Redesigning the Orchestra Experience

The New World Symphony (NWS) recently performed a new kind of orchestra concert called Dimensions, which was designed with the audience in mind.

Photo by Ruis Diaz

The question

“How can we inspire new audiences to invite classical music into their lives?”

The concept

A concert format that gets the audience more actively involved in the music.

  1. Musicians of the orchestra (called Fellows at NWS) introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people.
  2. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami.
  3. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Orchestra musicians are not usually involved in the creation and production of concerts, so it was a rare opportunity for me, a clarinetist, to lead this project. It was sure to be a cool experiment…but the staff, musicians, and I were blown away by what happened .

The result

After this performance, we saw in the eyes of our audience members truly organic inspiration. They started to make music a part of their lives and wanted to come back for more. If you’re aiming at similar outcomes, here’s an outline of our approach to creating this experience.

Photos by Alexandra Guardia and Ruis Diaz

Map the audience journey (and get them closer to everything)

- Meet Fellows immediately upon entering the building, receive interactive program with post-it notes and marker.

- Upon entering the hall, walk past the stage, which is lowered to the ground (down from the usual 3-foot elevation), close enough to walk onto.

Photo by Ruis Diaz

- Introduce themselves to other audience members when prompted by host at top of show (the hall erupted with joy and enthusiasm at this moment, which set the tone for the entire concert).

- Learn about concept: purpose of this format is to more deeply enjoy music and reflect upon it in new ways.

- Travel through stories and performances with host, who occasionally interacts directly with audience members.

- Use post-it notes to respond and create.

- At intermission, start to post responses on displays in the lobby.

- Interact with more stories and music on the second half.

- Following performance, join Fellows for free wine and discussion while continuing to post responses.

Invite the musicians to pick the repertoire

Fellows were asked to pick pieces and talk about why they love them. From there, we came up with entry points for an audience with a wide range of experience with classical music, devising questions and immersion exercises that would get the audience inside the music.

DIMENSIONS Program (Piece — Concept — Creative Engagement)

GABRIELI | Canzon Per Sonar Septimi Toni №2 — intro piece

BARTÓK | Concerto for Orchestra, II. Game of Pairs
“What makes a great partnership?” — the intricacies of good ensemble playing
 Introduced by Masha Popova, flute
Game of Pairs — a duo exercise, stand back-to-back and read a familiar passage from Romeo & Juliet to get a sense of the nuance of performing in sync by tapping into intuition

BRAHMS | Symphony №4, II. Andante moderato
“Why do I feel things when I hear music?” — how harmony evokes emotion
 Introduced by Darren Hicks, bassoon
Harmony Origami — take a post-it and fold every time you hear a change in the emotion of the music, roughly tracking the harmonic journey of the piece

MAHLER | Symphony №8, II. Closing Scene from Goethe’s Faust [excerpt]
“What is your song?” — song/piece that describes you in a way words can’t
 Introduced by Ansel Norris, trumpet
Listen & reflect

I N T E R M I S S I O N

CAROLINE SHAW |Entr’acte
“How do you draw sound?”— the many ways music evokes imagery
 Introduced by Esther Nahm, viola
Pick most intriguing sounds and portray them without using words.

SHOSTAKOVICH | Symphony №11, II. Allegro [excerpt]
“Where does music take you?” — when music transports you to another place
 Introduced by Christopher Hernacki, bass trombone
Sit back and close your eyes, see where the music takes you

TCHAIKOVSKY | Symphony №6, IV. Finale. Adagio lamentoso
“What holds you back from telling the truth?” — music as a place to hide our secrets
 Introduced by Jarrett McCourt, tuba
Just listen

Ask audience members what they think

By posting their responses for all to see, we gave the audience a tangible way to contribute and make their voices heard on a colorful display of thoughts.

How the audience reacted

People fell in love. Not with each other, not with the host, not with fine art or tradition. They fell in love with orchestra music. People who had never been, people who have been going to concerts for 30 years, people who know classical music and people who don’t even like it. It became theirs. Many of them left wanting more.

This is some survey feedback we got:

“Beautiful and highly creative approach. Amazing emotional experience, well done.”

“This was the first time I ever came to NWS but I definitely will come back”

“Perfect. Musical selections showed the meaning of the thoughts. Well designed!”

“A memorable evening of music and heartfelt introductions by the fellows”

“Thank you for a delightful evening with charming, talented young performers. We enjoyed the unusual quality of this event and the enthusiasm with which it was presented”

“Was a fabulous event and really opened the minds of my daughters to classical music — amazing format — if you did it monthly I would bring my family to all of them — the insights of the fellows into their musical choices along with the hosts commentary added incredible depth. Bravo!!”

“I would come to these sorts of concerts. Regular concerts don’t appeal to me, this was fresh and personal.”

“my second event at NWS, I brought 2 others who had never been to NWS, they loved it too, so now I have friends to come with.”

We discovered that about 35–40% of our audience was at New World Symphony for the first time, which is approximately 20 points higher than a standard concert, and people who would otherwise not come hear our orchestra have been inspired by this performance to return in the future.

Photos by Ruis Diaz

This was perhaps the first time they were invited to be a part of an orchestra concert, rather than witness it. This is like the difference between watching your friends go whitewater rafting from the shore and then actually going whitewater rafting with your friends (if you’re into thrills). These people were right there, in a giant raft in class four rapids, exploring the music alongside the Fellows and making their own conclusions about how music moves them.

The three best parts about this new format

1. It’s not an expensive solution. It’s not even a complex one. This experience leveraged resources that are usually underutilized in orchestra concerts: the passion musicians feel for music and the enthusiasm of audience members to get involved.

2. The program was not watered down, and included some old repertoire and some new. The musicians played their favorite music with unprecedented energy and the audience felt it. Many audience members felt the Caroline Shaw quartet carried the same weight as massive symphonic works by big names like Brahms and Shostakovich.

3. The audience had something to either do or ponder that would direct their attention more deeply into the music. For people who are newer to or less interested in orchestral music, they still had lightbulb moments while hearing music by making meaningful connections.

Four takeaways

1. With Dimensions, we designed a customer/patron experience that spanned the entire length of the event. Prosperous organizations and companies that draw people to their products are putting people at the center of their experience design. How can orchestras compete? Anybody can hear great classical music at home, but if the live experience is about actively participating in great live music with hundreds of other enthusiastic people, that’s a unique experience worth pausing Netflix and going out to a concert.

2. You can draw young people in with that Pokémon concert this weekend but what about Mahler’s Sixth Symphony next weekend? By fostering a culture that’s about discovery and human connection, we can inspire people to fall so in love with the experience of going to an orchestra that programming becomes more flexible–new and old, timeless favorites and bold challenges–and the audience will want to join regardless.

3. People love classical music, not necessarily because it’s a great triumph of humanity or incredibly impressive and virtuosic, but because it’s a beautiful language of human emotions and real world issues. Providing insight into that aspect appeals to a wider crowd than detailing historical context surrounding these works–only some people are deeply familiar with history, but everybody is deeply familiar with what it’s like to be human.

4. Personal connections matter. The audience’s favorite part of this experience was getting a direct look into the minds of the musicians. At several points, Fellows also had real opportunities to reach out directly to audience members. This inspired people to take the experience with them, and now people are spreading the story about how the New World Symphony impacted them.

Moving forward

Through the audience’s passion for personally connecting with great music, they will persuade friends and family to experience it for themselves. This can create a culture around people not just consuming music, but inviting it into their lives. We can empower audiences to make the orchestra experience their own.