The performing arts allow us to get in touch with the deeper parts of existence, of what it means to live and be human. … And there is no rational method of persuasion when it comes to justifying this kind of value. All we can do is put on a good show and hope that people are emotionally moved to experience it again.
Kevin Lau, affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Sneak Peek Orchestra‘s co-founder and artistic director, strongly believes in the inherent value of the performing arts. Read on for more of his thoughts on the challenges faced by concert performers and presenters.
Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?
I am a contemporary music composer. My primary interest, of course, is in getting my works performed, but I am also an avid supporter and fan of Canadian composers, new music, and the classical music scene in general. I am one of two artistic directors of the Sneak Peek Orchestra, which aims to bring classical symphonic music to a wide audience by showcasing emerging professionals and young, talented musicians. I am also the affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony, and I play a role there as well in bringing audiences closer to the concert hall.
What projects or events are you currently working on?
The Sneak Peek Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony are the two main ones. This fall I am also participating in a variety of education workshops for young children—including Axis Music and Sistema Toronto.
What do you see as the main challenges for those in the performing arts?
I would consider the main challenges (and goals) of any performing arts organization to be marketing, fundraising, and in general being able to cultivate a strong relationship with the broader community. These are necessary pillars for a healthy organization; what makes them difficult to achieve is that there is a staggering variety of performing groups in Toronto and seemingly limited resources to being able to “get the word out.”
And while competition is good, I think that, in general, too many groups end up competing for the same (relatively small) group of dedicated patrons, while a larger portion of the community is mostly unaware of what’s out there. It’s always gratifying to be able to build an audience from an untapped demographic (which we are trying to do here at SPO), but it’s not always easy!
Do you have an example or examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a composer or event organizer? How did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for us is being able to dedicate our efforts to the goals I mentioned, while still putting on a good show that actually has something to offer. The artistic quality of a performing ensemble and its marketing efforts are two different worlds, and it’s sometimes hard to manage both successfully because each is its own full-time commitment.
What we have tried to do at SPO is recruit a team of individuals who are terrific artists but are also skilled communicators, marketers, etc. And vice versa: people who are terrific at reaching out to the community in the first place, but are also skilled in music and familiar enough with the performing arts so that there is no disconnect between the marketing efforts and what is actually happening.
But all of this takes a lot of time and effort, and the financial incentives are limited at best. This is something we’re still working on, of course, and we intend to keep trying!
What would you like to see happen in support of the performing arts, and why should it be supported?
The issue of support is very tricky. There are many who believe that the performing arts do not need to be supported—that they can thrive purely on competition alone. The problem is that it is very difficult for most artistic organizations—take an orchestra, for example, an organism consisting of at least fifty members—just to get started, never mind thrive, only on ticket sales and occasional donations alone. So government and corporate support is always appreciated.
But in order to garner such support, we need to be able to show our “relevance” to the community in some way (a slippery concept), and in order to do that well, we need financial backing. So it can be a very challenging catch-22.
Ultimately, though, it boils down to a question of value. The performing arts allow us to get in touch with the deeper parts of existence, of what it means to live and be human. Because our culture is at this time fundamentally materialistic, consumer-based, and goal-oriented, we are not used to thinking in terms of value and fulfillment as distinct from monetary success. And there is no rational method of persuasion when it comes to justifying this kind of value. All we can do is put on a good show and hope that people are emotionally moved to experience it again.
What role do you see BeMused playing in supporting the performing arts community?
I think BeMused can provide a comprehensive resource for what is “out there” in the performing arts community, and this is something that we—not only audiences but other artists and musicians—could really use. The fact that it’s online is crucial, since so much activity happens online these days.
Also, it’s a wonderful idea to have a web presence that not only is comprehensive, but that woos concert-goers, directing them to events they would want to see but may not have previously heard of, etc.
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
Don’t do it all on your own!