An Interview With Klaus Heymann Part 1

Step three in this series entitled “How To Save Classical Music” is an interview with Klaus Heymann, Chairman of HNH International, the parent company of Naxos.  I spoke to Klaus in early April where we discussed several of his ideas and observations about the current state of classical music and its future.

Klaus, through Naxos, has a long history of actively promoting classical music among new listeners as opposed to only focusing on an established core of individuals.  On the Naxos web site, they offer a “Learning Zone” where visitors can find a wealth of information ranging from an “A-Z guide to classical music” through “learning how to listen to classical music”.  Naxos recently compiled an exhaustive collection of entries from their world-wide audience for their “Saving Classical Music Competition”, resulting in a 16,176 word, 51 page document.   In these results, readers tell Naxos what they like and dislike about classical music and orchestra concerts as well as offer their solutions for improving concerts and developing new audiences.

This level of direct awareness demonstrates Klaus’ commitment to the industry and classical music as it is consumed throughout the world.  Our discussion focused primarily on ideas to help revive orchestras and reestablish their relevancy within their communities.  Additionally, Klaus provided the text from his recent speech delivered to the 2003 Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio convention in San Diego, CA.

Throughout my interview with Klaus I was struck by how much of what he said to me was very much in line with my own observations about the industry. He was energetic to talk to and delivered a wealth of ideas and observations about the industry.  After the interview, when I thoroughly read Klaus’ speech and went through the text from Naxos’ ‘Saving Classical Music Competition’ results, that feeling only intensified.  Given these sources of information, I began to notice three strong themes that centered on how classical music needs to improve.  We’ll use these themes to help shape this segment of “How To Save Classical Music”.

1. The classical music concert experience needs to change.

I began the interview by asking Klaus what he thought about how the orchestra concert experience could stand to change.

Klaus: Orchestra performances need to resemble more of a ‘concert at home’ experience. People are used to having good fidelity and being able to view the concert from different angles.  They need to be able to see the orchestra and the conductor from that same variety of angles.  Thematic concerts are also a good idea, the common theme is something the audience can connect with regardless if the can relate to everything in the music or not.

I found this interesting because it led me to remember a time when I was in an electronics store watching an HDTV plasma screen TV on display.  The program featured a chamber orchestra concert with a piano soloist.  At first, I was going to walk right on by, but then I noticed that the view wasn’t just changing from camera angle to camera angle.  Instead, the view was constantly moving in a three dimensional pattern.  As they switched from one view to the next, I noticed that the cameras were mounted to hydraulic gimbals that were moving the cameras in three dimensional spaces.  You saw a lot of the conductor and soloist (the shot creeping up from the far side of piano to above the pianist was incredible) but you also saw players and audience members.

I stayed to watch the entire program just to view the credits and it turned out that this was a production made especially for HDTV demos.  Incorporating this type of technology into concert halls is a must, and not just for the listeners at home, but also for those in the hall.  Being able to watch a large screen with this type of camera work while at the same time sitting in the hall and listening to the live sound would be a fantastic experience.

Klaus: Audiences find many orchestra concerts boring; they need to become an event.  The performers need to talk with the audience so it has the same level of interaction as humans.  Ideally, the musicians and soloists should speak directly to the orchestra and failing this, orchestras should engage a regular presenter in lieu of relying on written program notes.

I couldn’t agree more.  When I programmed concerts for the Baltimore Virtuosi, I wrote a concert script and hired a professional announcer. In between each piece it allowed for stage changes and the players to catch their breath as well as the audience to become more connected to the music. Beyond including a play list, there were never any program notes in the concert booklet.  The soloists were hired based not only on their artistic ability, but also on their ability to engage the audience and entertain through their words as much as their music.  The audiences ate it up; even the traditional “we only want to hear the music so stop talking” crowd liked the new perspective.

Klaus: Audiences should be encouraged to applaud whenever they feel like it and not feel as though they should dress up to attend concerts.  The old traditional standards for what make up an orchestra concert are over.  But you have to be able to build a bridge between that existing traditional audience and the new audience that desires the higher level of interaction.  You can start off by creating two different types of concerts and slowly, over time, begin to create one new standard.

Classical music concerts need to perform more new music.  People do want to listen to new pieces but they prefer not to be confronted with them for the first time in the concert hall.  This is where local radio stations can help by programming the new works in the week preceding the concert.  Orchestras can also utilize the internet by inviting listeners to hear the new work through the orchestra’s web site.

In addition to these good suggestions, the orchestra docent program from step one in this series will function to help people develop the confidence they need to feel good about their ability to decide what they do and don’t like.  It will also begin to turn around the general misconception that new classical music is difficult to listen to and overly intellectual.

Here’s what some of the people from the Naxos ‘Saving Classical Music Competition’ thought about changing the classical music experience:

  • Concerts are viewed as stuffy – having to dress up, sit down, shut up, and sit up. A way needs to be found to shift the ambiance of concerts so that they are not too stuffy.
  • The main problem with concerts is their predictability.
  • The audience doesn’t participate and what happens in the concert hall, the music and its meaning are not being shared.

I invite you to return tomorrow where we’ll continue with the next installment of an Interview With Klaus Heymann and explore point two: “We need to find new ways to revitalize classical music organizations, not classical music.”

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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