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Classical music waltzes with digital media

Orchestras like the L.A. Phil and Pacific Symphony join the classical world's dance with Twitter and Facebook in hopes of engaging and luring a tech-savvy public.

August 07, 2011|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Classical music meets social media.
Classical music meets social media. (Photo illustration by Paul…)

The classical music industry loves Nikita Pacheco. They don't know the 29-year-old graphic artist personally. But she represents their future and they're striking every note in their new digital media handbooks to please her.

To many, digital media is the sound of salvation for classical music. To others, it's another power chord crushing the soul of the art form itself.

Take the "tweet-cert" held by the Pacific Symphony last month at its summer home, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. Determined to draw people like Pacheco into classical music through the language of her generation — 140-character tweets — the Orange County orchestra encouraged audience members to please turn on their smart phones and tweet or text during the outdoor concert.

Pacheco and her husband, Jorge, 33, of Norco, attended the concert on their monthly date night. They were jazzed by the idea of tweeting during the concert, though got the tickets because they included a Bristol Farms picnic meal and cost $39 each.

As the concert opened with the overture to "The Marriage of Figaro," Pacheco clicked on her iPhone and began following tweets posted by the Pacific Symphony (actually hired-hand Jonathan Beard, an L.A. composer) and the marquee guest performers, the sibling pianist group 5 Browns (when they weren't onstage).

The tweets popped up as real-time program notes. During Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," Pacheco read: "The 'kangaroo-hopping' effect you hear is accomplished musically via the use of grace notes: small quick notes added just before each beat."

Pacheco was delighted. Under her Twitter name, curicogirl, she tweeted, "enjoying the moon rising behind the amphitheater ... What a beautiful night!"

A few days later, Pacheco admitted she had mixed feelings about being on Twitter at the concert, which featured a total of 300 tweets during the performance.

"For me personally it was kind of distracting because even though the music was really good, I just wanted to see what other people had written," she said. "Every 15 minutes I was checking to see who had posted what."

At the same time, Pacheco said, "I totally see its benefit to get more people to come to these concerts. We need to get more younger people there! Me and Jorge always feel out of place. There's maybe five couples our age at these events."

People have been lamenting classical music's graying audience since before the Beatles' first album. Still, it seems astounding that in 1966 the median age of the classical music audience was 38, reported a seminal performing arts study at the time. Today at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance, the average concertgoer is in her or his "high 50s," said Shana Mathur, the orchestra's VP of marketing and communications.

But that's not the grim tune. This is: Since 1982, attendance at classical music concerts among people 18 to 24 has dropped 37%, according to a 2009 study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Attendance among people 45 to 54, who likely grew up with some idea of who Leonard Bernstein was, has dropped 33%.

More than two-thirds of today's orchestras operate at an average deficit of $700,000. The L.A. Phil, with its $94 million annual operating budget — and a lustrous concert hall and dynamic conductor — is an eminent exception. And while the $18-million Pacific Symphony plays in a different financial league, it balances its budget.

Still, the struggle to forge new audiences might be illustrated by the tweet-cert. Though the much-publicized 5 Browns helped draw a respectable 7,000 people for a classical concert — the amphitheater was still less than half full. So it's no wonder the Pacific Symphony, L.A. Phil and orchestras around the world are now passionately pursuing audiences where they live: Facebook and Twitter.

"Classical music has been a relatively closed art form," Mathur said. "It's been elitist, not very approachable, and something people experience cerebrally and on their own. Now we're exploring how digital media can enhance sharing and a more universal appreciation of it."

Mathur, 40, though, sees the irony in her job. "The flip side of engaging people through digital technology is that digital technology is actually the reason why people's attention span has decreased," she said. "Now what's our attention span? Nine seconds? It used to be three minutes. I'm one of them. I can barely sit still for more than a couple of minutes without thinking 'what's on my phone.'"

"What's so lovely about the older generation is their ability to just listen to music. And no matter how hard we market, that's a really hard thing to transform in younger generations. So it's the obligation of the industry to start adapting to that reality."

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