I thought it might be interesting to hear a little bit about what audience development means to Plexus, and how it is developing?
After three-and-a-bit years, we’ve got 50 or 60 people in our audience, and lots of people who wish they could come! In Melbourne, there is a bit of a glut of things on, which on one hand is great thing – you can go out every night and see two cultural events – but then, on the other hand, people have finite resources. Building an audience is hard. It’s about building trust between you and the people listening, and in new music, it can be difficult to develop that relationship because they don’t know what they’re going to hear until they hear it. Our audience trusts our standard of playing, and they trust us to choose composers, but it’s hard to market what we do to people outside of our current community of people who are already interested in new music. We, by definition, don’t want to do the same thing every concert, and so it goes that if you’re listening to three or five world premieres in each concert by different people, you’re never going to be able to get a handle on us, genre-wise. We’re already in the margin because we’re classical, and then we’re in the margin within that because we’re new music. So, we couldn’t get more specialized and we couldn’t get harder to sell. The crux of it is trust though, and if you don’t put yourself in a genre basket your audience can’t be disappointed or outraged or bored. You can’t be bored at a Plexus concert!
So when there are dozens of things to see every week from a diverse range of presenters and performers, how do you stand out from the crowd?
I think it is related to your standard and your philosophy. Audiences are like animals – they might not know how to read music or be able to identify a quarter-tone, but they can smell proficiency as opposed to faking. It’s a really subconscious thing, so you have to make sure you know what you’re doing if you’re going to take their money off them. It’s not heaps of money though, so you can’t think of it as a commercial exercise. We, the players, are the largest philanthropists for Plexus, and we do that because we believe in art and the function of art, especially in this environment where people are really materialistically driven and possession obsessed: we’re philosophically totally railing against that. Plus, this trio is really good for our playing! We also believe that composers need support and they don’t get enough.
And the reason you started Plexus in the first place was to champion the composers that you were commissioning, right?
Correct, and also to keep alive the music commissioned by the Verdehr Trio. That’s what we’re doing this season, and the concerts will, therefore, look a little different from last year. Each concert has a classic – the first had Mahler, the second has Hindemith and the third has Strauss. We love being able to include what we do for a living - which is Western Art Music - in our performances. To play those pieces alongside new works is really exciting. And it’s also great to be able to speak with the composers in real life! We’ve had some great email chats with the composers featured in this next concert, and it makes a difference. If I believed in seances, maybe we could speak to Hindemith…
For young players coming out of uni who want to get into the chamber world, audience development and having conversations with donors and composer can be a really scary thing. How do you learn how to manage those relationships?
I come from a musical family, so I’m sure that’s been helpful. When I was a kid, there were soloists, performers and conductors coming through the door and I thought that was normal, so I’ve never felt intimidated by anyone, however famous or respected. Young people should try and remember that everyone’s a person who started out somewhere, and everyone has felt like they are feeling at some point in their life. In fact, they could be feeling like that as a 55-year old, they might just have better ways of shielding that than you. I would recommend talking to audience members about themselves rather than speaking about yourself, because you’ll be remembered for that, and if you listen properly, you’ll often get some good advice. It’s important to speak with everyone graciously and genuinely, and when people ask you about your project, talk about it with honesty and integrity, and don’t be too clever – you don’t have to speak in enormous words to be taken seriously.
You said, “be excellent”, and I think it is super important to be putting that time into furthering your technique and focusing on your musicianship, but how do you balance being excellent at your instrument with being across all the other skills that you need to develop?
You must be vigilant! Lots of musicians spend many hours in the practice room, which we all have to do, but at some point, you have to come out of the practice room and realise that it doesn’t matter how good you are if no one hears you. There are so many things you can be doing: if you’re living at a college, you can get to know everyone in the music faculty. Get out and meet people – the same people go to the same parties! You could start your own society at university, and do some concerts, which is a great way to practice your entrepreneurial skills in a safe environment. Then you get to see what it takes to put on a performance, away from just considering your instrument: you’ve got to book the venue, remember the music stands and figure out if there’s enough light in the venue. You’ll need sconces.
Everyone needs a sconce!
And it needs to be one that you don’t need to plug in! A battery-operated sconce. It’s not very profound, but either is playing a concert where you can’t see your music. The number of times I’ve needed a battery sconce and not had one… Also, if you’re in an orchestra, get to know the administration and the board in a meaningful way. Networking doesn’t have to be a cheap nasty thing; it’s actually just about relationships and people helping each other. In a cultural and artistic environment where it’s so competitive because of the nature of government funding, people are made to feel like they’re competing against one another, so we’ve got to find new ways of working together.
Plexus’ second performance in their Southbank Series at the Melbourne Recital Centre is on Friday 8th September at 6pm. Tickets are available here.