Yes, You Can Make Classical Music for Everyone

Marna Seltzer asks: 'How can we make this feel relevant to more people? How can we make it more diverse? How can we remove the barriers?'
By Catherine Yang, Epoch Times
September 20, 2018 Updated: September 23, 2018

There is a long, long list of reasons not to attend a classical concert. Two hours is too long. You sit too far away to see what’s happening on stage. You don’t know any of this music and won’t be able to relate to it. Where would you even start?

Marna Seltzer has heard it all. In her 25 years of producing concerts, she has heard about every perceived barrier that potential audiences have come up with, and at Princeton University, she’s been experimenting with how to do away with them.

Seltzer has been director of Princeton University Concerts (PUC) since 2010, and this season the chamber music concert series is celebrating its 125th anniversary. It’s the perfect time to put all of these best practices into effect, and the result is a dynamically varied program full of big names and interesting pair-ups.

The season features classical names like artist-in-residence Gustavo Dudamel, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, pianist Marc-André Hamelin; and crossover programs headlined by artists like mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. While the programs do include crossover concerts and chamber music that doesn’t necessarily follow the classical tradition, classical chamber music makes for the “backbone” of PUC.

“It represents the best and the most traditional that the world has to offer,” Seltzer explained by phone. But the new formats in which she is setting these concerts? “This is kind of a reimagining of a way to reach a lot of different audiences,” she said.

David Greilsammer at Princeton
David Greilsammer performing at Princeton University Concerts Up Close. (Andrew Wilkinson)

Getting Up Close

Three seasons ago, Seltzer put on a concert series with the idea of getting people closer to classical music. A lot of the concerns that younger, would-be audience members had was with the stuffy ritual of attending a concert: being ushered into silence, not knowing where the best seats are, and being detached from the music.

So she did away with those formalities, turning the stage into the setting itself by seating the audience on stage—intimate groups of no more than 150 people.

A narrator eases the audience into the concert and into their seats by talking about the piece to be performed or reciting some poetry, similar to the overtures that used to be played at the beginning of operas, ballets, and in old movie theaters to get the audience’s attention as they arrived from the lobby to their seats.

“This year we engaged a team of theatrical designers to basically curate the entire experience,” Seltzer said. From the lighting to the auditorium entrances, the whole experience has an atmosphere that is meant to be curiosity-piquing and engaging.

And the program? Just a single piece of music, one masterpiece. The first concert this year will be Schubert’s very last chamber work, the sublime Cello Quintet. In lieu of a program, after the performance the artists introduce themselves, discuss the piece they just played, and take questions from the listeners.

calidore quartet
Calidore String Quartet performing at Princeton University Concerts Up Close. (Andrew Wilkinson)

As such, despite the fact that most of the audience is new to classical and chamber music, there’s no need to take special consideration with the program in that regard.

“I have found that … we can present a much, much more ambitious range of music because people feel like they’re in it with the artist,” Seltzer said.

From start to finish, the performances don’t last more than an hour, and run twice (once at 6 p.m. and again at 9 p.m.), making the concerts easy to fit into any schedule.

The casual, accessible nature of these shows has made them a huge success.

“We just tried to remove all of the things that we hear people tell us about the challenges of being a new person in a classical music setting, and the response has been amazing,” Seltzer said. “The curation this year is really the culmination of everything we’ve experimented with.”

Seltzer has also started a creative writing contest on campus, asking for students to write about anything that comes to mind as they experience the season’s musical offerings. Time and again, the results garner a hundred or so responses describing some of the most profound experiences students have had.

Reaching Beyond the Classical Concert

Seltzer is also bringing several new things into the mix with the 125th anniversary of PUC.

The Crossroads concert series presents completely unexpected musical pairings. One program, for example, features a banjo player and a Chinese guzheng player, linked together by each artist’s personal journeys through folk music. Another pair features Avi Avital on mandolin and Omer Avital (of no familial relation) on bass. The third of the series is a song cycle by Gabriel Kahane, who hopped on a train the day after the 2016 election and took a nearly 9,000-mile trip gathering stories from constituents.

“What we’re trying to celebrate there is music’s ability to tell stories and start conversations,” Seltzer said.

There will also be two concerts that promise to defy genres: Bobby McFerrin will perform Circlesongs, a spiritual series that explores more than one era of music; and Joyce DiDonato has put together a program that threads Italian Baroque to American music.

These creative efforts to reach new audiences are working: PUC sees younger audiences year after year, and often engages listeners who have never been to a concert, sometimes sparking an interest to explore more classical and chamber music.

Seltzer says that, of course, the series benefits from being on a college campus with students all around—and still, the most traditional of programs tend to see an older audience.

But that’s not a bad thing, Seltzer explained.

“For whatever reason … people seem to mature in their lives and matriculate into classical music later,” Seltzer said. “That’s a constant … you get past a period in life where maybe you’re focused on your career, maybe you’re focused on raising children, maybe you’re just ready to think about life in a more expansive or different way, and suddenly classical music looks a lot different to you.”

Seltzer doesn’t mind if this music isn’t everyone’s first choice; she just wants to be able to deliver it to everyone who is interested.

“I want them to be fully engaged … and I want [the music] to transform their lives, and I think it can,” Seltzer said.

Chamber music—small ensembles—is in many ways the perfect way to introduce listeners to the classical canon. Dubbed the friendliest music, this musical form emerged in small salon gatherings, in ensembles where luminaries like Haydn and Mozart played together.

It’s a form that truly bridges all people: Established musicians pass on a way of playing to emerging artists in trios and quintets, amateurs meet up regularly to sight read and discover new music with sometimes complete strangers, and the annual Late Night Chamber Jam in April sees musicians from 12-year-olds to 90-year-olds play with professionals from famous orchestras.

To get at the answer of why such music endures and still moves us so many centuries later, PUC has turned to a wide range of thinkers and artists and professionals to write on their most profound experiences with music. The book, which will be released in 2020, includes pieces by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, music critic Alex Ross, and director Peter Sellars, among many others.

“To me, the greatest concerts make you leave feeling happy to be alive, feeling grateful to be alive, and to experience human emotions, and not everything can do that—and it brings us together too, in such a profound way,” Seltzer said. “[It’s] art that has the ability to pierce your heart and make you feel real emotion.”