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BackStage

Orchestras

Confession of a Commission

Nov 1, 2006

Paul Freeman is the Founder and Music Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta.He is guest-blogging today about the orchestra’s recent performance of the Concertino for Cell Phone and Orchestra that received international media coverage.

One cold winter day in January 2005, I was sitting at the gate in Prague waiting to catch the British Air flight to Chicago. I was a bit tired because I had conducted the Rachmaninov Symphony #2 in a very exciting performance the night before with the Czech National Orchestra (where I am also Music Director). As I sat there with the hope of relaxing before a long flight, I was disturbed by the number of individuals who were talking on there cell phones. There were about 150 people at the gate and about 40% to 50% were using their phones. After a few minutes, I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to somehow combine this technological miracle with the Symphony Orchestra? If you can't beat them, join them.

The idea stuck with me for a few days and I began phoning some of my composer friends to bounce this idea around a bit. It seemed to me that David Baker was the right choice. Even though he was skeptical when I first proposed the idea, he agreed to compose the piece, and truly rose to the occasion. David did not complete the 18-minute concertino until two weeks before the performance. We were on the telephone daily discussing the technicalities, and Jim Hirsch, our Executive Director, provided invaluable creative and technical input. This was a great team effort!

Finally, two days before the first performance, we began rehearsing the orchestra and stage cell phone players' music. The unusual aspect of this performance was that the complete work, with audience participation, was never rehearsed. We all experienced it for the first time at the premiere performance on October 1 at Dominican University. It was a joyous delight to be in the middle of this polyphonic ambience -- surrounded by the combination of the orchestra and the cacophony from over 800 cell phones. We repeated the work the next evening at Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago with an even larger audience and it was splendid.

Although the Chicago Sinfonietta and I commissioned this distinctive work, it was totally different from the many other commissions we have created. In the past, the Sinfonietta has commissioned pieces featuring a steel pan ensemble, bagpipes, maracas, an Indonesian Gamelon orchestra, Sitar/Guitar, a rock ensemble, and more. We never could have imagined that this performance would generate feature articles and live coverage in more than 45 countries including a two-page article in the New York Times, reviews in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, interviews on the BBC, a segment on the CBS Early Show, global coverage via Reuter News, and local coverage by all five television networks. We estimate that over 250 million people may have seen an article or clip about the Cell Phone Concertino. Talk about viral!

While the work is one-of-a-kind, I must say that the audience participation created an extraordinary excitement and interest that was breath-taking. So, it is with eager anticipation that I look forward to the European premiere on December 20th with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague.

Getting Emotional

Oct 18, 2006

Last week I wrote about orchestras as financial models.  I posed a rather broad question about why some for-profit businesses fail while most orchestras don't, despite some pretty wacky financial realities.

A person who I respect a great deal responded to my question, though not for attribution.  My friend noted that "People don't get emotional about toothpaste or toilet paper (unless, off course, you run out of the latter at an inopportune moment).  People DO get emotional about what orchestras do". Therein lay the crux of the not-for-profit dilemma.  Some people feel so emotional and attached to what we do that they contribute large amounts of money to ensure that classical music is available.

As currently structured, most orchestras generate approximately half of their revenue through earned income sources including ticket sales, sponsorships, etc.  The other 40-60% is derived from contributions.  Because of the vagaries of fundraising, most orchestras scrape by from year-to-year, and I suspect few, if any, could be characterized as being well capitalized.  Most orchestras (and not-for-profit organizations) are chronically undercapitalized resulting in an operating philosophy based more on survival than growth.

This model of operation has been around for a long time.  Does it work, and if not, what would be better?

Survival of the Fittest

Oct 11, 2006
Last Friday brought the news that Tower Records, an iconic brand in the music industry, will at last close its doors after years of bankruptcy proceedings.  An Associated Press story cited the iPod, perhaps the ultimate icon of the "new" multimedia (no longer just music) industry as a chief agent of the store's demise.

Most of the readers of this blog probably remember the time not so long ago when Tower was one of the dominant players in the industry.  Readers with longer memories will remember pilgrimages to Rose Records on Wabash (which Tower replaced) for their classical music fix.  The digital age has little patience for inflexible business models.  As Dorothy once so famously stated, "People sure do come and go quickly around here!"

So how do you explain the survival, and occasional "thrival" of orchestras?  There aren't too many more unlikely-to-succeed business models than that of your everyday, modern orchestra.  Why does the market have so little use for the Tower Records of the world and almost unlimited patience for the "Anywhere Symphony Orchestra" or ASO, as its subscribers like to call it?

I'll try to answer this question in the next few posts.  How about giving me a few ideas to jump off from?  Your contributions to this process are always welcomed!

Solti Gardens

Oct 6, 2006

This week it was a pleasure to celebrate the creation of Solti Gardens with the re-location of Sir Georg Solti's famous bust to its new home in Grant Park.  With this move, we bring a small but tangible part of Solti a little closer to Orchestra Hall and to the Orchestra he loved.  The bust faces south, looking toward the Spirit of Music, which is a memorial to another of the CSO's visionary leaders - the Orchestra's founding music director, Theodore Thomas. 

