Concert Audiences in Mexico City
Recently, a friend and I went to hear the Orquesta Filamamónica de la UNAM. But while that abbreviation stands for National Autonomous University of Mexico, the orchestra is not a student ensemble but a full-size symphony orchestra made up of professional musicians. They perform regularly in the Sala Nezahuacóyotl on the university’s campus, a large modern concert hall with excellent aoustics, seating listeners not only on a sizeable bank of rows sloping down to the stage, but also in substantial rows rising upwards from the entering level on the left and right and center, plus a substantial bank quite high behind the orchestra. While on a previous visit to the hall, that last set of seats was filled by the chorus that sang Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder, this time those rows were fully occupied by audience, as were all the seats in all directions, making a large house sold out, as far as I could tell. Not that this enriched the university, since the tickets cost between $5.50 and $13, not to mention those of us who had free passes secured from a friend who is a member of the orchestra.
It was a nice program, if not a particularly adventurous one, opening with the Brahms Haydn variations, followed by Rachmaninoff’s take on that Paganini caprice, competently played by a Korean pianist. The work after the intermission was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, now numbered ninth, though in my younger years it was just number 5. But while that numbering change acknowledges the existence of earlier works, alas, that recognition is about all that the composer gets out of this change. None of those earlier works seem to get performed. Some of us who agitate now and then to have orchestras perform works by composers that tend to be neglected altogether, might also put in a word for music that is rarely, if ever, to be found on concert programs, while other works by their composers are played again and again. The fact is that vastly more worthwhile music has been written than can be programmed on any finite set of concerts.
My friends at the Pittsburgh Symphony would turn green with envy if they saw the packed houses at Mexico City’s orchestras. Yes, the plural is correct: there are three additional ones, all putting on regular seasons. I’ve attended concerts of two of the others, and frequently that of the Orquesta Sinfònica Nacional (OSN) of which my daughter Eleanor has been principal clarinet since 1990. The orchestra plays in the Palacio des Bellas Artes, a French-inspired edifice built in fits and starts early-ish in the 20th century. If the envy were focused on the number of concert goers, it would of course be misplaced, given that Mexico City at nine million is about thirty times more populous than the city where, at more than five hundred feet, the Cathedral of Learning harbors a significant chunk of the University of Pittsburgh.
What they would—or should—envy is the composition of that audience. They don’t look like the audiences we see in the States: they are not the oldies without whose patronage most American orchestras would have to fold. Rather, they are of all ages, indeed, more younger than older. While they clearly care about their appearance—a mark of this capital city—that does not call for formality in dress, even less for men than for women.
I asked my friend and companion, what accounts for this broad participation as audience. I did not expect the answer I was given. No, it was not music education in the public schools—about which he was not very enthusiastic. Rather, was his answer, it is that kids from a young age on are simply exposed to music, by having a variety of groups perform mini-concerts with students of all ages being the audience.
For me that was quite a revelation. I had never separated in my mind education and exposure, mostly by focusing on the tasks of education and taking exposure for granted. But when you think of it, there is quite a difference between the two. One can learn a great deal about music—and I would spell out some of that except I am afraid of boring my readers—without ever being “exposed” (there is that word again) to particular works. And even when you are brought to listen (via recordings) to a selected set of works of music, it may well be, in this “educational” context, that the point of listening is to be able to identify important compositions in the repertory: that’s the Eroica, now comes the Jupiter and this is the Symphonie fantastique. Nothing at all wrong with doing that; but it’s work of sorts that has a goal beyond just listening; it is not the same as “exposure” that merely asks you to listen and, one hopes, to enjoy what is to be heard.
I can easily see that if kids are in this way “exposed” to music, repeatedly and from early on, that they come to think of the experience as part of their lives—at least for a healthy fraction of those listeners—a role they will want to continue to enjoy, beyond their schooling. One way they can do that is by attending, often or now and then, concerts by one of the several orchestras readily accessible in their city. It’s a plausible story.
There is very little difference between this Filarmonica de la Unam experience and my frequent attendance of concerts by the OSN in Bellas Artes, a building that is a splendid take-off of a major French concert hall. The atmosphere there is a bit more formal, but not by much. Groups of late adolescents in jeans come every time; super well-behaved! As for the rest of the audience, I’ll simply say that I see more men wearing ties, but not as many as on half of them in the audience.
As far as I can tell, the audiences I have observed here seem truly representative, in their age distribution, of the general population. In that way they differ quite sharply from American concert audiences which are notably skewed toward the older portion of the population. I’ll hesitantly account for that by citing three traits to be found in Mexico and to a much lesser degree, if at all, in the US. First, attending concerts in this city is vastly cheaper than it is north of the border—a situation that depends in turn on the fact that in Mexico most of the musical organizations are funded by one arm or another of the state, while their American counterparts largely depend on private funding. As a result, almost anyone—certainly any member of the middle class—can afford to attend. Second, the apparently wide-spread practice of exposing impressionable youngsters to repeated experiences of classical music inculcates in a fraction of them the desire to listen to such music in their lives after school. Third and most important is the belief, widespread though far from universal, that an appreciation of music is a component of living a civilized life. That this cultural trait distinguishes Mexico from the United States, at least in degree and why that should be so is a topic for another time.