(Deze samenvatting van Peter Ouwerkerk is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar, klik hier.)

Which audiences for the organ in the 21st century?

ECHO conference at the Orgelpark, Amsterdam, March 26-27, 2022

Peter Ouwerkerk

In 1997, seven European cities established the international foundation ECHO: “European Cities of Historical Organs”. It is a union of European cities with historic organs and a festival or competition around those instruments. The goal is international exchange and cooperation, in the most diverse areas: documentation, projects, publications, scholarships, et cetera, and the construction of new instruments on historical examples. 

Until recently, only one city per country could join ECHO. The cities that participated from the beginning were Innsbruck, Lisbon, Alkmaar, Roskilde, Treviso, Toulouse and Zaragoza. Later Brussels, Freiberg, Fribourg, Mafra and Trondheim were added, and very recently, after abandoning the “one-city-per-country” rule, the Flemish city of Leuven where the reconstructed Contius organ was recently inaugurated. 
Regularly, ECHO organizes international conferences to facilitate the exchange of ideas.

Although the Netherlands was host country, and thus Alkmaar was the actual host city of the 2022 conference, the place of action was the Orgelpark in Amsterdam. The organization and presentation was in the hands of Bernard Foccroulle, current vice president of ECHO, and Hans Fidom, as scientist affiliated with the Amsterdam Orgelpark. As hosts and presenters, they introduced the speakers and program elements in virtuoso fashion.

The search for new organ audiences, which was the theme of the conference, proceeded along two routes. On the one hand it was investigated how twenty-first-century audiences can still be interested in classical music, and organ music in particular; on the other hand, how the recruitment of young organists (who, after all, will later also form the new audience) can be stimulated. In that context, I was asked to tell something about the teenage project StayTuned.nu.

Bernard Foccroulle, like no other, can clearly explain in a few rapt sentences what the current problems of the organ are, and set the stage for how we were going to look for answers in these two days. In his words, we are not searching for “more of the same” audience, but for truly new audiences. What audience are we organizing our concerts and festivals for? What population groups are missing from our audience, speaking of the desirability of “diversity”? Does the existing organ audience represent the population in the neighborhood, the city, the region? And how is the situation with other art disciplines like opera houses, or symphony orchestras? 
For these very reasons, especially speakers from outside the organ world were invited to the conference. Of course, the organ has its own problems: the religious connotation, the persistent image problem, and an admittedly large repertoire that is unfortunately largely unknown to the classical music lover. These elements make organ culture an “exclusive,” difficult domain for outsiders to access.

Foccroulle added an interesting and, for the entire performing arts, relevant perspective: what position does the audience take in the artistic process of a musical performance? Until not very long ago, the prevailing paradigm –and this is how we learn(d) at the conservatory– was that, with a performance, the performer tries to come as close as possible to the composer’s intentions. His authority, captured in the score, is central. It is a bilateral process between composer/score and performer, and the audience is “only” a witness to it. 
Foccroulle questioned this paradigm. To make his point, he quoted from the writer Danièle Sallenave: “Reading a book is completing it.” Without a reader, a book remains unfinished. In the same reasoning, it is not enough for a composer to deliver a score (which is, after all, no more than paper and ink) or even that there is a performance (what is sound more than vibrating air?); to be “completed,” a musical work must be listened to. The listener cannot be missed. He is “performatively” involved, is thus part of the performance and as such involved in the artistic process. Thus, the problem statement is clearly stated: what if the audience for the organ gives up? How do we involve the audience, in an era when music seems more and more focused on consumption and entertainment?
A perfect bridge to the first speaker’s presentation.

