No, I’m most definitely not referring to myself. A true Greek heartthrob, Mario Frangoulis, will be making his Chicago debut at Orchestra Hall on Monday, October 9th in a benefit concert for the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center.
So, why blog about this?
Mario Frangoulis is termed by the record industry as a “Classical Crossover” artist. This category includes artists like Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Il Divo, and others. These artists routinely perform to sold-out sold houses, sell millions of cds, and introduce many, many people to classical-style singing. My assumption is that these artists often serve as entry points into “serious” classical music and opera appreciation for people who enjoy them.
Okay, now a small bit of editorializing. I think these artists are good for the field. While many Il Divo fans may never discover Thomas Hampson, a few may, and those people could become tomorrow’s Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theater subscribers. Here’s hoping that Mario Frangoulis, and other Classical Crossover artists pave the way into classical music for thousands of new fans.
Last weekend was such an occasion. On Saturday, September 16th, Maestro Paul Freeman, WFMT on-air host, Jan Weller, and yours truly played music, interviewed guest artists, and talked about the Sinfonietta's upcoming 20th anniversary season for three hours on 98.7 WFMT 98.7 - all live - except, of course, for the music.
What is interesting about live radio is how quickly you use up the time that is allotted. We created a "script" well in advance of the show that was to be our guide for playing all of the recordings, interviewing all of the guests, and talking about all of the concerts. The script had a minute-by-minute timeline so we always knew exactly how much time we had for each segment.
The show began last Saturday at 9:05 a.m. and by 9:13 a.m. we were already three minutes behind. A slight bead of perspiration broke out on my upper lip. By 9:26 a.m. we were even further behind and began searching the script for segments to cut. I suggested we cut some of the commercials but the folks at WFMT politely disagreed.
By 9:47 a.m. I began to feel like (and look) like Albert Brooks in the movie, Broadcast News. I kept thinking that we were never going to catch up, and the season preview, not to mention my broadcast career, was going down in flames. And then it happened.
Jan Weller, a cool character if there ever was one, suggested that we play a few different tracks that saved us some time, we tightened up a few subscription pitch segments, and voila, we were close to being back on schedule! Best of all, people were calling and buying subscriptions!
We hit our going-off-the-air time of 11:55 a.m. in what seemed like a matter of moments. I left the studio and drove to the Whole Foods Market in River Forest - one of our season sponsors -- for another Sinfonietta preview event. As I drove to River Forest and began to finally dry off, I just kept thinking, live radio is fun... live radio is fun... live radio is fun. I can't wait until next year.
Two years ago, Deborah Card, then the brand new President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, spoke at a meeting of the Illinois Council of Orchestras about how an orchestra is initially formed stays a part of the culture of the organization throughout its existence.
She gave an example how the Seattle Symphony (the orchestra she managed before coming to Chicago) was founded by some prominent women in the community who pulled together a band of musicians, lent them their husband’s suits and held concerts. She also discussed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who was formed by a group of business men who decided that a great city needed to have a great orchestra.
I found her talk to be fascinating and have since thought about the formation of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. The ESO was formed 57 years ago by three people; Doug Steensland, Marian Laffey and Jean Hove. All three were public school music teachers who effectively tied the ESO with the community leaders on the school district’s Board.
Doug wanted to be a conductor, Marian wanted to be a Concert Master and Jean was willing to do whatever was necessary, so she played Principal Viola. The three of them then recruited an ensemble of teachers, high school students, doctors and lawyers who wanted to make music. This combination integrated the musicians with the funders of the symphony from the start. It also ingrained a sense of ownership amongst our musicians for the success of the organization.
These are two traits that I think are, and will always be, profound aspects of who and what we are. Now we – the Board, Musicians and Management – need to decide what we will do with them. If we are not conscious of these elements and do not harness them, they will undermine what we try to achieve.
In the 1970’s, Margaret Hillis became our music director and introduced annual auditions to the orchestra, making it so that some people could no longer play with us. In 1985, we became fully professional, decreasing the number of Elginites who could play with us. In 2000, we committed to a multiyear run at reaching Chicago AA scale (the pay set by the American Federation of Musician’s Local 10-208 for playing symphonic music in Chicago’s loop) so that we can attract the best freelance musicians in the region, making it yet harder for Elginites to perform in the orchestra.
During these profound changes, we can either be aware of the facts both that we have a fundamental connection between our community and our musicians and that we have a clearly defined plan to place the best musicians in the region on our stage (regardless of where they live), or we can simply move forward and assume everything will be alright.
If we do not remain cognizant of our history, the bonds between our musicians and our community will erode. This will likely undermine the structure of our fundraising and ticket sales. Our community members will cease to support the organization, and the musicians will start to put up barriers to our advancement. This could be overcome with new ticket sales and fundraising strategies, PR and Board management, but we would be starting from scratch.
If we remain conscious of it, we can have clear dialog about the fact that we have members of our orchestra who have grown up in Elgin and who we are lucky to have on our stage. We can be aware of the fact that we need to make concerted efforts to encourage musicians to move into Elgin so that our patrons see them in the grocery stores and hire them to teach our patrons’ children.
We can recruit musicians to prominent positions throughout our committee structure. We can make sure that we are consciously building informal bonds between our musicians and community. And we can continue to develop new techniques of building on these existing connections.
In the end, we all have basic traits that define us. It then becomes our jobs to understand them and figure out how to harness them as propellers.
[Note to reader: I'm pleased to join WFMT family of bloggers, as we share some of what goes on at Chicago's classical radio station.]
As a producer at WFMT I am privileged to create single programs and 13-part series for local broadcast and for airing over the WFMT Radio Network. My current project is the Network series On Wings of Song, recitals by young vocal artists from the Marilyn Horne Foundation in New York. When Marilyn Horne - one of the world's greatest singers - turned 60, she decided, with a few friends, to start a foundation, and she kept coming back to what needed help the most: the Vocal Recital. While opera seems to flourish these days, and symphony concerts usually have good audiences, the vocal recital has languished a bit. But not any more!
Thanks to Marilyn Horne's generosity and very hard work, a whole generation of young singers has received training, encouragement, support, and performance opportunities in New York, California, and throughout the country. For eleven years the Marilyn Horne Foundation has worked with the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where Ms. Horne teaches each summer, to train young singers and young pianists in the art of the song recital. And the Foundation supports a series of recitals in New York City, presenting singers from the Foundation's roster in public solo recitals during the concert season (roughly September through May). These are terrific singers - and many of them have found their way to the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago. Current or former Lyric Center singers that work with the Horne Foundation include soprano Erin Wall, mezzo soprano Guang Yang; baritone Quinn Kelsey, soprano Nicolle Cabel (the 2005 winner of the BBC's Singer of the World competition in Cardiff Wales), and soprano Susanna Phillips.
The 13-part series On Wings of Song, which you can hear on Thursday nights at 10 on 98.7 WFMT, is chock full of great singing, wonderful pianists, and terrific repertoire. These are vocal recitals by the best young voices in America, all of whom are great performers as well. I hope you'll be listening. And you can find out more about the Marilyn Horne Foundation by going to their website:Marilynhornefdn.org.
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!