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VOL. 11 | NO. 11 | Saturday, March 17, 2018

Making Art Work

The days of pulling in new audiences give way to reaching out

By Andy Meek

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After he’d finished his part in a Memphis Symphony Orchestra performance a few weeks ago that included Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin, guest violinist Charles Yang came out on stage and did something unexpected.

By himself, no microphone, he started belting out ... “Stand By Me.”

“When the night, has come.”

Ryan Preciado holds Crystal Brothers while rehearsing a scene in “Peter Pan” with Oscar Fernandez, right, at Ballet Memphis. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The applause was rapturous.

“And the land is dark.”

Peter Abell, the symphony’s president and CEO, said the audience was so moved, so pleasantly surprised, to be greeted by the classical musician giving them an impromptu serenade with a classic ’60s ballad – during a concert featuring works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven – that they gave him a standing ovation.

Someone who dismisses the symphonic format, ignores the art form or even imagines the symphony to be something for only a certain kind of person – an outlet for somber music, written centuries ago, at shows for which you’re supposed to dress up and listen in rapt silence – would miss lots of musical rewards like that.

That concert, that performance – in which a contemporary non-classical connection, albeit still a musical one, was forged with an audience – was instructive. On multiple levels. It exemplifies, Abell and arts executives like him will tell you, the world we’re in now.

A performance like the symphony’s with Yang is in competition like never before for its audience’s attention. And really, that’s the whole game. A constant, no-holds-barred, never-ending land grab for attention. Every minute someone is not consuming your content on social media or reading your book, watching your show or attending your performance is a moment you’ve lost them to Netflix, to watching TV, to sleep – to anything.

It’s an attention economy. What’s more, the demands on that attention keep multiplying, and it’s easier than ever to turn away – or just click over – to the next thing.

That partly explains why, on April 21, the symphony – backed by a full rock band – will present a symphonic tribute to Prince. That show will be an orchestral presentation of a litany of the late singer’s hits like “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry” and “Little Red Corvette.”

Oh sure, there are plenty more traditional classical shows on the symphony’s docket this season. After that Prince show, in fact, conductor Robert Moody will lead a choral and organ spectacular at the Cannon Center on May 5.

Reaching out for a change

The Prince show recognizes the existential dilemma confronting Memphis nonprofit arts organizations today – the challenge of feeding audiences an art form that’s been around for centuries. Art forms that modern audiences might be inclined to shy away from, for that very reason.

How do you reach an audience, for example, that thinks the crowd at an opera, let’s face it, is too white? Too wealthy? Where the music seems unrelatable?

Violinists in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra play a concert alongside students at Kingsbury Elementary School. The orchestra is working to diversify its audience by reaching out into the community more, and its partnership with Shelby County Schools is an example of those efforts. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

You can look at that Memphis Symphony moment with Charles Yang and think, that’s pandering. But you’d be looking through the telescope from the wrong end.

Here, instead, is a look at how three of the many arts groups in Memphis – three focused on performance art forms that have been around for centuries: ballet, opera and the symphony – are trying to make their art work for modern audiences.

And one of the things they’ll tell you is that diversity isn’t about successfully bringing more people in. It’s not about pulling in, at all. It’s about the organization instead reaching out.

“The programming model from the past really existed in a vacuum,” Abell explains. “Where you would assume what people would want to hear based on maybe what hasn’t been played in a few years or what sells well in other places, and program that way. And you just kind of keep getting this recycled model.

“The new way of approaching it is taking a different view and asking the audiences the types of things they want to hear.”

That can include not asking but assuming, for example, that audiences don’t necessarily regard the art form as something hermetically sealed, frozen in time and not able to be influenced by modern sensibilities.

“What you find,” Abell continues, “is a lot of the pieces are great pieces and people want to hear them, but you also get driven into a whole new value set. Composers of color. People in Memphis want to make sure we’re presenting composers of color. Rising star guest artists. Guest artists who maybe approach the art form from a more contemporary look.”

He cites Yang as one example.

Nikola Pritz and Reginald Smith Jr. perform a scene in Opera Memphis’ production of “The Italian Girl in Algiers” at Germantown Performing Arts Center. (Opera Memphis)

“Another thing is in the way you present the music. Making it easier to get to. It’s not just the price. The price is an issue. We make a large effort to make sure it’s an affordable experience.

It also needs to simply be easier to do. We actually did a free concert at the Levitt Shell with the New Ballet Ensemble to kick off the season, in September.”

That inclusivity also drives how the folks at Ballet Memphis think about their charge – about presenting and getting audiences interested in ballet performances.

Ballet, again, is like opera and symphonic shows. You can’t package it, you can’t enjoy a ballet digitally the way you can a TV show or texting with friends. Well, technically, you can –you could watch a recording of a ballet performance, which speaks to the existential challenge: How to make live ballet necessary.

One thing you can’t do, explains Ballet Memphis CEO and founding artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh, is let old assumptions be. Which means ballet doesn’t have to be a precious thing and it can speak to the reality of the world today, for starters.

“We’ve done fusion kinds of works, one with lady jukers that also used the Hattiloo choir,” Pugh says. “And the jukers danced with ballerinas, and the jukers had tennis shoes and the ballerinas had point shoes. There was live music, and it just ended up being really quite … it just drew the audience in so fast and got them lifted up off their seats. And it was very popular when we took it to New York.”

