By Lara Saldanha
The summer after my freshman year of music school, I returned home to Geneva, Switzerland, fresh from piano juries. In the summer, Geneva comes alive with cafés and ice cream stands on the lakefront, paddleboats for rent, swimming in the lake, and stages set up for dancing in the evenings. What I hadn’t realized was that that year, Geneva had made an addition to its summer offerings—pianos in public spaces labeled “Jouez, je suis à vous” or “Play me, I’m yours.”
So in a cobbled street behind the train station with an assortment of restaurants and coffee shops surrounding, I took the piano’s invitation, and played the prelude of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G major from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Perhaps it wasn’t my most focused performance ever with the background noise of the cafés and trains, and without an audience as I was accustomed to sitting quietly in rows to my side. Without the pressure of an audience, it was almost as if I were playing Bach for myself, post-jury in a practice room, purely for the delight of G major. It was to my surprise then, that at the end of my prelude I had a handful of Genevans standing around the piano, politely applauding and saying “bravo”.
Recent press about the classical music industry has focused on the financial troubles of symphonies and opera companies around the country, a narrative of bankruptcies or rising from the ashes to avoid bankruptcy. Journalists and society in general have questioned what this means for the future of music.
Like most other industries in the 21st century, classical music is trying to adapt to a fast-paced society of rapidly changing technologies and a new generation that makes different demands than past generations. Performance has shifted in the last century and a half from the concert hall or salon, to an in-home experience with the advent of recordings, to an intensely personal and portable one with iPods and cell phones. Music is more easily accessible and ubiquitous than ever, and so live music performance should follow this trend.
Over the past few years, I have been intrigued by stories about classical music in unconventional spaces, besides the usual summer symphony performances in the park and educational programs in schools. In a TED talk released last summer, pianist Daria van den Bercken explains some of the innovative ways she has performed to mass audiences—riding through the streets of Amsterdam, flying suspended on cables above São Paulo, and inviting people into her apartment for salon-style performances of Handel. When asked why she takes on these projects, van den Bercken explains that “I did it because I fell in love with the music and wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”
In my hometown of Cincinnati, the symphony started a program called LumenoCity in 2013, a light show projected onto the façade of Music Hall accompanied by the symphony and pops orchestras. In its first year, 35,000 people watched the show from Washington Park across the street, an area of town better known for its poverty, shootings, and riots just a decade ago. Two million people engaged with this event on social media, in 2014 free tickets were reserved within minutes of being released online, and this year tickets are being sold for the first time.
And the street pianos I played in Geneva three years ago? They’re part of a worldwide art project started by British artist Luke Jerram in 2008, and similar projects have become a much-celebrated part of the soundscape in New York, Denver, Sarasota, and Montreal, among other places. Once you start looking, the examples are endless—Cleveland Symphony musicians playing in bars to reach new audiences, Philadelphia Orchestra strings playing in an airplane stuck on a tarmac in Beijing, Copenhagen Philharmonic playing Ravel in the metro, and people all over the world volunteering to host concerts in their homes through the platform Groupmuse. What strikes me about all these performances is how rapt the audience looks. To say that these performances are the way to save classical music would be to grossly oversimplify the problem, but audiences may not be as hard to find as we imagine if we simply step outside of the concert hall to reach them. Stripped of their “elitist” concert hall trappings, live performances of classical music do draw in those who normally might not seek it out.
The more I look into these types of performances, the more I realize that this is a part of a wave of innovation in performance unfolding all over the country—one which I would like to follow. So, this is going to be part one of a series on performances in unconventional spaces. Have you had an experience either as performer or listener with an unconventional performance? We’d love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments!