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The Meon Valley orchestra playing to a packed audience at the United Reformed Church, Fareham

How do you fill seats at performances of classical music?

25/02/2018

Andre Rieu seems to have found the answer already. His orchestra’s performances draw in vast numbers of people. And his concerts at Maastricht are beamed into cinemas and television screens all over the world. These are highly successful spectacles. Their repertoires are popular, well-known music containing lots of Viennese waltz material. Andre’s shows have a high standard of musicianship and musicality. These qualities are complemented by visual delights such as ballroom and ballet dancers, ice skaters, top class male and female solo singers, comic turns, fountains, coaches and horses, pyrotechnics, special lighting plus ever-changing backdrops. Roving cameras pick out members of the audience enjoying themselves. Andre talks to the audience throughout the show. The audience is encouraged to clap along with certain numbers.

The shows’ profits must be gigantic. But the outlay must be tremendous too. Expenses include purpose-built stages and sets, security, health and safety considerations, fire regulation adherence, printed tickets, programmes, multi-media advertising and public liability insurance. The musicians have to be paid too. Such operations are beyond the scope of amateur orchestras.

Critics say that music is being dumbed down and hackneyed.

Classic FM, twenty-five years old this year, has the right idea too. It broadcasts popular material at peak times such as during the school run and at evening drive time. Full works concerts and music for higher-browed listeners are broadcast in mid and late evenings. Consequently, 5.8 million listeners enjoy its wide variety of classical music. Of that audience, 1.2 million are under the age of thirty-five and 161,000 listeners are younger than the station itself. But live music is different from radio, television or compact discs. The main differences are that the devotee must leave the house, travel to the concert venue and then pay to listen.

There is also an important distinction to be made between amateur orchestras and professional ones.

Amateur orchestral musicians pay fees to play. Some, but not all, like to perform in concerts. Chamber music lovers may just want to rehearse and play for their own pleasure. Even so, the orchestra must allow the musicians to play at least some of the music that they like or they would leave. These may not necessarily be popular or even well-known works. The players’ musical tastes may be esoteric, high-brow or even obscure: more towards BBC 3 than Classic FM. For such musicians, the size of the audience may be of secondary importance. However, in the main, amateur musicians do like to perform at concerts as it gives them deadlines to work towards and an opportunity to enjoy the audience’s applause.

Professional orchestras are different. The musicians are paid to perform. They may have less of a say about the repertoire than their amateur counterparts. Their musical directors may have less choice over what they play because they have an audience to please. Their music must be either of a very high standard or popular enough to fill the venue. People generally like to hear music that they know.

All orchestras must have funds to operate. They need money to pay for rehearsal venues, concert halls and sometimes the hiring of specialist musicians or the buying of group-owned instruments like timpani, for example. Grand, geographically accessible concert halls are expensive. The cost of sheet music is an important factor too. Although many orchestras have their own libraries, newer modern works must be bought. Performing rights fees must be paid to play some works in public. Film and theatre show music often fall into this category.

Purists might argue that the quality of the music is the only thing that is important. Concerts where the performers are dressed in sombre, funereal black or starchy evening attire with the conductor hardly acknowledging the audience’s presence save for a few formal bows, do not please the majority of concert goers. It may be assumed that most have come to be entertained. Otherwise, they would get their music from radio, television or compact discs at home.

At classical spectaculars in the Albert Hall conductors talk to the audience and often encourage them into flag-waving or clapping their way through numbers like Redetzky March or Berliner Luft. At evenings like these female instrumentalists and singers are often dressed in eye-catching dresses while the men sport attractively coloured dinner jackets. At the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts the audience dresses up as well.

Pyrotechnics are also used together with canons and muskets to bring martial music to a tremendous finale.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is a professional outfit. Its February concert in Portsmouth Guildhall is billed as Heroes and Monsters. The programme includes works by John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Howard Shore. This is not aimed at lovers of high-brow music although their regular concerts contain more conventional classical works. The BSO has an emailing list of their followers and uses mail-shot advertising. Tickets can be bought online. The BSO also has whole day events where “rusty” and “not so rusty” amateur musicians pay to rehearse alongside the professionals and take part in a free concert in the evening.

Havant Symphony Orchestra is an amateur orchestra. It’s been going for fifty years and performs at Oaklands School, Waterlooville and the Hayling Island Community Centre. Its sister ensemble the Havant Chamber Orchestra plays at Fernham Hall in Fareham. The HSO plays a mixture of music. There are major, full-blown works such as Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky or Holst’s’ Planet Suite, balanced with “lollipops” like the overtures to Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss or the Merry Wives of Windsor by Nicolai. These are usually played alongside a concerto performed by excellent, visiting soloists on piano, violin or other instruments. The conductor does not usually talk to the audience. HSO has a website, sells tickets online and uses flyer advertising. It has a supportive Friends organisation and season ticket holders.

The longstanding Portsmouth Light Orchestra is another amateur orchestra. As its name implies, it specialises in light classical and easy-listening pieces including film and theatre music. Robert Farnon, Ronald Binge and Leroy Anderson are just some of the PLO’s favourite composers. Other pieces in their repertoire include the Pirates of Penzance by Arthur Sullivan, the Merry Widow by Franz Lehar and Pirates of the Caribbean composed by Klaus Badeit and arranged by Hans Zimmer. Film music scores are popular with their younger audiences. In a genial fashion, the conductor introduces each piece to be played. The PLO’s concert venues are the Buckland Community Centre and the Admiral Lord Nelson School. Advertising flyers and word-of-mouth helps swell their audience numbers. The PLO has a jolly Christmas concert where Santa hats and festive garb are the order of the day. Other concerts are performed in black dinner jackets and white shirts.

The Meon Valley Orchestra, Hampshire’s newest amateur ensemble, began as a tiny folk group ten years ago. Now it is a complete orchestral ensemble with brass, woodwind and percussion. Its repertoire is wide-ranging and popular, sprinkled with a few more serious works. The MVO has one main concert charity concert per year in the United Reformed Church in Fareham which holds an audience of 200. It is usually a sell-out. MVO also performs at village fetes, Christmas carol services and garden parties. Its players have a short-sleeved summer uniform and customary concert dress is white shirts with coloured bow ties for men and colourful dresses for ladies. Santa hats and decorated music stands appear at the Christmas fetes. The MVO does not have a website and most of their advertising is by posters, flyers and word of mouth.

For all orchestras, a balance must be struck between crowd-pleasing material and more serious works. They must choose between lightsome, entertaining presentations and ultra-formal performances. All orchestras must accrue funds to pay for necessary expenses and advertising to raise their profile and publicise their forthcoming concerts. Over time, all must build up a following, creating season ticket holders, supporters and sponsors. All must strive to raise their game and play at the highest standard possible, improving their performances with every concert.

Decisions over such matters are for musical directors and orchestra managers and, to a degree, the musicians themselves to make. Those who have the final say must be sensitive to all these aspects in order to achieve success.

Author: Stuart Reed
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