Jim Palermo's blog

Take a Jock to the Orchestra

May 3, 2007

The other day, there appeared in the Dcist an article about how Jeff Beam went to the orchestra for (nearly) the first time. The whole experience really was about taking the “orchestra challenge” Drew McManus set up on his Adaptistration blog site through the April Take a Friend to Orchestra month.   Yours truly and a month’s worth of other music professionals wrote pieces about how “ordinary people who love classical music can invite a friend who does not regularly go to hear live music to a concert.” 

The DCist's Jeff Beam, who writes on sports, urban planning and other Washington DC city issues, attended a concert of the Australian Chamber Orchestra on tour.  The article goes on to chronicle Jeff’s impressions of the concert.   

Arts professionals, take note.  I would wager to say that Jeff’s views aren’t so unusual.  How we respond is vital to our collective future. 

1.)      Jeff wasn’t in the mood to go.  He didn’t want a “stuffy” Friday evening after a hard week.  “I just wanted a drink, a distraction, and my bed, in that order.”  Stuffy?  Yes, I guess we are a lot of the time, and on top of that, people make choices about how to spend their time, whatever the activity.  Cocooning on a Friday night is a very strong temptation.  I suggest examining why we present Friday night concerts.  At Grant Park, it’s our lightest attended night.  The most popular for us is Wednesday.  They say Thursday is the new Friday.  How many of us would risk the change?

2.)      Jeff likes classical music Ok, but was “intimidated by the fact that an aficionado like Charles would be enjoying the concerto at such a sophisticated level while I tried to recall the differences between the viola and the violin.”  There we go again, we intimidate people, smart people, who just don’t happen to “get” classical music.  So, we need to find ways to make the experience more inviting, relaxed and welcoming.  Let’s all re-read Take a Friend to Orchestra.

3.)      By the middle movement of the concerto, Jeff remembered “the transformative power that music – any great music – has in a live setting.”  I guess once people come, and all the other factors fall nicely into place, it is possible to capture them.  I am relieved Jeff warmed up to the experience but wonder, how can we get that message across so more people actually want to attend a concert on their own?

4.)      When the concert ended, Jeff promised himself “(again) that I absolutely must do this sort of thing more often.”  Awesome!  Opportunity is calling, but of course “this sort of thing” might be a play, a poetry reading, or any other art related event.  How do we connect with first timers to make sure they are asked back to our institutions? 

The article goes on to critique the concert, which is of less interest to me.  Jeff, his maiden experience as a “non attender” and how we can grab people like him for the future, interests me much more.


Apr 27, 2007

See my last blog post. Transpose to London. The Independent ran an article yesterday about the popular young Brit violinist Tasmin Little who took her Strad to the streets, a la Josh Bell, too see if anyone would notice. The long and short was, not many did. Jessica Duchen’s piece isn’t nearly as interesting from a pseudo psychological perspective as Gene Weingarten’s in the Washington Post, but in the end, the message was the same.

After 45 minutes, Tasmin earned £14.10, which was about $28 the last I checked the exchange rate. Hmmm…Comparing that to Josh Bell’s $32, I guess you can say he outclassed his British counterpart.

I think both of these two have it wrong. What really would have attracted the attention of an unsuspecting public in the train station at 8:30 a.m.? Full out concert garb – tux and tails for Josh and a low cut strapless number for Tasmin. After all, it’s about competing with the hustle and bustle of everyday life in order to make an impression.

Who would have missed them in their normal concert attire?

Notes from the Underground

Apr 12, 2007

Check out the fascinating article in Sunday’s Washington Post by Gene Weingarten. An unidentified Joshua Bell, one of the great violinists alive, set up shop in a Washington DC underground subway station one morning during rush hour, playing for about 45 minutes.

What do you think happened?

Not much. Lots of people rushing off to work happened by, but not many had the time for beauty. Bell, playing his 1710 Stradivarius dressed in jeans and a ball cap, failed to make much of an impression. He earned about $32, including $25 from the one person who knew who he was. That means that the other 1,069 people who wandered by during that time period contributed a whopping $7.00. All this for a guy who earns about $1,000 a minute in the concert hall.

Click here for the audio portion of Bell’s unusual “performance.”

This really well written article ties together interesting concepts about American life in the 21st century, “stopping to smell the roses,” and how the context provided by a legitimate performance space helps people recognize quality. Enjoy.

