The People's Salon

In the Artful Participation project, researchers observed and intervened in the orchestra philharmonie zuidnederland. The People’s Salon was one of four experiments that the researchers designed together with musicians and staff of philharmonie zuidnederland.

How can audiences of an orchestra contribute artistically to a concert evening? In the experiment The People’s Salon, a group of loyal ‘friends’ of philharmonie zuidnederland were invited to share their personal stories and memories about how a particular classical music composition had been important for them during certain moments in their lives. Together with researchers, musicians, and staff of the orchestra, this group of regular concertgoers programmed a concert evening based on their personal anecdotes. The experiment shows what happens when artistic responsibilities for a concert are shared, and what an artistically meaningful form of audience participation can be.

Key lessons

  • A concert evening based on audiences’ personal stories, memories, and anecdotes about their favourite musical works can be a meaningful form of audience participation in artistic programming
  • Sharing personal stories of audiences contribute to a different listening experience, and can open up ways to make classical music matter to people in a different way
  • Productional choices regarding the stage-design or walk-through of audiences, can become artistically important

A soiree by and for the Friends of the Orchestra

For many regular concertgoers, classical music has a special meaning in their lives. In the experiment The People’s Salon, the meaning of classical music in the (daily) lives of audiences took centre stage – literally. A group of fifteen friends – loyal concertgoers who contribute annually to the orchestra – were invited by researchers to program a symphonic concert evening for their fellow-friends. Through qualitative interviews and two focus groups, personal stories and memories were collected about their favourite classical music compositions. Together with the artistic programmer and the researchers, the friends selected the repertoire of the concert-evening based on their stories and anecdotes.

The aim of The People’s Salon was to change the relationship Friends have with the orchestra. One becomes a Friend of the orchestra when donating money. Instead of money, we asked Friends to donate their personal stories, and take (some) artistic responsibility for programming an evening for their fellow Friends. The focus group meetings and the semi-open interviews with individual Friends made it clear that hearing other people’s memories and stories about music provided a starting point for intense conversations about the meaning and importance of classical music in people’s lives. This element of conversation led the researchers to envision the concert as an intimate music evening as it originated in bourgeois Paris salons around 1900. In these salons, musical performances facilitated and triggered a meeting of minds. By exchanging stories and memories about the meaning of classical music in one’s life, the evening aimed to raise some awareness that audiences can relate to classical music in different ways, and that taking ownership for the orchestra can take different forms.

Sharing artistic responsibilities

The main challenge in this experiment was to share and distribute the artistic tasks and responsibilities for organizing the concert evening between the Friends involved, the researchers, and the orchestra staff, specifically the artistic programmer. In the focus groups, the Friends were very open and sometimes emotional when sharing their personal memories and stories. Some were mundane, related to day-to-day situations, as in the case of a friend who liked to listen to symphonic repertoire in her car because it made the motor noise less annoying. Others were more emotional, one such friend who listened to Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano concerto in the week his wife passed away, and now feels that she figuratively winks at him when he accidentally hears this music.

Program for The People's Salon

The Friends liked to talk about classical music and share their personal thoughts and memories. Some found it “easier to remember compositions” and “it was not about technical terms and expressions but about what the music can evoke”. Talking about classical repertoire in the form of personal memories, seemed to empower some Friends, as this couple expressed: “Memories and stories and what the music evokes, belonged more to pop music. I wasn’t aware that you could also talk about this in classical music. And I didn’t expect that all these connoisseurs here also enjoyed the more easy and accessible compositions, like we did. That opened up the world of classical music for us.”

The group of friends felt very responsible for the process, as one of them noted in an evaluative survey afterwards: “Especially after the first meeting, I really felt like a co-programmer, for a beautiful musical evening.” Responsibility in an artistic sense was also felt when making the final decisions on the repertoire of the evening. This was challenging for some friends, as it would mean that “you cannot take into account all of the beautiful, personal and dear memories, which means that we will have to disappoint some people”. Others found it challenging to accept “different views on musical tastes”, or to come up with “workable ideas”. Based on the interviews and the first focus group, the researchers proposed a storyline of recurring themes: childhood memories, love stories, everyday life situations (such as listening to the car radio), and consolation at moments of loss and sorrow. This provided a potential structure for the concert program.

During the second focus group, it turned out that the Friends had selected mainly solo and chamber music works, whereas a medium size symphony orchestra had been scheduled. Since there were not enough personal stories related to orchestral works, the artistic programmer of the orchestra and the researchers had to artistically intervene by suggesting symphonic repertoire.

By doing so, we could also take the friends along in the decision-making process that usually belongs to the artistic programmer: considering the instrumentation of the scores and the number of available musicians, the costs of hiring extra musicians or adapting an arrangement to fit the instrumentation. Eventually, the friends, the researchers and the artistic programmer agreed on two symphonic compositions that were feasible in terms of available musicians and rehearsing time and fitted the themes of the evening.

A Salon in a Refurbished Factory

For practical and logistical reasons, such as a lack of time, finding a suitable venue for the concert evening was done by the researchers. We first sought after two historical locations in the city centre of Maastricht which have the late nineteenth century atmosphere that invokes the atmosphere of Proustian music salons, but they were not available in January 2020. That made us reflect on this decision: we realized we were not aiming to re-enact the 19th century salon and its social context. Rather, we used the salon as a guiding metaphor, for bringing conversation and music together, around meanings of classical music in our lives.

