One of the biggest successes of the year for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra came on a seemingly innocuous spring day: May 4th, a day that might not mean much to classical music aficionados, but to Cincinnati youths, the day is synonymous with “Star Wars” and the movie’s epochal phrase, “May the Force be with you.”
The orchestra was lucky enough to have permission to perform John Williams’ score for “The Force Awakens,” a departure from the orchestra’s standbys of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven.
Some 7,000 people saw the performance in concert, but roughly 100,000 more saw it on the symphony’s YouTube page. It’s all part of symphony vice president of communications Chris Pinelo’s plan to keep the orchestra relevant in the digital age.
“If you want to inspire people to experience the orchestra live and inspire them to volunteer or donate, online engagement is really important,” Pinelo said. “Everything is so instantaneous now, that’s the expectation.”
Local classical music institutions, art galleries and museums are rapidly coming up with new ideas to update their services into the 21st century and, they hope, bring with them a new generation of supporters.
The National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2015 that attendance of live performances fell slightly from 39 percent to 33 percent between 2002 and 2012, with older Americans being the only demographic that grew in participation. The survey also found that the majority of Americans (71 percent) used some form of electronic media to watch, listen or otherwise engage with the arts.
That’s given most institutions pause, said art historian and museum scholar Susana Smith Bautista.
“The museums and symphonies of our parents and grandparents were very different,” Bautista said. “Thinking about that traditional idea of arts institutions as these very quiet temples of culture that they were for older generations — that’s not an institution that attracts the younger generation.”
That puts the arts in a tough spot because the older generation who have supported the arts throughout their lives may balk at what some arts institutions are doing to adapt, whether it’s video art installations or getting pop culture mixed with their Mozart.
“These institutions have to rethink themselves. They have to choose what to protect,” said Indiana University Learning Sciences professor Kylie Peppler. “The problem is they want to protect their enterprise, but they want it to continue the way it always has.”
Balancing innovation and tradition
As art institutions try to find their place in the digital age and widen their audience, the biggest challenge is striking the right balance between new and old audiences.
“When the new generation goes into museums or to a symphony, they don’t just want a passive experience. They want there to be interaction and participation and sharing,” Bautista said. “That’s an important side effect of the digital age — you have to have Instagram-able moments.”
How much innovation an audience will tolerate varies widely depending on the institution. Bautista said many traditional art museums have made small steps toward embracing technology like allowing spaces for selfie-taking or having interactive tours via in-house iPads.
New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum underwent a $91 million digital renovation in 2011. New features included interactive pens that allow viewers to access exhibit information on touch-sensitive tables. There’s also an “immersion room,” which projects design samples like textiles or historic wallpaper with a tap of the pen.
“It’s really an experiential thing that’s about creating a memory,” said Micah Walter, Cooper Hewitt’s director of digital and emerging media. “We’ve tried to use technology to help our visitors stay in the moment.”
Not every experiment works, as Pinelo learned when the orchestra tried out so-called “tweet seats." Free seats were offered for people looking to live-tweet or ask questions during a performance. An assistant conductor manned the symphony’s Twitter feed backstage during performances.
Pinelo said the initiative was short-lived, mostly because there were few takers. But he was surprised by the backlash the symphony received over it, culminating in the New York Times calling it “an unsavory confluence of social media and the arts."
“There can be a tendency of trepidation about pursuing these things because there are purists who think music can and should stand on its own, and it certainly can,” Pinelo said. “But one of our core values is to be a source of experimentation.”
Traditionalists worry that something may be lost in that experimentation. Some argue this has already happened in pockets of pop culture like rock concerts, where more is often captured with a phone camera to be remembered later than enjoyed in the moment with the naked eye.
“Live performance is about finding our humanity — those common human elements without which technology is just a machine,” said Virginia Tech Theater and Arts Leadership professor Amanda Nelson. “If we forget about the human component, we’re losing something.”
Yet most say arts institutions have always changed to suit the masses.
“Arts organizations always have to change to survive whether it’s to accommodate taste or whatever it may be as they learn more about their audience,” said Indiana University Lily School of Philanthropy professor Tim Seiler.
When a balance is struck, innovation can enrich the traditional, Pinelo said. The orchestra pushes the envelope with Lumenocity, a concert series that marries classical music with video projection.
“Being in the digital space supports the concert hall,” Pinelo said. “Everything is pointing toward a live experience and building an affinity for what your band or artists do.”
Using modern techniques also opens the arts up to anyone with an internet connection — bringing the experience to more people than ever.
“A lot of people think this push toward digital will be bad for connecting with the arts,” Peppler said. “But really, it’s a doorway.”
Toppling the ‘ivory tower’
As technology helps reach new audiences, arts institutions have to combat the idea that museums or classical music venues only cater to the upper-class.
“There’s always been this ivory tower perception of the arts,” Pinelo said. “People have an idea in their minds about what it means to come to an orchestral concert, but you don’t have to wear a suit to love Tchaikovsky.”
“Certain visitors would come through the doors (of Cooper Hewitt) and feel like they needed to have their hands in their pockets, that they couldn’t touch anything,” Walter said. “It’s about making visitors feel more comfortable, that this place is for them.”
Peppler said arts institutions now have to be more flexible to make audiences come to them by changing performance times, ticket pricing and repertoires.
“Young people experience the arts outside these traditional venues but they’re not linking those experiences back to those foundational entities,” Peppler said. “When we say, just look, don’t touch, or even if the cost of attendance is a little too high, it’s impactful and they look elsewhere.”
The Cincinnati orchestra has combatted that notion in several ways — from offering pop performances to profiles of orchestra musicians.
“We’ve worked hard to de-mystify classical music and musicians,” Pinelo said. “If you can build up a sense of knowing that person, you’re more likely to develop an affinity for what they bring to a performance.”
As more young people become regular arts patrons, Pinelo hopes they’ll help define the new rules of the arts experience. He says he’ll know the newcomers when he hears them.
“With an orchestra concert, you’re not supposed to clap between movements,” Pinelo said. “But when I hear someone do that, I smile, because it means there’s someone new to the orchestra, and they loved what they heard.”
Finale from 'Star Wars – The Force Awakens'
Cincinnati Pops presents American Soundscapes: Finale from "Star Wars – The Force Awakens" in March at Cincinnati Music Hall.
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