“Let’s workshop this!”
Composer Cathy Milliken is Australian by birth. She currently lives and works in Berlin, but her projects take her all over the world: Europe, South Africa, Australia and Japan. In addition to being a composer, she is trained and active as an oboist.
In the Amsterdam conference, she presented a number of projects involving the participatory engagement of new audiences. These projects have the form of musical workshops, in which the participating audience becomes “co-owners” – although she is the composer and workshop leader. The workshops focus on set themes, such as national traumas, social sensitivities and taboos. Milligen’s favorite phrase for making a problem or conflict negotiable is “Let’s workshop this!” Her argument is based on the observation that today’s concert practice (performers playing music for listeners) is actually quite recent. In earlier times, music had the function of sharing emotions together – joy and sorrow, death and life, laughter and wonder. Music was to participate in; just listening to it did not even occur to the ancient homo sapiens. 
The ideal format for a revival of this ancient musical practice is the workshop, described by Milligen as a “place of collaboration”. The musical workshops she leads are based on democratic deliberation, experimentation and negotiation.

Our office in Dhaka

The first video Milligen showed was a presentation of a nine-day workshop that took place in 2015 in the township of Kraaifontein in South Africa. The result was the performance of a musical theatre piece about violence in local youth culture, using the aria “Comfort Ye” from Handel’s Messiah as its musical basis. These classical sounds were combined with songs and lyrics which the young South Africans created about their own lives. The participants, who in the past had faced local violence as victims, survivors or perpetrators, thus became so to speak “owners” of the performance and also co-composers. That sounds nice, but Milligen emphasized that the outcome of such a process is as uncertain for the participants as it is for her. There is no “format” of such workshops by which the outcome is fixed.

Another project took place in Tohoku, Japan, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In addition to children, three choirs participated in the workshop, most of whose members were victims who had lost family and friends due to the tsunami. They had lost their livelihoods and become severely traumatized. In this presentation, it became clear that sharing each other’s suffering in a musical context can be healing. At the same time, the concept was not only therapeutic, but emphatically also “artistic”. High-quality art was used to change people, literally making life livable again. Children symbolized a new future, and the sea was no longer just threatening, but also a place to catch fish again: in this way it again became the condition for life that it was before the disaster. The balance had been restored.

Similarly, there was a project in Munich that brought elderly people together with young people to increase mutual understanding, and during a project in Berlin featuring music by Stockhausen, professionals worked together with high-level school children. All of these workshops were essentially about equal relationships, and especially about repairing broken relationships. “Relating together” is a basic precondition for art, and for life itself: an all the more important message in these times of individualism, hedonism and self-centeredness.

The intermezzo after this fascinating talk was an improvisation by Jacob Lekkerkerker, who is more than anyone else familiar with the hyper organ in the Orgelpark. The hyper organ is played from a mobile console that combines two “traditional” organs – the 100-year-old Sauer organ (1922) and the Utopa baroque organ added to the Orgelpark in 2018, a reconstruction of the eighteenth-century Hildebrandt organ from Naumburg. Quite appropriate after Cathy Milligen’s lecture: thanks to this new console, two fundamentally different organs enter into a miraculous relationship with each other.

Youth and organ
After the break, it was time for a roundtable discussion. The theme: an exploration of various initiatives in Europe by which young audiences are interested in the organ. From various ECHO cities, such as Toulouse and Mafra, as well as from Maastricht and Stade, speakers briefly explained their projects. For example, Veerle Spronck shared some information about her work at Maastricht University, where, together with the South Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Maastricht Conservatory, she is researching innovative means of engaging new audiences with classical music. Her empirical research shows that the ambition to have audiences participating in artistic processes is enormously complex. Expectations have to be adjusted, where –as we heard before– the outcomes are far from fixed. An “openness” is required of both the audience and the musicians, but also producers, technicians, programmers, the marketing department, in short everyone involved with an orchestra. Openness that people are not really naturally inclined to, accustomed as they are to the current way of giving or facilitating concerts. 
Throwing open the bastion of the symphony orchestra is mostly done with educational projects, where orchestra musicians work with elementary school children. These programs also have a nice secondary benefit: through that contact of musicians with children and having to convey one’s passion “understandably”, they also start playing better during concerts – the performers are more aware of the audience they are trying to reach with their musical message. Bernard Foccroulle added that orchestras, and in fact all who expresses themselves artistically but do not care about new audiences, will not survive in the long run. Education and the search for new audiences is a prerequisite for survival. Veerle agreed, adding that conservatories also need to take part in this.

