Mystery Date

I spent last week looking forward to my usual Saturday night fake concert date, where the lovely wife and I sit around the house and listen to the BSO on the radio. Last Saturday’s concert had Daniel Barenboim, one of my favorite pianists, playing my favorite Beethoven piece (4th Piano Concerto) and my favorite Schoenberg piece (only Piano Concerto). Levine also programmed Verklärte Nacht, apparently because he likes to lengthen programs solely to annoy the union. (I kid because I love.)

I listen to WGBH for my classical fix, but, in the mornings, the missus and I have the clock-radio set to the other classical station in town, WCRB. WCRB is awfully conservative with their programming, but WGBH chooses to put on “Morning Edition” instead of music, and we’ve decided that waking up to yet another damn Baroque oboe concerto is marginally preferable to waking up to presidential soundbites. Anyway, the WCRB announcers will periodically throw in one-line teasers for that week’s BSO concert. So all last week I was hearing this: “This weekend, James Levine and the Boston Symphony welcome Daniel Barenboim for a concert of Beethoven… and more!

Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to wake up laughing my head off. And I’ve decided that one of my career goals is to have WCRB announcers refer to me as “and more.” But it got me wondering again about something I’ve always wondered about: why do classical-music organizations devote so much of their advertising to the specific repertoire that’s going to be played? Talk about preaching to the choir. Obviously, the marketing types think that Schoenberg’s name is going to scare people, but really, the mention of any composer’s name is going to drive some portion of your audience away. (Tchaikovsky-haters may be vastly outnumbered by Schoenberg-haters, but trust me, they’re out there.) And there’s a huge segment of the population for which the mention of any composer is an instant eye-glazer. How do you square this circle? Easy: don’t tell the people what you’re going to play.

Every time I walk by Symphony Hall here in Boston, I’m met with a phalanx of posters, identical in every way, except for a listing of each concert’s repertoire. Instead of a marketing dart aimed at the emotions, I find myself reading fine print. Is this really the best way to get people inside? Sure, there will always be a schedule—I don’t think an orchestra could get away with not telling what’s going to happen on, say, a subscription series; rich people like to know what they’re paying for, right? But that doesn’t mean you need to advertise to the non-subscribing public in the same way. If the bulk of your prospective audience doesn’t know any classical music (or, more likely, has heard some of the big hits but doesn’t know what they’re called), telling them what you’re playing isn’t going to do much. So focus your energies on making it easy for them to take the risk.

Here’s one possible scenario: set up another series of concerts. Schedule them on Friday nights, on the late side—9 pm, maybe. Cheap admission: five or six bucks, paid at the door (yeah, it’s a loss leader of sorts). And don’t advertise the repertoire. Announce everything from the stage. (Better yet, have a beautiful girl in a skimpy outfit put big placards on an easel. It worked for vaudville.)

Yes, it’s an extra burden on the orchestra in terms of rehearsals and performances, but not having to plan the repertoire months in advance means flexible programming: you could reprise a piece from a previous subscription concert, preview a piece from an upcoming concert, do a pops piece or two, some contemporary music, throw on a warhorse… change it at the last minute? Sure. You could tailor the concerts to the orchestra’s workload, and not the other way around. Your local assistant conductor (quick, name that guy/gal) can get extra podium time and exposure. There’s even a possible benefit with your existing audience base: all those snobs who think they’re tired of Beethoven? All those stick-in-the-muds who stay away from new music? Can’t avoid it if they don’t know it’s coming, can they?

I sometimes daydream that I’m at a concert like this: the orchestra dives into “Rite of Spring” or “Bolero” or (hey, it’s a daydream) “Symphony of Three Orchestras” and the audience applauds at the recognition of the piece, like they do at rock concerts. How cool would that be?


  1. Well, WCRB (and all the other commercial classical stations) aren’t playing music for the listener, unfortunately. They’re playing music for the dentist’s office or the law firm lobby or wherever people are sick of Light Rock Less Talk.“I sometimes daydream that I’m at a concert like this: the orchestra dives into “Rite of Spring” or “Bolero” or (hey, it’s a daydream) “Symphony of Three Orchestras” and the audience applauds at the recognition of the piece, like they do at rock concerts. How cool would that be?”It’s another Albinoni concerto grosso and the crowd goes wild!

  2. I probably shouldn’t make fun of WCRB as much as I do. At least they have taste—this morning I got Brendel playing a Schubert impromptu. I’m not going to look a gift horse of that pedigree in the mouth. (Plus, they’ve been on a bit of a C.P.E. Bach kick lately, which I can always get behind.)They are highly predictable, which is why I can only take them in small doses—if you don’t listen too closely, the day is pretty much divided up into a couple dozen identical blocks. I prefer WGBH because it’s even money they’ll play something I’ve never heard before. (Last month, for instance, I got a Meyer Kupferman guitar and orchestra piece I <>never<> would have listened to on my own. Not my new favorite by any means, but I still remember it, which is pretty good for my addled brain.)

  3. Yeah, it’s frustrating, but at least they are still there. We had a public station run out of a small private college (go figure) about an hour south of Minneapolis. They were a lot like how you are describing WCRB. A couple of years ago, MPR made a corporate-style grasp for it and turned it into< HREF="" REL="nofollow">this monstrosity<>, which is supposed to be “eclectic,” but really just plays to the indie rock crowd (the drummer in my band calls it “Wuss Rock”). I didn’t listen much to the old WCAL for pretty much the same reasons you give, but I was pissed when this happened. Now, regarding your point about advertising repertoire, I have to say that I feel pretty much the same way about program notes that delve into the realm of analysis. Musicians don’t need it and non-musicians don’t understand it, so why bother?

  4. WCRB Loves Tomato Al Bologna’s Chinkway music because its short, light and easy to listen to. They do play his pieces allot. But you are right about the dentist office. I do agree they should tell you after they play a piece what it was. Now because they have a commercial after any peice that ismore that 3 1/2 minutes the are hyping “Long Set of Music”. I guess that is more than 9 1/2 minutes. Then a barage of commercials. I guess if we don’t like there format they could become a PBS radio statin and have fund raisers 4 times a year. I think Laura Carlo and her fellow compadre’s are just trying to go with the flow. Thanks, B.A.

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