Orchestras told how The Boss shows way to boost audiences

BRITISH ORCHESTRAS should adopt high-tech special effects including cutting-edge lighting and art installations to attract new audiences and break down barriers to classical music, a theatre director urged yesterday.

Lou Stein, who founded the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, London, told delegates to the Association of British Orchestras' (ABO) annual conference that they needed a more imaginative approach to presenting music ranging from Mozart to Peter Maxwell Davies.

Mr Stein has teamed up with Jeff Ravitz, the lighting director for the rock star Bruce Springsteen, to add drama to music by the contemporary composers Deirdre Gribbin and James MacMillan in a five-date tour of the UK later this month. The violinist Vanessa Mae has already done this to some effect.

Orchestras needed to catch up with colleagues in opera, in which British companies were among some of the most innovative in the world, he said.

"This is not about bolting on superficial effects but about finding imaginative ways to enhance both the music itself and the quality of experience for the audience," he said.

"When I started going to a lot of music what struck me as a director and as a punter was why are the halls half-empty - unless there's a star performer - when a lot of the music is exciting? "If you're not an expert, you're kind of lost. I got really interested in applying theatre techniques to working with musicians. I thought the fun element was missing."

In his forthcoming Venus Blazing Tour, named after a piece of music by Gribbin, he uses a 30ft etched glass art installation as well as lighting by Ravitz to add drama to music. Gribbin appears in costume as a sort of worldly emissary of her music in the headline work.

Mr Stein said such treatment might not be suitable for all music - and some purists would hate the very thought. "But ... if they don't start playing concerts in a way that appeal to young audiences, they are not going to get them.

"A lot of people I know would love to go to hear classical music, but won't because it sounds a bit square and for trainspotting types. People are going to Tate Modern and booking for plays at the Old Vic but audiences in concert halls are not increasing unless there's a big name involved."

He admitted that suggesting this to the 300 delegates at the ABO conference in Birmingham yesterday was daunting. But the advance bookings for the Venus Blazing Tour, which starts in Cambridge on 22 February, were sufficiently strong to convince him he was right.

Adam Powell, of the ABO, said it was keen to investigate a range of ways of making the concert-going experience more enjoyable and interesting. Among the issues it is discussing with players, promoters and broadcasters are what orchestra members should wear and the use of presenters, or even the conductor, to explain aspects of the music before performances.

"Orchestras have to adapt, otherwise they're going to lose their audience," Mr Powell said.