Last week I wrote about the impact that a billion dollar endowment to classical music might have on the field. Thanks to all of you who commented on the article. Money always gets people's attention.
I promised to write this week about what I would like to see happen to the orchestra's role in the community if a gift of this magnitude was, in fact, made to the field. As always, we love to hear from you so please share your opinions and ideas by using the comment function below. So what would I like to see if money was no object?
I would like to see the orchestra interact more frequently with the community. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see the orchestra, or smaller ensembles, be a regular part of community gatherings like festivals, graduations, neighborhood meetings, and other events? I know that a few years ago the CSO performed a free outdoor concert in Harrison Park in partnership with the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Funding like this could bring our orchestras to many, many more parks throughout the City.
I have seen the profound role that our talented orchestral musicians can play in the lives of children. The Sinfonietta's educational programs touch only a tiny fraction of the number of children we would like to serve due to funding constraints. Have you ever heard of a "gangbanger" with a violin case slung over his or her shoulder?
I could go on and on about how orchestras could play a more robust role in our communities, but for now I will again invite your thoughts and ideas. Disappointingly, I didn't have a single billionaire respond to my request of providing the Sinfonietta with an eight-figure endowment. I will extend the offer for at least one more week. Call me!
I am new to blogging and am starting to like it. My last entry discussed classical music as a growth engine and it looks to me as though there were two responses to what I wrote.
One response questioned whether number of subscribers was the best measure of success or whether it might be the number of young audience members or the number of contemporary works. The other entry noted that variety is important and that the field would become boring if every orchestra followed the same approach.
Both of these comments are great topics.
To address the second topic first – variety is vital to success. Before the Elgin Symphony Orchestra set its programming philosophy, we studied what other orchestras perform in the area. We analyzed what we thought the CSO’s philosophy was, we looked at Chicago Sinfonietta’s funky programming, we looked at Music of the Baroque’s specialized programming, then we set our strategy based on what would make us unique and best fit our suburban audience.
Similarly, I continue to believe number of subscribers is the best measure of success but other great managers have used different measures to extraordinary success.
As to the ESO’s strategy being boring, I believe the ESO’s job is to give riveting performances for the maximum number of audience members. Exciting concerts are the conductor’s job. As a manager, my job is to find successful techniques that give our Music Director the foundation he needs to be exciting; that might be boring but I love it.
I assume the point being made in the first comment is that young audiences and contemporary compositions are precursors to future success. To use an analogy I am sure I will regret, nursing homes do not worry about finding younger audiences. They know that they will find new people when those people reach the right stage in life. When I was in high school we said, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old”. I do not know if our slogan has gone the way of “never trust anyone over 30”, but I think it still has validity.
Concerts are designed for an atmosphere that appeals to a group of people; people who are looking for a contemplative, social event; an entertainment form that lends itself better to a 50-year-old than a 20-year-old. We could try to change the format to meet the interest of 20-somethings. Orchestra X in Texas did that to good effect. Or we could try to build an atmosphere that appeals to all ages; several orchestras are looking for that model. But, in the end, trying to be everything to everyone tends to be a dangerous strategy.
Contemporary music is an interesting topic. The world is full of great contemporary music. You can find it on almost every program the ESO produces and I have difficulty envisioning a season with variety without contemporary music. The question is what contemporary is. Is contemporary the sharp atonalism written through the midpoint of the 20th century? Does it have to be the major work on the program? Does contemporary music have to be medicine?
We use war horses to bring folks into the house, and then introduce them to more recent works that we think they are likely to enjoy. Composers today are on par with any other period of music and our strategy is to demonstrate this to our audiences.
I enjoy this blogging stuff. It is a great forum for expressing philosophies and strategies. If we all study what we are doing, take the best of what we see, and figure out how to do things ever better, our field is in for a great future.
As the summer winds down and Labor Day quickly approaches, we start to look forward anxiously to our first concerts of the new season. We hope for full concert halls and inevitably find ourselves counting the number of anticipated people for the performances by tracking sales of subscriptions and single tickets. Do you tend to be a subscriber or a single ticket buyer?
As an article in this week’s issue of Crain’s Chicago Business points out, subscribers are the life blood of performing arts organizations. The piece explains why it’s difficult for most of us to think about giving up our focus on securing as many subscriptions as possible. At the same time, we do recognize that times have changed, and with them, audiences’ arts consumption habits have changed as well.
A couple of months ago, Philadelphia Inquirer Music Critic Peter Dobrin wrote an article entitled “Bach, Beethoven…Buffett?” The article talked about Warren Buffett’s $31 billion pledge to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and posed the question of what impact a gift of that size, or even 1/10th of that size, would have on the orchestral world? It’s an interesting premise to consider: What would orchestras look like if many of the financial issues that we wrestle with every day were ameliorated, if not entirely removed? Would we program our concerts differently? How would attendance be affected? Would more talented musicians and composers be attracted to the field? Would the quality of music be improved? Would classical music play an expanded role in the cultural life of most Americans? I’ll share my opinion as Executive Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, and as always, I invite you to chime in with your thoughts, as well. Our orchestra would not change our programming philosophy, (we are having way too much fun doing what we are doing), but additional resources would no doubt be invested in hiring more musicians, scheduling additional rehearsals, (one of those things you really look at when trying to contain costs), and bringing in soloists with star power. I suspect we could increase attendance as well, although if all orchestras had the big bucks, who knows how that would all shake out? One thing is for sure, we could price our concerts more competitively, making them more accessible. The more important question for me is really about how the influx of money would affect the orchestra’s role in the community, and the cultural life of Americans. I’ll address that next week. In the meantime, if any billionaires out there would like to saddle the Chicago Sinfonietta with the challenge of dealing with an eight-figure endowment, please leave me a comment and I’ll get right back to you!
I go to a fair number of concerts and I am prone to read program notes. But I am usually disappointed or irritated. First, why do program notes have to be so serious? They usually read like textbooks. For instance, here's a real quote from a program: "Schumann's Second Symphony was actually preceded by three other symphonies. The first, dating from 1832, contained only two movements—these two movements are still in manuscript and only sketches exist for the final two movements. The second attempt at a symphony, in 1841…" And it goes on like that for another 10 or 12 lines. Bo-ring! Then the notes go on to give an analysis of the themes and how the composer manipulated them. I'm musically literate and I find this kind of thing worthless in the concert hall. It would be one thing if I (we) could hear the examples, but no. The author is telling us that somewhere in the middle of a movement a theme from another movement is going to be played backwards. Give me a break! So what do I want? A way into the piece for one thing, something I can actually identify. For instance I remember a bit about Ravel's Bolero from a concert years ago. The writer pointed out that an amazing accomplishment was that Ravel had managed to repeat the same melody over and over again for about 20 minutes and keep it interesting. Okay, not earth shattering, but I remember it after all these years and I just read it once, casually, before a concert. In future postings I'll give other examples, but in the meantime, what do you want from program notes?