AINSI, Maastricht, the Netherlands

We then found an old cement factory just outside the city centre, called AINSI. It has been refurbished as a cultural venue, offering a large foyer with many sofa seats placed among the remaining industrial equipment. Aesthetically it offered the contemporary rawness of concrete walls and ceilings – combined with old carpets, tables and armchairs. It also has a relatively standard black box theatre hall that accommodates an audience of 150. This limited the maximum number of Friends that could attend. After all the 2,500 Friends of the orchestra had been informed about the concert, which was offered to them for free, it only took one day to reach this maximum number of reservations.

The idea was to use the different spaces in the AINSI venue to create not only a musical stage, but also an environment where audiences could converse. In the focus groups, we also discussed the stage design and the way we could include some stories in the set-up of the concert evening. The musician-researcher had proposed to stage the stories in various places and invite the audience members to walk from one to the other, as a metaphorical journey through life. This would require careful management of the movements of both the musicians and the audience during the concert, so shortly before the concert the researchers decided to perform all music in the hall and have the conversations in the foyer.

The friends and researchers together then decided to ask some friends to present their stories live during the concert, in a talk-show manner with a host. This host role was taken by the timpanist of the orchestra. We also asked the friends, as ambassadors of classical music, to start conversations with audience members in the break and after the concert about the value of classical music in one’s life. The friends were motivated to take up this role, as some liked to make classical music “more accessible”, “closer to the people” and to reach “normal audiences, and not only the diehard experts”.

Staging the Salon

The actual staging of the event in the days before the concert was done by the musician-researcher together with technical staff from the orchestra and AINSI. She had to constantly negotiate between her original design ideas and a host of smaller and bigger resistances: the position of the smaller ensembles that would perform chamber music as well as the position of the orchestra. The size of the hall itself, as well as its acoustic, set limits to where the musicians and the audience could be situated.

Using coloured lights to change the atmosphere between pieces led some of the musicians to protest because they could not easily read their scores. In a last-minute attempt to prevent the staging from falling back into a conventional orchestral performance setting, she brought some of the sofas from the foyer and added small tables with flowers, which was met with some hesitance from the orchestra production crew. Eventually, the evening went smoothly: the alteration between the presented stories of the friends on stage with performances such as Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, Rimski-Korsakov’s Sheherazade or Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto gave the attending audience a sense of recognition as could be heard from their responses during the evening.

The People's Salon

Lessons learnt

What actually happened on January 25th, 2020, in the AINSI was different from the initial design presented by the musician-researcher. Moving from the storyboard to the actual concert brought together a large group of people: friends, orchestra musicians and staff, technical staff of the orchestra and the venue, and us as researchers. By deliberately changing important aspects of the programming and designing of the orchestral event, we learnt that seemingly trivial choices regarding the stage-design or walk-through of the audiences, turned out to be artistically important for creating the right atmosphere, fitting to the artistic programming of the evening.

Materials ranging from the concrete structures of the building and its acoustic, derelict industrial equipment and old sofas to the program notes that offered the stories to the audience, all contributed to the artistic quality of the musical situation at the night of the concert. This insight in itself is obviously not new for all involved; the production leader of the orchestra was well aware of the artistic consequences of his choices. The experiment however, made this visible and negotiable for researchers, audiences, musicians, and staff alike.

While we aimed for sharing artistic responsibility with the Friends, as co-designers, in the end we learnt that artistic responsibilities circulated among the people and materialities at the concert. Listening to personal stories not only contributed to a different listening experience, as some of the Friends voiced in a focus group after the concert, but also opened ways to make classical music matter to people in a different way. On their part, orchestra musicians said that they felt the dedication of their audience in the intensity of their attention. The artistic programmer and other involved staff members of the orchestra reflected on the possibility that this experiment could become a concert format that can open the ways audiences can relate to classical music.


In regular concerts, audiences have little influence on the organization of the concrete event of the performance. Similarly, assessing the quality of symphonic music performances is usually restricted to experts, whereas most visitors to symphonic concerts see themselves as lay persons or amateurs. By focusing on the personal stories of the friends, this experiment aimed to create a less hierarchal situation, attributing an expertise to the audiences – the expertise of valuing the meaning of classical music in their own lives.

The People’s Salon was an experiment in which the artistic responsibility for a concert evening was shared with audiences. Audiences turned from listeners into co-creators of the concert evening. Instead of “outsourcing” artistic responsibility to the audience members as unpaid amateurs, the friends in the experiment were invited to take co-responsibility as citizens for the practice they care about deeply. They made visible how classical music can matter to different people in different ways.

Sharing their stories showed how audience members literally live with classical music instead of just consuming it at concerts, as a neoliberal view would have it. Moreover, by experimenting with a different stage set-up and stage-design it became visible how artistic choices circulate between people and materials to afford the musical situation to unfold. This awareness allows for production crew, musicians, and staff of the orchestra to imagine possible different concert situations.

Friends of philharmonie zuidnederland at The People's Salon

To read more about audience participation from the perspective of a programmer, read the Journey of the Programmer.


Do you want to read more about this experiment? It is described in more detail in the following academic articles:

Peters, P., Van de Werff, T., Benschop, R., Eve, I. (2022) Artful innovation: How to experiment in symphonic music practice. In Chaker, Sarah & Petri-Preis, Axel (eds), Tuning Up – Innovative Potentials of Musikvermittlung. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Eve, I. (2020) The Same but Differently. Maastricht: Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy & the Public Sphere.