rather than attracting, the public through strategies such as performing in low-threshold public spaces, revising their setup, and collaborating with scientists, artists, and social institutions. During the event Brainwaves, which took place in the Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden, they connected medical research concerning the effects of music on the brain with music installations and performances.
The Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden is a “normal” concert building, containing a reception room and a small and large concert hall, but was, contrary to standard practice, used in its entirety during this event as a performance space. Located in eight spaces including the stairs, foyers, and halls a three-hour journey of exploring the connection between music and research was offered to the public. One could listen to presentations regarding ways in which music helps to ease autism, dementia, or pain, whereas in another room, one could recline on pillows on the floor and listen to Arvo Pärt's Silentium; one could join an open discussion about the connection between music and care while musicians of LUDWIG appeared every once in a while as an intermezzo in-between the temporal and physical spaces to play classical pieces or improvisations.
Although a schedule was provided as a framework, the public was welcome to come and go as they wished and move freely between the different spaces. There was plenty of room for conversations and questions, and the contact between performers and visitors was intimate and almost without barrier, as no stage or auditorium separated the two groups spatially. The musicians were continually moving from one space to another, as was the audience; performances and acts “happened” as a direct result of the interactions arising among the group of people who were present at a given moment, but fluidly changed again in the next. No fixed seating arrangements were provided; the audience could move chairs to the spot where they wanted to sit or stand or walk at their own speed and inclination through the acts.
This type of setup allowed for a very flexible, individualized “concert” experience in which everyone could structure the evening as they wished, and the music itself was transformed into an object for discussion and consideration from many different angles, both literally and figuratively.
Het Muzieklokaal (Utrecht)
One popular strategy for bringing classical music closer to the public is the organizing of Concert Cafés. A well-known example is Het Muzieklokaal in Utrecht, where classical music is performed two days per week, mostly by conservatory students. In a familiar and relaxed setting, visitors of the café can listen to live classical music performed by soloists or chamber music ensembles while drinking a glass of tea or wine. The performance is generally set in the middle of the café so that the performers are visible from all angles. The musicians perform two sets of approximately 20 minutes each, preceded by a brief introduction, informing the audience a bit about the pieces as well as about the performers themselves.
When I played in this setting with a colleague, I found it to be quite a challenging endeavor. The public that happens to be there at the moment of playing ranges from people who deliberately came for the music to people who were not expecting a performance, let alone a classical one, and experienced it as a disturbance to their social outing and conversations. It is quite an odd layering of a concert atmosphere and a background music gig for a well-meaning, but otherwise indifferent public. The introductory or intermittent talks of the musicians are highly appreciated and often met with interest, smiles, attention, and clapping. Most people also spend the entire two sets of twenty minutes listening attentively, although concentration tends to drop considerably after 10 to 15 minutes, with the noise level rising. When I finished playing, it was as if the majority of the public had forgotten that there was music and only began to applaud as they noticed that the extraneous sound was not there anymore.
As a classically trained musician, one is not quite prepared for this kind of performing, as the monopoly of audience attention that we are used to is split into multiple directions and only occasionally touches upon the performer. It becomes distracting when people move around or when the background noises increase, which can have clear consequences for the quality of playing. Of course, one could say that this is not that important in such a context, since most people are not “connoisseurs.” However, I cannot completely align with this opinion, since it seems to suggest that in order to make contact with people in their mundane environment, both music and performance must be compromised. But if “making contact” in the form of capturing and absorbing the attention of the audience is not fulfilled, can one say that this performance set-up works? Perhaps it achieves this goal through a leveling of the playing field: allowing musicians to leave their elevated and distant position on stage, thereby moving them spatially closer to the public. Many visitors expressed that they were interested in classical music and would love to learn more about it, but generally miss opportunities for getting in touch with it, which is why being so close to the action is a welcome alternative to a concert visit. In concert cafés, musicians are perceived more as individuals and human as they talk about their pieces, introduce themselves and tell anecdotes, thus significantly lowering the threshold for personal contact.
Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet and Ricciotti
Musicians also make efforts to bring classical music into public spaces. Two ensembles, the Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet (NAKK) and Ricciotti specifically use classical music to surprise people and interrupt the flow of urban everyday life. The NAKK consists of four clarinet players who graduated from the Conservatory of Amsterdam, whereas Ricciotti is a symphony orchestra of younger students who meet for project weeks consisting of rehearsals and a concert tour through either the Netherlands or abroad. Both ensembles stretch the spatial possibilities of performing and move beyond the concert hall and stage.
For the Ricciotti ensemble, the goal is to provide “live symphonic music everywhere and for everyone” (Ricciotti Ensemble). In accordance with its deliberate identification as a street orchestra, the ensemble performs in public spaces or for social institutions in order to make a connection with society as a whole instead of with the limited group who can afford expensive concert tickets and choose to enter concert halls. During their tours, they perform multiple times a day in various locations, both planned or spontaneously, in front of the bus or on their way to a concert venue. Their classical repertoire is presented with energetic choreographies and in close contact to the listeners, occasionally approaching them while playing, talking about the music, or letting them try the instruments afterwards.