Average age 32: the classical audience in Paris

Average age 32: the classical audience in Paris


norman lebrecht

June 11, 2009

I have written two columns this year about the French renaissance in concertgoing and record buying.

Now the conductor Gary Brain, who lives in Paris, tells me that at a recent performance he was given a leflet with the results of a government survey showing that average attendance age at concerts and opera is 32 and the dress code overwhelmingly informal.

Classical audiences are up year on year by 30 percent.

So how do the French do it? Mostly, it’s a question of top-down attitude.

Instead of politicians and media projecting an image of serious music as elitist and expensive, in France they present it as both aspirational and enjoyable – a good way to spend an evening and an environment where young people are likely to meet people they like.

In addition, there is a great pride and affinity in such homegrown artists as Natalie Dessay, Emmanuelle Haim and the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, household names who appear on mainstream media shows.

The Anglo-American style of talking up rock music as ‘cool’ and talking down the classics as archaic is alien to the French sense of proportion, and the foreignness of most rock music serves as a further incentive to embrace indigenous artists.

Patriotism can, of course, be self-limiting. When Michelle Obama takes the kids to London, they go see The Lion King, a slick Hollywood export that is not designed to broaden minds. When Carla Bruni-Sarkozy comes visiting, she wants to be challenged by the stylish and the unknown – modern dance, perhaps, or an opera – preferably but not necessarily involving French talent.

Curiosity, and a willingness to be pleased, is a vital ingredient in the French renaissance. Classical record sales in France amount, as I have reported elsewhere, to nine percent of the total market. In the US they are barely one percent. If there is to be a US arts revival, a much stronger signal is needed from the Obama White House.


  • David Karlin says:

    Having just gone to a wonderful Bernarda Fink/Il Giardino Armonico concert at the Cité de la Musique (I’ve reviewed it on Bachtrack), I can concur with Gary Brain’s comments: I was struck by the different age of the audience. There was a lot of the same age over-60s that you’d see at a London chamber or baroque concert, but also a lot of twenty-somethings.
    It’s by no means a universal thing, though: the people I meet on the technology side of things really don’t know anything about classical music at all.
    David at bachtrack.com

  • Dyana Neal says:

    Great article, Mr. Lebrecht. I am the midday host at the classical radio station in Baltimore and have had many discussions with my colleagues about the way in which the arts are presented in this country – as elitist,incomprehensible, and outdated. Movies and TV shows almost inevitably portray characters who are fans of opera or symphonic repertoire as stuffy, pompous, and pretentious. The French model of presenting serious music as “both aspirational and enjoyable”, as you put it, is one that we would do well to emulate in America.
    I don’t think casual dress will attract younger audiences, however. When my husband and I go to performances, we notice that those in our age group (late 30’s to early 50’s) are the ones most likely to dress “down”. The under-35 crowd tends to dress better. Maybe that’s why we sometimes get unfriendly looks from our peers for dressing up – do they think we are trying to look younger? In all seriousness, having audiences (and even performers) dress casually to attract a more youthful crowd has been tried in this country and hasn’t worked. We need to change our attitude, not our clothes, and I agree with you that it could help a great deal if the attitude shift began at the White House.
    NL to Dyana: Thanks for your comments. The attitude shift needs to be top-down both politidally and organisationally. There are conductors and artists who can cultivate a US following in just the same way as young French artists find a home audience. The difference is that few US orchestras – Baltimore honourably excepted – give them more than half a chance. Now why is that?

  • FRANK says:

    Regarding mainstream media shows on French TV, last week I saw Dessay and Michel Legrand: he said he’d always dreamed of singing with her; she said she’d always dreamed of singing with him, and so on and so forth. One couldn’t help noticing the ugliness of her spoken voice and her vulgar laugh. Finally they sang some of his sugary muzak together. Not much sign of good taste there and not an event to encourage one to buy any of Dessay’s CDs.

