Raising the Invisible Curtain

Classic Arts Features   Raising the Invisible Curtain
The Philadelphia Orchestra reaches out to its audience.

A young Philadelphia Orchestra violinist recently said of his experience onstage: "Once the music starts, gravity has been lifted and you're in a place of weightlessness and breathlessness; it's an incredible feeling."

While it's fair to say that those actually making music are likely to have the most intense experiences, most audience members can recall moments of being lost in the music, swept away, caught up, or, simply, fully engaged. It is the desire to repeat that experience that keeps us returning to concerts.

Music has the potential to enter our bodies and spirits in such a direct way that it goes right to the emotions. Recent brain research shows that the reception center for music is shared by only two other sensual experiences: eating and sexual pleasure. Most of us probably would like to feel more deeply engaged more of the time. But how?

The Philadelphia Orchestra is embracing this challenge as it looks to expand and cultivate its audiences, and develop new listeners for the future. With the help of a nationally respected leader in arts education, Orchestra musicians and staff are exploring ways to help their audiences enhance, broaden, and strengthen the musical experience.

"I have worked with many orchestras over the years, but I have never seen anything like the commitment, imagination, and excitement that I have seen at The Philadelphia Orchestra," says Eric Booth, an actor and arts educator who has been facilitating the Orchestra's process. A consultant to arts, business, and school organizations across the United States, Booth is currently on the staff of the Juilliard School, the Kennedy Center, and Tanglewood.

Orchestra cellist Gloria de Pasquale is helping to organize her colleagues' participation in the process. "We've had more than 70 Orchestra members involved in brainstorming and idea exchange," she reports. "There's a real desire to find new ways to reach people, especially young people." Next season, expect to see and hear more musicians speak about their experiences, during concerts and following them. Ideas for new concert formats are also being considered, as well as for traveling programs directed specifically towards families and college audiences.

Just before he became music director, Christoph Eschenbach spoke about his desire to "raise the invisible curtain" between the stage and the audience. The evocative phrase seemed to encapsulate the flavor of the strategic planning goals the Orchestra had set for itself, and quickly became the emblem for the entire effort.

Maestro Eschenbach also contributed many of the "Raising the Curtain" ideas that have been implemented this season. "Some are little things, such as having the musicians face the audience to receive their applause," he says. "This is a way for the audience to communicate to us, and we must always be looking to increase communication." To that end, the conductor also introduces living composers before their works are performed, encouraging them to share personal comments that can provide an entry point for the audience. Many audience members have remarked how much those comments, and those of guest conductors, such as Marin Alsop, have added to their experience.

As part of this season's Mahler Festival, Maestro Eschenbach hosted a symposium, held a post-concert question-and-answer session, and introduced a new practice in which he and a guest artist offer a mini-recital following the symphonic performance, which he calls a "Postlude." "Since neither of us could sleep after this, we might as well make more music together," he told the delighted audience before launching into songs of Mozart, Schumann, and Brahms with mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Among the more dramatic "Raising the Curtain" initiatives was the placement of a large video screen outdoors on Broad Street during last fall's Opening Night concert, so that passersby could experience a taste of what was happening inside Verizon Hall.

Less obvious perhaps, are new elements in Playbill, such as a glossary of musical terms, and changes to the Orchestra's Web site, www.philorch.org. All are designed to provide more points of entry to the music and the experience.

"When people dig into a work of art, they no longer have to ask about its value because they know," writes Eric Booth in The Everyday Work of Art. In order to "dig in," each of us needs a point of access, not necessarily involving learning or dealing with musical terminology, but rather involving some experiences or guiding ideas that help draw us in and hear with more than our minds, closer to the way musicians can.

The same principles work towards engaging new audiences. Opening one of his first rehearsals as music director to the public, Maestro Eschenbach took time to explain some of the process to the audience. Listeners were able to "catch" the give-and-take between conductor and musicians and experience the energy of a working rehearsal in more immediate ways. To the same end, students who attend rehearsals are now seated in the Conductor's Circle just behind the Orchestra, where they can observe the activity close at hand.

Sarah Johnson, the Orchestra's new director of education and community partnerships, observed the value of this approach first-hand when she served as a teaching artist for the New York Philharmonic. "When we invite young people into the artistic or creative process," she says, " it helps them to find personal relevance in classical music. This creates active, engaged listeners." Johnson has already incorporated many of the "Raising the Invisible Curtain" concepts into her plans for next season's Family and Student concerts.

For The Philadelphia Orchestra, "Raising the Invisible Curtain" is a long-term commitment. And while all involved pointout that the effort is still very much in the formative stages, the creative process is generating exciting energy. Already many more people are peeking behind that infamous curtain. And the Orchestra is only getting started.

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