To answer Dan Wakin’s quasi-rhetorical question, I think Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic felt they had a pretty good idea when they decided to produce a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre this week. There are two goals that the orchestra has in mind here, one is to present music and the other is to sell tickets. For the latter, it’s not just getting people into seats, but getting people into seats they have never sat in before and get them coming back.
This is a gamble only in economic terms, and certainly not one that, if it does not return 100% on the investment, is going to do terrible damage the Phil. From the perspective of what has only been done in the past, this is clearly upsetting expectations, with only 33% subscription sales for the run. But the Phil hired Alan Gilbert because they wanted to do something different than they have done in the past, and the transformation, as I’ve stated before, of the whole organization has been remarkable. Not only is Gilbert programming music that matters in the here and now, but the orchestra is making excellent use of digital media, both to distribute their evolving legacy as a living memory via their season pass but also in gathering a wide net for new audiences. Le Grand Macabre is an ideal choice for that; there’s the cachet of the very first performance of a major work in New York City, there’s Ligeti himself, an excellent composer who has fans in the rock and experimental worlds who would never otherwise dream of attending a Philharmonic concert, and some fine promotional material as well, via digital videos. Some are witty little ads:
Others are shown almost live and give you a specific look into the music and are ideal for the curious:
The event isn’t a gimmick, though, this long trailer shows that the Phil is investing serious thought, time and money into saying something and making this work. Their commitment is exciting, they’ve made the calculation that it’s worth trading a sell-out for an audience that is going to be awake and engaged throughout, and I think for an arts organization that’s a smart trade, because that audience will go home, and then some will come back again, and they will bring their friends, and there will be a new, larger audience, and the Philharmonic’s path towards the future has earned them that audience. I would encourage anyone sitting on the fence to go, because events like this are rare and the chance to see this great and wild work will probably not come again. Saying you were there will be better than hip, it’ll be cool. Bring your friends.