The latest analysis of concert statistics by the German Orchestra Association (DOV)  highlights a significant shift by the country’s orchestras, which are increasingly moving beyond traditional symphony concerts towards other kinds of performances.

Orchestras are taking music to the public

The figures for 2013–14 – the DOV collects data every two seasons – show in particular how important music education has become in the orchestras’ activities.    The number of concerts and events for children and young people increased by 10.8 per cent from 2011–12, reaching almost twice the number reported in 2003–4. By contrast, the amount of foreign touring dived 30  per cent from 2011–12 levels, taking the total of  symphony and choral concerts down to its lowest number in more than ten years.

The DOV statistics don’t include figures for open-air concerts, church concerts and classical crossover concerts organised by commercial providers. But the association’s director Gerald Mertens says the latest  survey indicated the increasing diversity of concert  formats and the innovative ways that orchestras are taking music to the public. ‘Back in the 1990s  we had the symphony concert, the chamber concert, the schools concert, maybe a children’s concert and  maybe a family concert.

That was the extent of any  orchestra’s offering,’ he recalls. ‘Today we have  a huge range of different concert formats, reaching  every age group.’ He cites ‘side-by-side’ concerts  (involving partnerships between professional orchestras and youth orchestras) and concerts of  video-game music as among the most successful  formats to have emerged in the past ten years. 

Mertens dates the rise in German orchestras’ social awareness, and the start of public awareness of music education by orchestras, to 2002 and  Simon Rattle’s arrival in Berlin.

Rattle brought in the London Symphony Orchestra’s music animateur, Richard McNicol, to create a comprehensive education programme for the  Philharmonic, an initiative that proved enormously  influential. ‘Orchestras across Germany looked at  what the Berlin Phil was doing,’ says Mertens, ‘and  considered what they could do in the same vein.’ The timing squares with the experience of  another venerated institution, the Leipzig  Gewandhaus Orchestra. Its director, Andreas Schulz, went to the city authorities in 2002 requesting more resources for music education.

After a year of discussions, funding for a dedicated music education department was secured, as Schulz recalls: ‘We immediately hired a specialist who developed  several new formats. Now we have three members of staff  dedicated to music education.’  In Leipzig, as in Berlin, new chief conductors brought with them fresh ideas about how the orchestra should engage with  its community.

Herbert Blomstedt had already introduced family concerts to the Gewandhaus season when he succeeded Kurt Masur in 1998, and when Riccardo Chailly took over in 2005  he added ‘Discovery Concerts’, which include on-stage discussions  with a composer before the performance of a new work.

The education of musicians themselves has also been a factor in the development of orchestras’ education and community  programmes. Mertens points to the growth in opportunities, at conservatoires such as those in Detmold and Hanover, for musicians  to study to become full-time music educators, or Musikvermittler, in orchestras and opera houses.

Schulz also recognises the increasing openness of younger members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra to going into schools and speaking about their work, their instruments and their music. ‘I still think that the Musikhochschule can do much more  to train musicians in how to talk about music,’ he says. ‘We’re now  discussing how we can help players who want to do this kind of  presenting, but who don’t feel they have the right training.’

Shift from traditional symphony concerts to more diverse programming

Commercially, education and community projects have proved increasingly attractive to sponsors, many of whom see more value in  long-term social initiatives than in momentary glitz. ‘Five years ago we  had many more requests from sponsors for special gala evenings, or for  us to invite star soloists,’ says Schulz. ‘But a lot has changed, and more  and more requests today are for projects involving schools and kids.

It’s much easier to find a sponsor to support an education project.’ The Munich Philharmonic’s education programme, ‘Spielfeld  Klassik’, has been sponsored since 2011 by one of the city’s biggest  business names, BMW. ‘You have to find the right partnership,’ says Spielfeld Klassik director Simone Siwek. ‘Some sponsors will want  to support a foreign tour, but a big player like BMW sees how  important our educational programme is for Munich, for the social  fabric of the city.’ The programme comprises around 150 events each  season, reaching more than 34,000 people in and around Munich,  from kindergarten pupils to university students and beyond.

But the programme also includes a project at the Kampala Music School in Uganda, a reminder that orchestras are extending their educational  activity beyond their immediate community, whether that be with  special projects such as this one in Uganda, or with educational work during tours and residencies, such as those undertaken by  the Gewandhaus Orchestra in London and New York.

For Mertens, the shift from traditional symphony concerts to more diverse programming does not represent any kind of cultural ‘dumbing  down’, but is about tailoring the same high-quality concert experience to different age groups. ‘What orchestras are doing now with their education programmes and new formats is simply responding to  developments in society,’ he says. ‘We will always have symphony  concerts, but every format will find its audience. With all these  formats, the guiding principle is that the art itself must be untouched.’