After that, children’s projects during the festivals Toulouse-les-Orgues and the festival of Mafra were presented, Lydia Vroegindeweij introduced her Orgelkids.nl, Annegret Schönbeck showed a short video about the Jugend-Orgelforum in Stade, Germany, there was a demonstration by Vision Kirchenmusik from Halberstadt, in which each congress participant was allowed to “operate” an organ pipe, and I myself presented the teenage organ project StayTuned.nu which I initiated in 2020.
The final conclusion of this informative session was evident: many wonderful international projects have been launched, but there is a systematic lack of cooperation and contact. It is of great importance that initiatives are aware of each other’s existence, take note of and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes, and start working together much more. Picking this low-hanging fruit would already be a great outcome of this conference!

Our office in Dhaka

In Toulouse, this kind of cooperation succeeded locally in tapping into a new audience: an incidental collaboration of the Toulouse-les-Orgues festival with a local festival of electronic trance music created a whole new young target group that now also comes to “regular” festival organ concerts. What obviously helped was what both audiences share: a love of sustained sounds, low bass and large spaces....

After dinner, the day ended with a fascinating improvisation concert in which Zuzana Ferjenčíková, Thomas Ospital and Jacob Lekkerkerker in particular made a huge impression. At the same time, their playing (especially the way the hyper organ was played) also raised questions, particularly about reaching new audiences. After all, if you want to expand your audience with new enthusiasts but at the same time not alienate the existing audience, the challenge is to find a good balance between innovation on the one hand, but at the same time keeping in touch with, and artistically building on what already exists. This is why “sandwich” programs work so well: the audience hears familiar as well as new sounds and each listener can thus make a quality judgment, at least about the familiar part, with the knowledge he or she has. 
It is not surprising that during the performances the temptation to elicit the most innovative sounds possible from the hyper organ was very strong. For the “incrowd” (which the audience was of course) very interesting, and the experienced, real connoisseur may even be able to judge the quality (although the answer to the question on which references that judgement is based often remains unclear) – but whether this will interest a new audience for the organ is still a difficult question to answer. After all: how can it be measured? And if you can, would the result not be a new but in fact equally exclusive and thus elitist organ audience?

On Sunday morning it was Hannah Griffiths’ turn, who gave an utterly engaging talk about her work at the Birmingham Opera Company. 
Griffiths had previously made her mark at established, traditional opera houses such as Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House in London. In Birmingham, her work looks completely different. The demographic composition of this British city is incomparable to other cities in the United Kingdom. The traditional opera audience is not easy to find: Birmingham is one of Europe’s youngest cities (the majority of residents are between 25 and 44 years old) and in many statistics, like education level, ethnicity, poverty and employment rate, the city dangles at the bottom. In other words, more or less the very last city where you would want to establish an opera house; after all, many studies show that the traditional opera audience is older, white, affluent and highly educated.
Yet, for many years there was an opera company, the City of Birmingham Touring Opera. Until the turn of the century, this “travelling opera” provided custom opera performances on locations like railway stations, shopping malls, sports centers, existing theaters and also outdoors. Composer Jonathan Dove arranged well-known operas to make them playable in smaller settings – arrangements which are nowadays still gratefully used throughout the world by leading ensembles. Critics praised the Touring Opera’s performances. The audience, however, still consisted mostly of white, affluent and highly educated listeners – by no means a reflection of Birmingham’s population.