And then there’s the special performance Ballet Memphis hosted in recent days as part of MLK50, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The company performed four short pieces all with “I AM” in the title, “I Am A Man,” of course, being the declaration on placards worn by striking sanitation workers in 1968 whose struggles brought Dr. King to Memphis for his fateful visit.

Again, it was not a shifting of emphasis away from tradition. Coming up in April at The Orpheum is Ballet Memphis’ performance of “Peter Pan,” staged by Ballet Memphis associate artistic director Steven McMahon.

“I think everybody’s trying to answer the millennial question,” McMahon said. “How are we going to predict their behavior or understand their ticket-buying or what they want to see?”

Andrew Crust, assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, leads the musicians as they play alongside students at Kingsbury Elementary School. The orchestra has an ongoing concert series that partners with various Shelby County schools to bring the orchestra to the campus and play with students. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

That, he warns, is something of a fool’s errand, however. It’s not about playing a guessing game. It’s about having a conversation and being humble enough to not force everything on an audience.

“It’s about breaking this idea that dance can only be viewed when we tell you it’s ready to be viewed,” he said. “We’ve found that most people, when they come to the ballet, even if it’s just one time, they generally have a great time. And it’s often unexpected and not what they thought it was going to be.

“We’re trying not to make assumptions about what we think people want to see. And I don’t think there’s any prescribed idea that’s going to engage audiences all the time. That means we’re going to have to keep trying and trying again, and maybe you do well one time and it won’t the next. And you have to look at why that might be. We have to be nimble and fluid and not make assumptions about what people want and talk to people. Listen.”

Listen, and look. One reason for the extensive tall glass windows enveloping the 38,000-square-foot building in Overton Square that Ballet Memphis moved into as its new headquarters last year is so the ballet company can look out. And be reminded of what – and who – is out there.

“It’s not the biggest ballet company headquarters in America, but I tell you right now I bet it’s the most beautiful, and I bet it’s the most open,” Pugh said. “There was a long thought-process when we were talking about designing the building and what values we wanted to show with the building. We wanted the glass not just so people could see us and feel like they could come satisfy their curiosity. They could walk up to the glass and see us and be welcome on the inside. There’s glass to see what’s going on in the costume room, too.

“I wanted the people working in the building to remember that there’s a world out there that we’re involved with.”

And that the company is not ensconced on some artistic mountaintop, in other words, handing down its representation of what the art form should be and look like.

When you have this same conversation with Ned Canty, the general director at Opera Memphis, you get an answer that expands to encompass everything from Netflix to classic rock to Spin Street, the record store at the corner of Poplar Avenue and Highland Street that closed in recent weeks.

And don’t ask him what he thinks should be done to make the Opera Memphis audience more diverse. That’s not the right question. He and the rest of the organization already know the typical opera audience hasn’t necessarily mirrored the demographics of the city it serves.

Think about it this way, he says, by way of explaining his point.

Mei Kotani rehearses 'Petere Pan' at Ballet Memphis's new facility on Cooper and Madison. (Memphis News/Houston Cofielkd)

“If someone doesn’t want to come and take part in a party you’re throwing, if they don’t come, then maybe you should be looking at the type of party you’re having, right?

“If we did every performance at 2 p.m. on weekdays, and then we said, ‘How come no young people are coming?’ Well that’s because they’re all working at that time. So if the goal is to increase that, then we have to look at a basic thing like -– maybe we shouldn’t be doing performances at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. What we’re trying to do is extrapolate that out farther so that, let’s be frank, it’s not just about, ‘How do we get more black people to come to operas?’ That’s not the question we should be asking.”

It’s that point again, about reaching out versus only being focused on pulling in. It’s why, for example, the organization hosts events like 30 Days of Opera, in which it actually breaks out of the opera house and takes its art out into the community. For an entire month, performances are held at festivals, on street corners – practically anywhere.

“The right way to look at this is, if it seems what we’re doing is only serving a particular slice of the Memphis demographic, well, what else do we need to be doing to serve the people we’re not serving right now?” Canty says. “We need to diversify the product before we even talk about diversifying the audience.”

A “Hamilton” moment for an opera organization, he concedes, is one way of doing it. Maybe a piece like “La Boheme” with an all-black cast. Opera Memphis also is commissioning new works, like a rock opera about Memphis wrestling on the way in April – part of Opera Memphis’ Opera 901 showcase, operas inspired by all things Memphis.

“I look at this city and see large, untapped markets, and I say – what can we do to see if there’s a product we can provide to get those people interested in who we are,” Canty says. “This is not touchy feely, this is not about political correctness. This is a factual demographic reality.

“It’s easy to forget Netflix began as a DVD rental-by-mail company. And now it’s a content company. I’m remembering the record store (Spin Street) that just went out of business. People still listen to music, but at a certain point the record store shifts. And the record store on the corner of a major intersection is no longer the appropriate way to handle getting music into people’s ears. If we don’t ask these kinds of questions, we go away. The thing to do is just constantly go through an aggressive series of questions to make sure you’re doing your utmost to serve every person in your city.”

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