By Lara Saldanha
I moved to the Pacific Northwest, known to be one of the quirkier regions in the United States, about a month ago. Having been thinking about unconventional performance experiences, I decided to embrace my new location and seek out classical music experiences off the beaten track. The concert I found, part of the Olympic Music Festival, was nothing like I’d ever seen before: Ray Chen and Julio Elizalde playing Beethoven, Saint-Saens, Ysaÿe, and de Falla in a barn.
I just started working for a consumer products company, and a lot of my job is helping to execute what the company calls the “first moment of truth.” What this means is that if a consumer walks into a store looking for a product, even if it is the best product in the market, he or she is not going to pick it off the shelf if it’s out of stock or hidden in a corner or has dull packaging or doesn’t communicate that it’s the best option. This is precisely what the Olympic Music Festival did well: curating an entire experience to improve the packaging around already great music.
From what I have gathered, natives of the region pride themselves on the natural beauty of the region and the quirky nature of its inhabitants. The Olympic Music Festival did a great job of appealing to their demographic by doing away with many of the stodgier conventions we associate with concerts. The most prized seats in the concert hall (where the box seats usually are) were bales of hay, which in turn made is perfectly acceptable to wear jeans and hiking boots and bring along plaid fleece blankets to keep warm. The rest of the seats were old church pews or kitchen chairs, giving the whole performance a more relaxed ambiance.
This is not to say that all the conventions of classical performances were thrown out the door, but the organization did a fine job of picking which rules to bend to make the experience more comfortable for concert-goers without creating unnecessary distractions to the performers. For example, taking photos and videos was still prohibited, but drinks were allowed inside the hall. And why not? It is in fact possible to sip a drink quietly, and there are few pleasures greater in life than listening to great music on a chilly day with a warm beverage in hand.
Another small adjustment that made a huge difference was extending the intermission from the customary 10-15 minutes to in the vicinity of half an hour. Most of us think of intermission as merely the short break between halves, but it may be more important than we think. In 2015, if we want to listen to a piece of music, we have the option of Youtube or Spotify or a CD or radio or any other number of ways. What differentiates a concert is that it is a social experience, an act of communication between performer and audience and between audience members who experience the thrill of a live performance together.
The intermission was designed to accommodate for this social experience. The lobby was as big as the concert hall, and a set of doors was also open from the hall directly outdoors so people could mingle outside. In fact, unlike many traditional performances, hardly anyone stayed in the hall during intermission, encouraged by the plushy couches in the lobby, and the most reasonably priced food and drinks ($1 coffee!) I’ve ever seen at a concert.
The last part of this social experience was replacing the program notes with spoken comments from the performers. This is something that I’ve increasingly seen done in small to medium sized performance spaces, and I think it’s highly effective for two reasons. The act of commenting on the music played not only helps audiences to understand the music being played, but to humanize performers into real people that speak (albeit often not as articulately as they play) and struggle with the music to make it sound as it does in performance and have a genuine emotional connection to their art.
Audiences today face two barriers to entry to live performances of classical music. There is the structural: that on-demand entertainment experiences are so easily available through services like Netflix or Spotify. And then there are the ones that we have created for ourselves, the conventions surrounding live performances that often make them uncomfortable experiences for new concert goers. But with just a few tweaks to tradition, I sat in an audience that was comfortable, attentive, and perhaps most astonishingly willing to drive from the surrounding metropolitan areas at least an hour and a half away to sit in a barn on a cold afternoon.