Beethoven in the Barrios

Apr 3, 2007

The other day, Mike Williams in the Atlanta Constitution wrote an article called Beethoven in the Barrios about the amazing national music education program in Venezuela. For over 30 years, the program, simply called "The System," begun by conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, is showing the rest of us that this part of the third world is doing great things when it comes to educating its youth in classical music.

Even more importantly, the program is changing lives, creating hope for at risk kids, helping to mold better citizens, and opening countless doors to professional careers for aspiring musicians.

Some 85 percent of the kids involved come from poor or working class families. “The first goal is not to create professional musicians,” explains Xavier Moreno, secretary of “The System.” “The goal is to rescue the children."

Over 500,000 participants later, the remarkable success of “El Sistema” has been followed by the active particpation of a stream of international artists and conductors like Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, both of whom are mentoring the organization and its performing ensembles. In fact, the CSO is being lead this week by the program’s most famous graduate, the exciting young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who leads the orchestra in a varied program of works by Castellanos, Bruch and Mahler.Click here for more information.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flatery, and more than 20 other countries have started their own programs to duplicate Venezuela's. A source of national pride, the program employs 15,000 music teachers and has become intensely competitive. “Centers hold auditions for hundreds, sometimes thousands of kids, who are evaluated for their musical abilities. Those judged most promising are accepted, and all the centers have waiting lists, some with several hundred names,” says Williams.

Venezuela is now full of orchestras and symphonic music, thanks to “El Sistema.” The country only had two professional orchestras when Abreu opened his first training center in the 1970s and now boasts nearly 200 orchestras, with at least one professional group in each of the country’s 22 states. With a total population of just over 27,000,000 people, Venzuela has quite an impressive track record, one to which we should look as a shining beacon for the future of the art form.

Addendum: Re-reading this in the editing process, I couldn’t help but think of Jim Hirsch’s recent blog about the participation of under-represented populations in our nation’s symphony orchestras. As the debate ranges on about why African American and Latino populations in the US aren’t better represented in our orchestras, and after having read about Venezuela’s flourishing “sistema,” I wonder, can you make any assumptions or correlations?

A Season Unveiled

Mar 29, 2007

Putting a concert season together is a bit like making a meal. It’s about assembling the right ingredients, combining them in an interesting and enjoyable way, and timing it all just so. Add a pinch of spice and hopefully a generous amount of inspiration and, well, maybe then you can create something special.

Today the Grant Park Music Festival's 2007 season – the 73rd – was unveiled in both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times. At times like these I can sit back, relax for just a second, and give thanks for having such a cool job. Getting there isn’t always so easy, but on days like today I am so glad I “do what I do.” and

I feel privileged to work with great conductors like Carlos Kalmar and Christopher Bell. They translate the artistic vision we all share into the great music you hear night after night. And then there is the virtuoso orchestra and chorus, filled with great musicians who come from all over the country to make Chicago their musical home.

What can you expect this summer? For starters, all four of Beethoven’s even-numbered Symphonies - not as often heard as their odd (numbered, that is) counterparts but full of wonderful surprises. How can you go wrong with Beethoven?

What else? Great pianists like Marc-Andre Hamelinopening the season with Brahms’ second piano concerto, Valentina Lisitsa performing both of Shostakovich’s powerful piano concertos in Orchestra Hall, and newcomer Ingrid Fliter playing Chopin. By the way, Ingrid appears in recital at the esteemed University of Chicago Presents series on Tuesday, April 24. Don’t miss it – she’s the real deal.

I’m excited about some of the out of the ordinary concerts, one featuring music from Asian composers; another, called the Devil’s Fiddler with the amazing Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos; Flamenco guitar and dancing, and some great choral works like Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Duruflé’s Requiem, Poulenc’s Gloria and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

There are fantastic singers, too, including Chicago’s own Jennie Larmore singing and recording Ravel’s Sheherazade for Cedille Records; one of my favorites, the remarkable Karina Gauvin singing Poulenc and Debussy; and the equally wonderful Nathan Gunn singing John Adams and Vaughan Williams.

Finally, there’s a big Leonard Bernstein Broadway celebration – but I’ll fill you in on that plus a surprise or two sometime later this spring. Stay tuned.