Sir Graham Vick (1953-2021), the globally celebrated stage director who founded this City of Birmingham Touring Opera in 1987, was therefore still not satisfied, despite all the praise. He decided in 2000 to drastically change course once again. He wanted to reach the entire population of Birmingham, including new audiences who had never been exposed to opera before. He envisioned an “opera laboratory” in which the audience, the people of Birmingham, would be challenged to play an active role in the performances. The company was renamed the Birmingham Opera Company and has been housed since 2000 in a far from traditional opera house: the former Sherborne Rubber Factory in Birmingham. The location has the characteristics of an industrial studio: no stage and no chairs. Many performances, however, continued to take place on location: libraries, railway stations, airplane hangars, nightclubs, hospitals and shopping streets. 
To achieve a reflection of the entire population, he took an important and radical step. For each production, he placed an open invitation in the regional press. Any Birmingham resident who wanted to was called to join the professional singers in acting, singing and dancing – without charge (nor fee), necessary experience or audition. The enthusiasm was huge: in some productions, about a hundred citizens rehearsed and performed alongside professional singers, including international celebrities. Vick’s ambition became a reality: Birmingham Opera Company was not an opera house for, but of the community.

Extra layer
One would expect that the artistic level would come under pressure as soon as amateurs start participating in opera productions. But Hannah Milligen showed a video clip of “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk”, one of the last productions before corona broke out, demonstrating that there is absolutely no question of that. The artistic content was unprecedented, and it was the result of the very fact that “ordinary” people from the city participated, that the performance took on a special extra, and for me personally quite touching layer. 
Talent programs are set up to coach the new and often young singers and keep them affiliated with the Company. Playing and singing alongside celebrated opera singers inspires the amateurs and lifts them to unexpected achievements. Graham Vick had found an optimal form in which the listener/participant truly identifies with the story that took place on stage, or rather, in the performance space.

In addition to rave reviews, there are a lot of sociological spin-offs. Both old and young city residents participate, so that inclusion and talent development almost come naturally. Cohesion is created among people who would otherwise never meet and talk to each other. The casts are good reflections of all social classes, very inclusive, and large groups who do not receive much cultural baggage from their social background are introduced to classical opera. 
In this regard, it is a huge misunderstanding, and therefore often a questionable argument, to think that some audiences –young people, minorities, the less educated– are difficult to reach. Hannah Griffith emphatically refuted this: “No: not this new audience, but we are hard to reach. What we make is hard to access for those audiences.”
She went a step further and included various international treaties as important motivations for the Birmingham method, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states in Article 27: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts (...)”. The government has a duty to provide for this.

Our office in Dhaka

Graham Vick knew he was on the right track with his famous statement “Inclusion, or be damned!” According to him, sticking to the traditional pattern, in which performers on a high stage are strictly separated from the audience downstage, would be the end of opera. 
In his view, the opera genre needs this radical turn to remain relevant in the future. The success of his efforts was clearly illustrated in the images shown: young and old are touched on a deep emotional level while playing and singing.

In 2016, Graham Vick said in a speech: 
“You do not need to be educated to be touched, to be moved and excited by opera. You only need to experience it directly at first hand with nothing getting in the way. It is those of us who make the work whose responsibility it is to remove the barriers and make the connections that will release its power for everybody.”
In my opinion, this statement may also fully apply to organ culture.

Organ Ambassadors
There is not enough space in this article to discuss everything covered at the conference in detail. In the concluding roundtable discussion, a variety of initiatives were addressed. I would like to share two of them.
In various places in Europe, city councils appoint ambassadors for the organ, similar to the increasing number of municipal organists we have in the Netherlands. Usually this is done with a large list of ambitions but unfortunately without a budget, but in France it is becoming increasingly common to appoint paid “organists in residence”. Thomas Ospital told how, after two Parisian concert hall organs were inaugurated in 2015, Radio France involved him in initiatives to ensure that, in addition to the two orchestras and two choirs already housed in the broadcasting building, this new instrument also found a place in French musical life. As a result, orchestral projects for children in the French capital increasingly include the organ, and symphonic concerts programs regularly feature a solo piece for organ.

