What Classical Music Learn from Ibiza




William Norris

William Norris

Back in the summer of 2015 I blogged for my then employer, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, about the appearance of ‘The Ibiza Prom’ in that years line up, asking whether orchestral covers of Ibiza club tracks really belonged in the world’s biggest classical music festival. My conclusion was, well, inconclusive, for while I questioned whether this really belonged at the Proms, and whether this hugely commercially successful music needed the backing of the festival, I couldn’t help but admit that I really, really enjoyed the Prom.

Well, I had enjoyed it from my PC – I’d been unable to make the live prom, enjoying it on Youtube instead. However since then, Ibiza Classics, as the project has now come known has become big business, with DJ Pete Tong, The Heritage Orchestra and conductor/arranger Jules Buckley having undertaken several successive performances and with other similar versions of the idea popping up all over the UK. The end of 2017 saw their second UK tour, and happily I was able to make one of the dates at London’s O2.

I can report that I had a great time. The evening was very very similar to the initial Prom, albeit in a venue four times the size and with a smattering of new tracks and vocalists. You can watch it all on Youtube here by the way.

During the event, and after, while chatting to some (admittedly quite drunken) other punters on the tube hope I began to ponder what, if anything, orchestras and classical music can learn from the event.

Well, first, as I said back in 2015, I don’t think it’s going to convert anyone to Brahms, Bach or any other classical composer. But that is definitely not the intent now the event is free from the Proms (I really hope the BBC is earning some sort of royalty from this obviously lucrative spinoff).

It seems so far removed from hearing an orchestra in a concert hall that you’d think there is very very little to learn. But I reckon there are several things we can take away from Ibiza Classics.

Visuals: The visuals at Ibiza Classics were simply stunning. A mix of video and live footage, they really added to the experience.

Staging: Someone had decided that actually being able to see the orchestra was really important. Tiered risers meant the orchestra was presented to the audience on a gradual rake, meaning that even from the floor of the O2, everyone was visible.

Chat: There was a good rapport from the stage with the audience, mainly from Pete Tong (who introduced all the guest singers) and from the singers themselves. Sidebar: I do find it curious that at a gig like this it feels fine for the audience to be instructed to ‘make some noise!’.

Enjoyment: Shockingly, the musicians seemed to be having as good a time as the audience. I’d thought they’d all be just there to get through it and earn a few quid, but there were smiles all round. It’s an old thing to moan about, but still, how many orchestral musicians playing a standard concert look like they are enjoying themselves? Noble exception nods go to Tafelmusik and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

All in all, it was clearly an audience centred experience. The staging and presentation had all been thought of from the audiences point of view. It was obviously important that we had a good time (of course, – they want us to buy repeat tickets next year!). How many of us in the orchestral business really could claim to have an audience-focused concert experience? Do we ever think about sightlines when we look at staging the orchestra, or is it all done from the orchestras point of view? This thought actually occurs to me a lot in North America where the stalls/orchestra level of the auditorium is often lower than the orchestra and offers a view only of the conductor and violins.

While they are hackneyed topics, often discussed, any chat from the stage at a classical concert is still the exception rather than the rule, and ‘visuals’ tend to be limited to flat white light (with some noble exceptions, witness the Philharmonia’s experiments in this area). Why do we still present our music in a way more suitable for the 1950’s than the 21st century? I suspect because we know it would lead to a lot of complaints from our regulars, but I am convinced there is room for more experimentation than we see, and that we tend to be cowed by a very vocal minority, whose voice for some reason often has more weight than that of a newcomer.

All this to say, if younger (i.e. under 50) audiences really are so different in terms of their habits, desires and wants as many are saying then we really need to be looking at audience experience far more than we are – and rather than looking down on the commercial sector, learning from it.

Afterwards, on the tube home, we had a chance encounter with some other audience members, who were chatting about it. What fascinated me was how in awe they were of the conductor (or the composer, as they called him – this frequent mix-up underlining the very low knowledge of our art form among the general public) and the musicians. They were just amazed by their talent and by things like the violins all bowing in unison. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that this was actually incredibly simple music, so this really wasn’t a feat but their amazement at it did strike me – perhaps we sometimes fail to play this up in how we sell our concerts, because we take it for granted ourselves. There are probably many other things about what we do that people new to it would find amazing, and which could be real selling points.

A last word on the audience. What really struck me was its variety. It ranged from boozed up lads out for a night, to forty somethings reliving their youth, right up to people in their 60’s+ many of whom seemed to be dolled up for a posh night out. It was one of most wide-ranging audiences I have ever seen, and all the better for it.

And finally – I can’t help but note that I booked my tickets 12 months out and paid £50 to stand for 3 hours. There’s not many (any?) classical concerts that I’d do that for. Many tickets at the O2 cost a lot more than that. While in our sector we often obsess over ticket prices, I don’t believe they are the main barrier to attendance at classical concerts – a simple lack of desire is. Of course, ticket price should be part of the discussion when looking at new audiences, it just isn’t the only thing to look at, nor indeed the most important.

So there we go. Having pondered myself whether I’d really have enough material gathered from this event for a blog, it in fact turns out we could probably learn a lot from Ibiza Classics.

See you at the next one?

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