  • Wonderful news! You are spot on that what is needed in US culture is an attitude shift away from seeing classical arts as elitist, expensive and “stuffy”.
    Something I find interesting in your analysis is when you say, “curiosity, and a willingness to be pleased, is a vital ingredient in the French renaissance.” I honestly feel we are lacking this same sentiment here in the states. No one seems curious about anything anymore, because everything is so readily available and so easily accessible. Now, I am not trying to discredit the innovations made in technology and social networking, for from it. I am a avid user of sites like Twitter and Facebook. However, I believe the difference lies in people who can use those sites and yet still enjoy activities that require concentration and patience.. like… reading, going to an acoustic concert, taking the time to experience walking through a museum, WITHOUT headphones.
    I feel, as culture, too many Americans are unable to truly concentrate on something for more than a few minutes. I think when most Americans say they like classical music, they mean as background music. They don’t really like “listening” to it, in the sense that they gain or learn something emotionally from it. With that attitude, I can understand why a majority of Americans would choose to go to a rock concert over a classical concert: They don’t have to really listen to it. The music is played “at” them. No concentration required.
    Until the general attitude of Americans moves away from that of “how many things can I do at once?” and shifts to “you have my undivided attention”, classical music culture will remain at that meager one percent.

  • habeas says:

    What would Mrs. Sarkozy take two young girls under twelve to see in London? 4.48 Psychosis? Please compare apples to apples here…the Lion King is likely not reflective of how adventurous Mrs. Obama’s theatre-going tastes might be when in adult company.

  • zenithrust says:

    The point is getting YOUNG people interested in classical music and the arts. Children are just as capable of being captivated by classical music and more “high-brow” performances, I was and I know many others who are. It is vital to start classical/arts education young, and society will change accordingly, and will in turn render them more vibrant and modern.

  • Tony Faulkner says:

    Great article. London’s classical music concert scene can be stuffy and unappealing for under 55’s, and only appealing for those over 55’s who like their music that way. That is a very sizeable proportion of the population to disenfranchise.
    The BBC’s solution of getting ukeleles to perform Beethoven 9 at the Proms seems a crass approach, but as an over 55 myself I could be off the mark. When I go to concerts of regional orchestras it seems less of a deal and I see all age groups in the audience. When I go to National Youth Orchestra concerts they are full of energy and full of under 55’s in the audience – they can’t just be brothers, sisters and school-friends.
    I think that too much of London’s concert diary is full of Mahler, Shostakovich and other stereotype heavy duty composers, much as I love Mahler and Shostakovich. The programming is designed by and for orchestra managements, concert agents and occasionally critics – not for audiences. When they do condescend to entertain an audience it has to be either the New World, the Emperor or a Star Wars programme. Hardly surprising under 55’s find better things to do.
    Please don’t swallow the idea that “the people … on the technology side of things really don’t know anything about classical music at all.” That is rubbish as a public bar generalisation along the same lines as all MPs being crooks and all critics being deaf. In any case those of us on the technology side are seldom if ever consulted about programming.

  • Leah Crowne says:

    It would be great if I could get an opinion on this:
    Isn’t it true that before Wagner and Bayreuth, opera (and most classical music??) was more of a social event? People coming in and out, chatting with one another, eating and drinking during the performance (etc). Are there any thoughts on recreating this environment with the appropriate works? Example: Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Rossini, Bellini — even Schubert and Schuman. Wasn’t chamber music and art song meant for parties? We all act like people have always sat there in the dark staring at the stage for three and a half hours, when this cinematic way of listening and enjoying music is a fairly recent practice. I just saw a performance of Rossini’s Cinderella, and although it was very enjoyable – I could just picture how much more fun a performance would have been when audiences were actually encourage to enjoy the performance kinetically. I don’t know – it just seems more organic that way.
    NL replies: It was certainly more relaxed in the 19th century. The Promenade concerts were so named bacuse people walked around during the music, smoking and eating ices. Whe Gustav Mahler imposed a no-latecomers rule at the Vienna Opera in 1897, there was considerable social and political opposition.

  • It’s by no means a universal thing, though: the people I meet on the technology side of things really don’t know anything about classical music at all.