Got a Question for an NJSO Musican? Ask!

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's Ask a Musician program aims to get the audience more intimately involved in the music.

At intermission during a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concert at NJPAC, parent David Wallace of Montclair, helping out on a class trip, introduced his kids to NJSO bassoonist Mark Timmerman. “My kids are very interested in music, and [Ask a Musician] is great for them,” Wallace said. “We’ve never been up close to a bassoon before.”
Photo by Fred Stucker Photography.

Frank Foerster, principal violist of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, says the mood swings in Brahms give him “goose bumps.” Thanks to a new program called Ask a Musician, he is able to express such feelings directly to audience members.

The brainchild of two NJSO players—cellist Sarah Seiver and bassoonist Mark Timmerman—Ask a Musician aims to get audiences more personally involved in the music by enlisting NJSO members to mingle in the lobby during intermission, conversing with audience members.

Painters and sculptors traditionally make themselves available for kudos and questions at the opening of gallery shows. But Ask a Musician mirrors a recent trend in other art forms. Actors sometimes meet their audiences in lobbies after plays. Clowns have been known to shake hands—or squeeze noses—just outside the Big Top.

Ask a Musician has made orchestra concerts “an entirely different experience,” says Matt Demakos, a concertgoer from Chatham.

Before a concert begins, a symphony member introduces the musicians who later will be in the lobby to answer any questions. Emphasis on any. The musicians sometimes are chosen to embody a theme: orchestra spouses, Chinese natives, those with odd hobbies, Midwesterners. At intermission, the musicians show up in the lobby with instruments in hand. No banners, no booths—they’re there to mingle.

During intermission at a recent NJSO performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Demakos struck up a conversation with Seiver about her well-worn cello, which she informed him was made in 1790.

“How much did it cost?” asked Demakos.

“In 1963, my mother had to talk my father into buying it for $1,700,” Seiver replied. “Turned out to be a great investment.” (It’s now insured for much more.)

Questions in such exchanges can be basic: Exactly what is the conductor doing up there? People want to know about the instruments: How is the viola different from the violin? They clamor for something quantifiable: How old were you when you started playing? Questions about mindset are common: Do you get nervous before performances? Some are slightly personal: Who cuts your hair?

Violist Foerster says he is always surprised at how receptive audience members are, especially when he talks about his response to music: “How I love swimming in the ocean of sound, absorbing the energy that comes with this communal experience…they seem to understand exactly what I’m talking about,” he says.
“Too often conductors talk to audiences as if they were children,” Foerster adds. “It’s more meaningful to talk to them from our true selves, sharing honest feelings, even dislikes of the music. When we take them seriously, we build a connection which entices them to come back.”

The Ask a Musician concept, which began in 2006 and has been adopted by the North Carolina and San Antonio symphonies, works better at some venues than others. For the NJSO, which performs subscription concerts at seven halls across the state, including the State Theatre in New Brunswick and Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, logistics are always a factor. The larger the lobby, the better it works. It takes place only if the musicians can access the lobby without going outdoors.

At some venues, audiences are more likely to engage than at others. It has been discontinued in Princeton where, Seiver jokes, the audience already knows everything.

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