Selling the Vanguard

The San Francisco Symphony has a series called Soundbox aimed at attracting a younger audience with a ‘cooler vibe’ than we’re told classical concerts have. Great. It sounds, and looks interesting. It is elegantly made, and executed, with intelligent, compelling musical programming. Sure it’s dressed up with nice lights, a gig ambience and the hope of drawing in people conscious of the cool, but why wouldn’t those be good things? They’re doing good work and even extending everyone’s musical horizons on the way. It served to highlight my uncomfortableness with a similar project closer to home.

When I first found out about the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Vanguard series I almost posted about it on various platforms, but decided anything I had to say about it was either too sarcastic to be a productive part of the discourse, or too detailed (read long-winded) to be meaningful on Facebook or Twitter, and meaningful to anyone beyond me. I also tried to find out a bit more about it, from the SSO website and suddenly thought I had fundamentally misunderstood what it was. Returning to an interview with one of its organisers exacerbated my confusion as to what the series is, and for whom it was created. It seems to ape much of the Soundbox format (which can only be good), but lacks the integrity and crucial aspects that make Soundbox such an exciting prospect.

Let me try to explain why I had such a strong reaction to Vanguard, first positive, then negative and was left reeling by the gap between these two reactions.

When I first read that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was doing a series, called ‘Vanguard’ which would take their performers into alternative spaces for concerts I was thrilled. It seemed bold, exciting, even daring, in a way that I hadn’t expected. It seemed like the kind of forward thinking the Australian Chamber Orchestra has taken with their programs over the last few years, or something a little more like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis Series. The name ‘Vanguard’ also suggested, and so I – making an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’ – assumed that it would be a bold, exciting, even daring, approach to what music they were presenting. Remember music? That’s also, incidentally, what I thought the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were peddling.

When I read on it became apparent that the project, despite its branding, offered us nothing of the sort. Instead, it seemed to offer even less musically than it would in a concert hall, but then attached various distractions to make it more appealing to ‘The Youth’. If “Vanguard is music as you’ve never seen it before”, then why not combine it with a series that is music as you’ve never heard  it before?

Any way I look at it this seems to be the musical equivalent of charging admission to a flashmob.

I think it is cynical, and I think it is insulting. Of course there is a desperate need to attract ‘new’ and young audiences to classical music, or better yet to make it apparent that this is music for anyone who wants it. But is Vanguard the way to do this? A way to do this? Is it a moral way to do this?  Of course I may be wrong about all of this. Perhaps cool contemporary dancers conducting excellent musicians will be enough to draw in a crowd who are not interested in ‘the music itself.’ (Whatever that might mean) Let’s assume that that is what happens. Is that really a sustainable audience?  Is it worthwhile? Is that really going to bring people to music which is outside of their usual experience? Because if not, then it is a cynical move that robs those people, and the cultural ecology of what could have been.

But hey, in a world where André Rieu is the success he is, I simply – proudly – cannot pretend to have any kind of exalted insight. I don’t. But perhaps Maestro Rieu makes this point obvious too. I was once lectured by a friend who had attended one of André’s spectaculars that any scorn on my part was misplaced because it was a good thing which was bringing people to classical music who otherwise wouldn’t come to it, and that this in turn is a good thing for ‘Classical Music’ and everyone.

It’s an opinion so intellectually clean and intuitive that critique seems pointless, but there is simply no evidence that this is true. That friend has not attended any more classical music concerts, and has as far as I can tell gained no particular interest in classical music or attending classical events of any kind. This is, of course, completely fine, but flies in the face of the idea that by ‘dumbing-down’ classical musical experience we will draw people into the broader world of classical music. Why would you be drawn into something so facile as André Rieu? If that’s what classical music is, then thank god he only tours once a year. (I really hope he only tours once a year…)

But fundamentally my objection, and my confusion between the purported aim of “engaging a new generation of Sydneysiders” and what the Vanguard seems to be, lies in the question, who is this series for? I mean actually for. I don’t think the people they claim to be going for will be impressed. Hipsters – or any other representatives of The Cool Youth – are savvy and discriminating people and frankly its insulting to suggest that they can be lured in with such vacuous posturing even when sweetened with the Classical Prestige. I think it will make some people who normally subscribe to the SSO and demand the same old programs – and program – feel benevolent. Good for them, but let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

The strangest part of all of this, though, and what I think proves my complaint that some deception is at hand is that it is a subscription series. If you are really going after a new audience of young people, then who in their right mind asks for $500 membership to attend a few events? The economic model differs so wildly from San Francisco’s Soundbox ($25 a ticket) to make me assume I must have misunderstood what the series is. Not only is your demographic unlikely to commit to a subscription series, but they are not going to pay you $500 for it. This means you either don’t know who you’re trying to attract, or you aren’t really trying to attract those people. It is elitist nonsense, and maybe that would be fine, if it were more interesting. Meanwhile, I’m saving for a trip to San Francisco, and not paying $500 for a subscription series is a good start on this.

It is also insulting to the people who would actually like to attend intelligently programmed musical events. Events that are not embarrassing, and that they feel they could invite their peers to without having to make excuses. Want to attract audiences? Why not go for the people who WANT to be audiences, rather than those whose antipathy is such that they are drawn in by anything promising to be something other than what you’re trying to get them to.

This might all seem a little like an out of proportion reaction, and it is, but also keep in mind that the last time the SSO reached out to me, they rang me out of the blue, while I was at work, trying to sell me a subscription series. I asked them if they were doing any contemporary work, and was told there was one piece by Sibelius, and he’s quite contemporary. It’s very difficult to see this as anything but comically out of touch, and that’s extremely worrying for an organisation that is undeniably a cultural figurehead.

I hope that I am wrong, and look forward to seeing the wild success of the series, revolutionising both the way we think about classical music, who attends it, and how. This is, in itself, a great mission, but if that doesn’t happen, let the record show that I voiced my objection. If this is the Vanguard then I guess I’ll have to hold out for the ‘Après-guard’.

Selling the Vanguard

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