American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

Carnegie Hall has crappy marketing (and other reasons for the death of classical music)

Posted by Josh Friedlander | 3 Comments

So here is the crux of my problem with Carnegie Hall: It worships the musicians at the expense of the music.

I am on the list for Carnegie Hall because I’ve attended a couple of concerts there, but I rarely respond to emails or mailings and I haven’t been to the Hall in years. Why? Because I can’t read the marketing materials. I just can’t understand what I’m seeing. It makes no sense to me.

Let me explain. In mid 2010, Carnegie Hall sent out a pamphlet with a bland picture of an orchestra on the cover and a headline proclaiming “2010-2011 Season: Subscribe Now!” First, what is a season? Does it last a year? When does it start? We’re already well into 2010, so this is baffling. Is the “music year” like a school year (Sept to June)? I’m not familiar with this concept of a season. Already I feel like I’m being snubbed by people who assume I know the habits of their particular world.

When I open the brochure, it is not arranged by date or by musical subject matter but by weird designations that make no sense to me, the first of which is headlined “International Festival of Orchestras III.” Clearly, in every sense, this brochure is intended for some musical maven who has been to sessions I and II and knows the score (yuk yuk). The festival is international because it features orchestras from Vienna, Mariinsky (is that in Russia?), Saito Kinen (ummm…Japan?) and Toronto. So here is the crux of my problem with Carnegie Hall: It worships the musicians at the expense of the music. The management must assume that I’m interested in going to see musicians perform. I am, sure, but what I’m really interested in is hearing music! I’m going to make my selection based on the music first.

In every way, the brochure treats the music as secondary. The three main headings are International Festival of Orchestras III, Great American Orchestras I, Great Artists II, The Originals and The New York Pops.

What could they possibly be thinking? They’re thinking like mavens, for whom watching experts at work must be highly fulfilling regardless of what they perform. Some orchestras are doubtless far better than others, but I’m just someone who wants to listen to the music. I am paying Carnegie Hall (and isn’t this really the value they offer?) to provide me with world class music and to make these difficult decisions about whom should perform what. Again, my focus is the music.

Having selected to preference “terroir” over taste, Carnegie Hall then lists the musicians. Here, I understand better that some musicians are the famous athletes of their field, but are we still not putting the musician before the music? Well below the name of the conductor and the key performers, we finally get down to the heart of what will be presented. And the musical choices are provided with no explanations whatsoever!

The brochure contains one listing for an “All Berlioz Program” that involves an actor, a tenor, chorus and director. Well, what the heck is the actor for? Am I supposed to guess? No. I’m just supposed to know. If you don’t know, you aren’t part of the club. Could this be part of the reason that young people don’t go to Carnegie Hall? Would it make sense to highlight the music and not the musicians? To explain what the piece is about and why I should want to hear it? Carnegie Hall’s tactic is as useful as reading a wine label that talks only of the vineyard, its owner and his family, and tells you nothing about the grape, the wine and its flavors. To a newby, this information is not very compelling!

Finally, the pricing is nebulous. “Subscriptions start at $169″? For what?

Carnegie Hall should rethink its marketing approach. Here are some of the critical facts I like to know before I book an evening of music, none of which is addressed by the brochure I received:
- What type of music is it? Medieval or Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern?
- Is it going to be loud? Is it aggressive or calming? Will my date and I be ready for something mellow and then have to listen to 40 minutes of screeching modernistic drama?
- How long is it going to last? !!! Am I going to be stuck listening to choral music for 45 minutes or 2 hours?

With slight alternations, Carnegie Hall could get a lot more of my money. They just seem to be insular, star-focused, and clueless about how to bring in a less-experienced audience, but these problems are easily fixed.


3 Responses to “Carnegie Hall has crappy marketing (and other reasons for the death of classical music)”

  1. Joel Friedlander
    July 26th, 2010 @

    Carnegie Hall, slightly to the right of the Russian Tea Room, is perhaps the premier showcase for the soloists and orchestras of the World. Their method of advertising is was created to cater to the concertgoer who is interested in those things.

    It could probably be considered its mission statement to focus on the soloists and Orchestras rather than the music. For example, the music that the New York Philharmonic plays is listed and discussed in their advertising, but with the Philharmonic the emphasis is upon the conductor, because the orchestra is always the same. At Carnegie Hall you are going to see foreign orchestras and soloists to see how they approach the music.

    I think that it is inaccurate to say that the music is secondary at Carnegie Hall, it is just that the approach taken to the music can differ widely from nation to nation. This is why people will try to get tickets to hear what the Vienna Symphony Orchestra sounds like.

    Some years ago, after hearing many conductors perform Mahler’s 6th Symphony I went to Carnegie Hall to hear Pierre Boulez perform it with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. My special motivation was that Mahler had been the conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Thus, I wanted to see how the Viennese performed “Our Composer.” Boulez was brilliant that Sunday Afternoon. His approach to the music and his control over the orchestra was precise, and his view of the music unromantic, as opposed to Leonard Bernstein’s, approach which was full of drama and angst. I was thrilled to hear Mahler and to hear the Vienna play. I imagine that Mahler, who had a reputation for precision and extreme control (and temper as well) would have loved Boulez’s performance.

    I don’t think that classical music is dead at all. It is alive and well all over the United States; what it has a problem with is profitability. Classical Music has something to appeal to everyone, but it labors under the conception that it is elitist. It isn’t, but some of the people who listen to it are.

    It is possible for someone to love Carmen but hate Electra, and that is how it should be. I once went to hear a concert that included “The Execution of Stepan Razin,” a Cantata by Dmitri Shostakovich. I expected the Shostakovich of the Fifth Symphony but I heard something very unpleasant to my ears that day. What Josh would like is to be told in advance what the music is like so that he can select which pieces he wants to hear rather than be disappointed.

    That is a pretty good idea, but it falls down a bit because at times one conductor and orchestra can take a piece that sounds like cruel and inhuman punishment when played by a different orchestra and make beautiful music out of it. For example, going back to Boulez, the same afternoon he conducted the Mahler he opened the concert with 5 lyric pieces by Alban Berg. I had heard that piece a half a dozen times before and the performance by Boulez was the first time that it came together for me. Boulez was a post 12 tone writer and he understood that 12 tone music was supposed to be music and not noise. It was a revelation to me. But, if I had selected to listen based upon the music only, I would have been throwing one down at the Russian Tea Room for the first piece of the concert.

    Sometimes you have to take a chance!

    I think that the type of person who goes to Carnegie Hall wants to experience music the way it is made elsewhere, without having to travel all over the World to hear it.

  2. Josh Friedlander
    July 27th, 2010 @

    “I don’t think that classical music is dead at all. It is alive and well all over the United States; what it has a problem with is profitability.”

    That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?

    I can’t agree that one orchestra could make me love a piece enough to redeem a piece that I hate. I just don’t have that sophisticated a palate. While Carnegie Hall is celebrating its chefs, I’m still stuck on not knowing what the specials are!

  3. Joel Friedlander
    July 29th, 2010 @

    The specials are almost all available on youtube. All you need to do is to check what is playing at Carnegie Hall, then go to youtube and listen to another performance. There is no way that Carnegie Hall can tell you in words what a piece of music sounds like but it is possible to check it out before you buy tickets.

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