Alexander Sitkovetsky performs at 2016's Music@Menlo festival. Despite close proximity to Facebook and other tech giants, the chamber music festival's audience still skews older. (Carlin Ma Photography)
For Chamber Music in Silicon Valley, Hoodies and Haydn Don't Mix
During a casual conversation several years ago, one of the great musicians of our time once assured me that the future of classical music was nothing to worry about. “There will always be people who want what this is,” he reasoned. “The people who normally want this kind of experience are usually very intense, very demanding, and usually very educated.”
I should have asked him if the intense, demanding and educated young professionals of Silicon Valley were an exception to this rule.
Classical music has never been more accessible. Streaming apps and sites like YouTube are a trove of newest releases, historical masterclasses, and glorious bootlegged performances of yesteryear. Today’s maestros can be found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Yet the advantages of technology haven’t resulted in widespread interest among younger ages, and nowhere is this more apparent than the region where that technology is developed.
Take, for example, Music@Menlo, whose fifteenth season "The Glorious Violin" begins July 14 at the Menlo School in Atherton, a 10-minute drive from Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park.
Nestled among the makers and movers of Silicon Valley, Music@Menlo is hailed as the Bay Area’s most glamorous chamber music festival. Nearly every concert is packed. It exhibits a healthy communion between musicians and receptive patrons in an area of digitized "connection," and includes world-class musicians, editors, writers, directors -- on a first-name basis with many subscribers.
There is one thorny issue, though: the young makers and movers of the neighboring tech world aren’t exactly tuning in.
According to research company PayScale, the median age of Facebook employees is 29; it's 30 at Google, and 31 at Apple. Music@Menlo’s last comprehensive study found that only 7 percent of its audience was under the age of 35; 60 percent was accounted for by those 65 and over.
In an area teeming with creativity and highly educated, high-income types, one would think that a festival offering some of the most talented, vibrant young stars in the industry, performing tried-tested-and-true repertoire at a world-class clip, might be of more interest.
“Several years ago, we did a lunchtime performance at the Google campus, but did not see much return in the way of new festival attendees,” says Edward Sweeney, Music@Menlo’s Executive Director. “Some of the challenges we have observed include the fact that many Silicon Valley tech workers actually live up in San Francisco. The peninsula does not necessarily have the active nightlife that would be a draw for the 25-35 demographic. There is tremendous competition for entertainment alternatives for these younger audiences."
Unfortunately, low turnout of the hoodie-wearing hipster type is actually consistent throughout the Bay Area. I asked several Bay Area institutions about the matter, and they generously shared some of their figures:
San Francisco Opera reports that for the 2015-16 season, 7 percent of the total audience was accounted for by the age 26-35 group; the figure rises for single-ticket buyers, and lowers for subscribers.
Stanford Live reports student attendance at 12-15 percent of total tickets sold over the past few seasons.
Cal Performances reported 10 percent student attendance for main-stage events at UC Berkeley for their 2016-2017 season.
Is Symphony Silicon Valley faring any better in San Jose? “The simple answer is no,” says general director Andrew Bales. “We are not drawing a significant crowd from the millennial crowd. It is very sparse in terms of core-classics attendance by that group."
In fact, the concept of enjoying performance art in a darkened room, communally, isn’t challenged only in classical music. Hollywood and movie theaters have already felt the pinch of streaming apps like Netflix, Amazon, and mobile devices. According to The Atlantic, “In 2016, the film industry is on pace to sell the fewest U.S. tickets per person of any year since perhaps before the 1920s and the fewest total tickets in two decades… the most important demographic to Hollywood, 18-to-24-year-olds, is also abandoning movies faster than any other group…”
That’s not to say millennials are done with music and storytelling. Their attention is simply being diverted to different mediums.
Likewise, perhaps the one exception to the Bay Area’s trend is the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox concerts. While the average age of Symphony attendees is 55-56, SoundBox -- which experiments boldly with programming and allows cocktails and smartphones -- has specifically targeted the age 22-35 demographic. The success has been resounding, with tickets selling out in as quickly as 10 minutes. A ripple effect is that 1,800 more ‘College Nights’ tickets and 2,200 more student rush tickets were reportedly sold at the Symphony than in the previous year.
All of which brings us back to Music@Menlo. The festival is in an interesting position, both geographically and in terms of the future. Its venues are small, seating just 160 to 500, and while most of their concerts often sell out, ticket sales account for just 15 percent of its overall budget. Like most not-for-profits, the majority of their income is contributed.
So why change anything if it appears to be working so well?
“I don’t want to spend any more breath on saying 'How come people don’t come in?' It’s actually not true. I know a lot of interesting young people in my audience,” says Wu Han, Music@Menlo’s founder and director. “You always remember the power of the music. If you have unwavering belief in it, it attracts people.”
Along with a welcoming community of which Wu Han speaks, there's something about the cauldron of creativity, the speed and intensity of Silicon Valley that mirrors the developments that occurred in classical music generations ago.
“There was a succession of artists in the 19th century, each one who reinvented the wheel for themselves,” says David Finckel, Music@Menlo’s other founder and co-director. “The developments of the violin that took off with Paganini, Wieniawski, Sarasatre, Ysaye, Kreisler, etc. -- it’s the attention to details of nuance and color, the crescendo of expressive technique that allowed this thing to reach its peak."
This summer's programming at Music@Menlo aims to track that progression of the violin, and in Silicon Valley, its features may seem familiar. A communicative instrument once favored because of its compact, transportable nature and its uncanny ability to grab the attention of the senses, the violin reminds me of one of Silicon Valley’s most famous creations: the iPhone.
There will likely come a day when the iPhone is nothing more than a collectible for an older generation, replaced by something more attention-grabbing, more scintillating, the "next big thing." Yet "there will always be people who want what this is," be they Apple collectors or classical music enthusiasts, to track the developments of human endeavor at their highest peaks.
But while a smartphone can rob one of time and attention, great music operates in reverse.
“Music has been co-opted by convenience industries: background music, exercise machines, etc. But truly great music is packed with information, and it demands time,” Finckel says. “Time is at a premium in the Silicon Valley, like real estate. What we offer, for a very reasonable price, is an escape, something that provides a possibility of deeper contemplation.”
The maestro referenced at the beginning of this piece was right. Perhaps the question I should have asked was clarification of "what this is." In parallel with film's new platforms for distribution, is the future of classical music truly tied to the idea of sitting in a large, darkened room with groups of strangers? Can musical experiences embrace technology and changing habits the way other art forms have?
Only time will tell. And in the Silicon Valley, apparently, there isn’t much of it left.
Elijah Ho covers classical music for the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Examiner, and KQED. His writing can be found at thecounterpoints.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @elijahho.