To classical music world, reaching out is critical to survival

“Relevant.”

It’s one of those 21st-century buzzwords that has slithered its way from the world of marketing and into the language of arts organizations everywhere.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra uses the word. Click on the “What We Believe” page at the CSO web site and it’s right there at the top.

“Our vision statement is ‘to be the most relevant orchestra in America,’” said Nate Bachhuber, vice president of artistic planning for the CSO and the May Festival. It’s a grand statement. A laudable one. But to be honest, there is something a little hollow about it, too. Bachhuber seems to understand that. That’s why he follows it quickly with this: “So once we’ve said that, we have to ask ‘What is relevant to you?’”

A half-century ago, that was a question that orchestras – or any other arts groups – rarely asked. It was the era of what Bachhuber refers to as “the expert myth.”

The idea was that the people who ran orchestras were the sole arbiters of what constituted good music. Important music. Essential music. In practical terms, that meant those same people, the experts, were the ones who determined what we – the audience – got to hear.

Nate Bachhuber (right) with baritone Gustavo Castillo after a 2022 May Festival concert

Bachhuber is one of those experts. He knows music inside out. Ultimately, he and a group of other orchestra-related people are the ones responsible for cobbling together the programming for entire seasons. 

But Bachhuber is one of a new breed of artistic planners.

“When we talk about relevance, we are talking about how we can have an impact on the lives of the people in our community,” he said. “And to accomplish that, we have to be as good at asking questions and listening to the answers as we are at making pronouncements.”

That is a pretty radical concept, especially in the once-hidebound world of classical music. But in the post-pandemic world of 2022, it is increasingly important.

“People get hung up on that word ‘relevance,’” said Jonathan Martin, CSO president and CEO. “It sounds silly to some. But the reality is that we want to be valued by more than 4% of the population.” That 4% figure is one that is often bandied about as the portion of the general public who attend paid orchestra concerts.

“We’re a community service organization,” Martin continues. “Our expertise happens to be music. We use music to serve this community. We have to review what traditional thinking has been. How, for instance, does this orchestra define this community? Not only people who are coming to Music Hall, but also the people who aren’t.”

That is where the evolving nature of artistic planning comes in. People used to liken the job to solving a giant puzzle, trying to make all the many pieces fit together into a single season.

These days, Bachhuber regularly meets with not just the artistic staff, but also with those involved in marketing and outreach and even development. Knowing who is at concerts is only part of the equation. Who should be at concerts is even more important. And who might be there, if only a few pieces of that puzzle were shifted.

“Remember that 4% I mentioned,” Martin says. “Continuing like that is not a path to sustainability. Half of our audience is going to be dead or too old to come to a concert in 10 years. The issues that Nate and others are working on are not just about growing our audience numbers. They are about our very survival. It’s going to be the difference between whether we’re here 25 years from now or not. If you look at the long-term trends, they ought to scare the hell out of you.”

Part of the orchestra’s formula was the March 2021 addition of Harold Brown as the orchestra’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. 

“I recall attending a seminar at Harvard 16 years ago where we were discussing innovation in existing organizations,” Brown said. “One of the case studies focused on IBM. At one time, they were known for the mainframes. But the computer world was changing. Suddenly, personal computing devices were seen by some people as the future. IBM survived because it moved into PCs, but it didn’t give up on mainframes. We can learn from that lesson. We need to change and to grow. But it is imperative that we achieve that growth without taking away from what has been so successful down through the years.”

So where do you find that growth? Who isn’t in Music Hall? And how do you get them there? Or, for that matter, is it really essential to get people into the hall.

“Everyone else,” Bachhuber said. “That’s who we want to attract. Everyone else.”

Typically, the type of audience growth you hear about most frequently is the effort to attract “underserved communities.” That’s a code phrase for adding Black and Latinx audience members to the mostly white crowd. But Bachhuber’s effort to grow the audience goes far beyond that.

Nate Bachhuber hosting a post-concert livestream Q&A in October 2020 with CSO Music Director Louis Langrée, Concertmaster Stefani Matsuo and principal oboe Dwight Parry.

“In a sense, I’m a futurist,” Bachhuber said. “That allows me to have really productive conversations with guest artists and orchestra members. And with so many colleagues here at the CSO – people in marketing. And with Harold and Jonathan. And Tiffany Cooper (director of community engagement and diversity). With Sam Strater (senior adviser for Cincinnati Pops planning) and Anthony Paggett (director of artistic planning). And so many other people. And Louis (Langrée, music director), too, of course. They are all eager to share their knowledge of music and audiences and with stories that we need to be telling.

“I’m sure everyone else you’ve talked to has said the same thing. We have to play the long game. There are immediate needs. But we need to continue building toward the goals that we all know are really, really important: diversity, equity and  contextualization around the work that we have already been presenting for centuries.”

He reflects on the Cincinnati Pops’ October performance with the rapper/actor/poet Common.

“Performances like that are vital for us,” Bachhuber said. “Not just because we get people into the building who aren’t usually there. But also because we have a chance to meet new people and listen to them and learn from them. On nights like that, I know we’re going to learn something about ourselves. That is what is exciting for me. Yes, the audience is going to learn who the Cincinnati Pops are. But we are also going to learn something about our own community. And together, all of us will learn about this remarkable artist’s story.

“So you want to know how we’re going to bring people back to live performances? This is how. My focus is on people. Obviously, I love music. But to me, the thing I love most in the world is people, and finding artists who are able to tell their stories in an impactful way. That is what is going to bring people back.”


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