“Symphony orchestras are well-oiled machines; they don’t tend to initiate change”

Peter Peters

“Symphony orchestras are well-oiled machines; they don’t tend to initiate change”

The societal impact of UM research

24-01-2024 · Interview

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: how a UM research centre is helping symphony orchestras bring classical music into the modern world.

“Sure, you could write a whole book and leave it on an orchestra’s desk, but it’ll just end up gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. Almost no one will read it. We want to be hands-on, working together with musicians. It’s not about doing research for society; it’s about doing research with society.”

Peter Peters, an endowed professor of Innovation of Classical Music at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), has been leading the Maastricht Centre for the Innovation of Classical Music (MCICM) since 2018. This collaborative effort between Maastricht University, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and the Philzuid Philharmonic Orchestra aims to bring classical music into the modern world.

One of the goals of the research centre is to create social impact. From the very beginning, the MCICM’s approach has been to test ideas in practice rather than formulate them completely based on existing academic literature. “You learn so much from it. We, as the university, don’t claim to be the sole possessors of knowledge. Knowledge resides in the orchestra, the audience, the conservatoire. We want to be a platform where all that knowledge comes together, followed by academic publications – not the other way around.”

The research output of the centre has included two PhD dissertations. But these are just some of the results they’ve achieved over the years, says Peters. “For almost six years now, we’ve been working with orchestras to find ways to innovate classical music. That perhaps wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Orchestras are well-oiled machines with fixed repertoires and packed schedules. They don’t tend to initiate change. But innovation is essential for them to keep up with the times.”

Beethoven in a warming world

Take social issues like diversity. Many orchestras exclusively perform compositions by European men like Mozart, Bach and Chopin. “How can we make the Western classical canon more inclusive? That’s something both musicians and audience members care about. The same goes for sustainability. It’s not only about practical matters – should orchestras still want to travel the whole world in this day and age? – but also about the relevance of classical music. It undeniably has historical value, but is there a way to connect it to contemporary issues like climate change? What does Beethoven sound like in a warming world?”

The MCICM explores these questions with an international network of orchestras. Just last week, the centre co-organised an online symposium. “We had about 70 participants. Not only academic researchers, but also musicians and teachers at conservatoires from all over Europe.” The centre is also involved in shaping the education of future classical musicians: Peters is helping to revise the bachelor’s curriculum at the conservatoire of Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, Conservatorium Maastricht. “We’re especially focused on how the classical music profession is changing. For example, should future musicians be taught how to use social media to build an audience?”

The playlist of Mariaberg

The Philzuid Philharmonic Orchestra serves as the MCICM’s living lab, testing innovative concert formats and conducting other experiments. In an era of ageing audiences and flagging visitor numbers, exploring new ways to engage people is crucial for orchestras. Not all of today’s audience members are content to sit in silence for hours, listening to the standard repertoire. One experiment, “The People’s Salon”, focuses on storytelling and audience interaction, inspired by the 19th-century Parisian salons where people gathered to listen to music and engage in conversation.

“It’s proved to be a success”, says Peters. There have been three editions of The People’s Salon, including one in the Heerlen theatre last year. The fourth edition will take place this spring in Mariaberg, a neighbourhood where the orchestra has recently established a new rehearsal space. “Orchestra members have been going into the neighbourhood to find stories. The key question is: which music must be on the Mariaberg playlist? We’ll perform those works while local residents share personal stories and stories about the neighbourhood.”

It’s a unique experience for both audience members and musicians, says Peters. “It’s fascinating to engage with people you wouldn’t typically see in a concert hall and to experience that music is of tremendous value to them as well. It provides orchestra members with new ways to make their work meaningful to the audience.” And it’s paying off: “The orchestra plans to continue the format even after the experiments are completed.”

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: impact,societal impact,classical music,orchestra,peter peters,mcicm,philzuid,conservatoire,research

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