Respect for the audience
Finally, one last interesting perspective was raised, which was an extension of what has already been discussed in several lectures. If you want to be heard as a musician, it is essential that you, in turn, also really respect the listener. The example of children’s performances was mentioned, in which the probing question was asked: are we really interested in the children and their environment? 
This is also of importance in “ordinary” organ concerts. Are we primarily concerned with “our” organ music and “our” organ that we want to bring to the public – regardless of who is in that audience and what their background is? If the latter is the case, if it is purely about sending without regard for the recipient, then giving concerts is little more than futile ego-tripping. The “unfinished book”, to echo the words of Foccroulle.
Here I think an important issue was raised: how much respect does the contemporary organist have for his listener? Is it not very often the case that organ concert programs seem to be put together for fellow organists (“Interesting program!”) rather than for a broad audience? And particularly for being able to show, “send”, one’s own virtuosity or improvisational talent? 
If we want to interest children in the organ, another factor is also important. Children are not interested in Bach, principals, positives, dispositions, swell boxes, “Werckenprinzipe” or stop names. Children are going to love the organ if they can make their own music on it. Just as Birmingham citizens come to love opera when they are part of it themselves, and just like those traumatized South African citizens, or the Japanese woman whose house was flooded. 
Music is about building relationships and deep-emotional connections with others. In fact, with the listener. The answer to whether a performer succeeds in this is what determines the quality of the performance.

It was up to Bernard Foccroulle to close the circle by summarizing the conference. As a conclusion, he listed three key concepts: “audience – quality – cooperation”. 
Some reactions to contributions echoed the fear that the quest for a more diverse audience, who also have to participate in performance, would diminish the quality of artistic performance. Foccroulle put that thought into perspective. In fact, the question to be asked first is: what is quality? In the presentations of this conference, performances always seem to gain in quality (which is perhaps best translated by “emotional impact”) when the audience actively participates in them. There is another perspective here: is it really up to the performer himself to determine the quality of the performance? Or the fellow organists, the “connoisseurs”? Or is it mainly the audience that determines whether a concert is good? 
Either way: without a listener there is no music. Respect for that audience and reflection on the audience’s role in the artistic process, as an equal partner in the midst of composer and performer, is essential.

And then: cooperation. There is a great need for this in Europe, having seen the many initiatives presented during these two days. With cooperation we can avoid all doing the same thing, and we can really learn from each other. It would be good if an international organ conference such as this one would be held on a very regular basis, with experienced experts from outside the organ world also being invited to inspire. 

And now…?
After these two intensive days, it is difficult to summarize in a few words all that has passed in review. And especially: how to convert the many valuable impressions into concrete next steps.
During the ECHO conference there were numerous inspirational suggestions to get started with. What stuck with me the most was the presentation by Hannah Griffiths from Birmingham. After her talk, I understood that the problem may lie in the word “audience”. Audience sits, and listens – period. 
For centuries, this worked well. But doesn’t that paradigm now contradict how society functions today? Just think about education, politics, and also conferences like this one. A truly passive listening attitude is actually only still seen at... classical concerts. 
According to Milliken, that’s really “old-school”. Her key is also a great challenge: to activate the audience and really get them involved in the performance with all their senses and in the broadest sense.

Is this idea translatable to organ concerts? To be honest, I haven’t figured that out yet. I certainly see opportunities, but at the same time I cannot quite dismiss the objections associated with “our little tunnel”. 
In any case, a question I will ask myself more often as director of the Haarlem Organ Festival is: “Does my audience reflect the entire population of the festival city and region?” If not (and actually I already know the answer): how can I reach those “unreachable” population groups?

“Inclusion, or be damned”. Let us at least, as representatives of European organ culture, think about this very seriously.

Translation of the author. 
This article was originally published in Dutch in Het Orgel (Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging van Organisten en Kerkmusici), 118/4 (July 2022).

Or watch snippets of the live stream.