The Solti bust stands as a reminder of the incredibly important role that Sir Georg Solti played and continues to play in the history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the city itself.   Through many fantastic performances and his remarkable partnership with the CSO over two-and-a-half decades, he helped to catapult the CSO on to the international scene with the Orchestra's first 1971 international tour.  This ambitious, sometimes grueling, and consistently critically acclaimed six-week trek through Europe, has been followed over the last 35 years by many tours, both foreign and domestic, which have introduced the CSO and, in some cases, reintroduced Chicago to the world and secured their place "on the map."

Solti's influence on the CSO continues, with his legacy embodied in the many musicians whom he appointed, who continue their work in the Orchestra today, carrying the musical traditions of the CSO into the future.  One of those musicians appointed by Solti, Principal violist Charles Pikler, performed at the dedication ceremony, just as he had performed at Solti's gravesite when the Orchestra toured to Hungary in 2005. 

My time at the CSO - which began in 1998 - did not coincide with Solti's time here, but I did have the opportunity to hear him conduct the CSO in 1995 and 1996.  In recalling his dynamic, enthusiastic and electrical presence on the podium on those occasions I feel fortunate to have witnessed Solti's music-making with the Orchestra, however briefly, and a distinct sense of pride in working as a part of the organization supporting this Orchestra, which was so deeply touched by Solti's presence here. 

The area surrounding the bust will be landscaped over the next year, and Chicagoans can look forward to spending time in this special place and watching the planned gardens grow and flourish, much as Solti's legacy continues to live and breathe in the CSO's performances each week. 

Serving our Communities

Sep 28, 2006

Each summer, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra embarks on a thorough Strategic Planning exercise. One of the topics that comes up on a regular basis is the manner through which we should serve the community. The ESO is not unique in this discussion. I assume every well run organization, symphonic or not, non or for-profit, must remain clear on its relevancy. I find the subject fascinating.

During our discussions, some of the smartest members of the Strategic Planning committee argue that serving our community means attracting members of the full demographic into our concerts. Some feel that we should bring Hispanic, African-American, Asian, wealthy, poor, folk with advance degrees, and those without college education to our classic concerts. Others believe that we need to program special concerts to serve specific demographics that they believe are unlikely to attend our current offerings.

These arguments make sense. Depending on what numbers I hear bantered about, only 3 – 10% of the general population will attend symphonic concerts on a regular basis and some of our Board members fear our organization will have a difficult future if we do not serve a larger percentage. They are also worried that the population is shifting away from the Eurocentric audience we have traditionally served. Finally, they worry that the classic audience is getting older and that not serving a younger audience will doom us in the future.

When I think of how we can best serve our community, I refer to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. In his book, Collins studies seven constants experienced by 11 companies that successfully transitioned from long-term mediocrity to long-term greatness. One of these constants is that each of the companies had what he calls a Hedgehog Concept. Simply put, the Hedgehog Concept is the discipline to determine a single goal that balances what you are deeply passionate about, what drives your economic engine, and what you can be the best in the world at.

If the Elgin Symphony Orchestra is going to focus on serving our community, I think we need to ask ourselves how we can serve our community in a way that is better than anyone else in the world. I do not think we can serve non-Eurocentric audiences better than anyone in the world.

Chicago Sinfonietta has a greater passion for this than any symphony I know of, and is located in the heart of a major city with a huge, wealthy, well educated, multi-cultural audience. They have a greater passion, and greater access to audience and resources to succeed here than the ESO does. I do not think we can serve younger audiences better than anyone in the world.

Orchestra X, who saw incredible success around the turn of the millennium, had the passion and the young audience of Houston to succeed better than anyone else on that front. The Grant Park Music Festival’s free concerts can better serve access than we can.

I do not think the ESO can try to be the best interpreter of Wagner (this might belong to the Berlin Philharmonic) or American music (this might belong to the San Francisco Symphony). So what can we do better than anyone else in the world? The Elgin Symphony Orchestra can bring educated and upper income people into downtown Elgin better than anyone else in the world, and this is a service to our community needs.

Elgin is an incredible city. During the decade I have lived here, the city has experienced a renaissance unlike most ever see, and it clearly is just getting started. Unfortunately twenty years ago, Elgin was experiencing tougher times; and perception lags reality. Of the city’ many tools, we are its most effective at changing who populates its downtown. Elgin has three entities that bring significant numbers of outsiders into our downtown area on a regular basis: the Grand Victoria Casino, the private schools, and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.

By far, the Grand Victoria brings the most people in on an annual basis, but the median income is the lowest of the three organizations. The private schools bring in a high income demographic on a regular basis, but their numbers of people affected are relatively low and their families do not spend a lot of time in our downtown.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra brings 55,000 people into downtown Elgin each year, and assures that they have an enjoyable time; with the result that the vast majority want to come back. By clarifying our goal of serving our community through bringing educated and upper income people into downtown Elgin, we achieve the Hedgehog Concept. We are serving Elgin in the way it feels the greatest impact, we are doing what we can do better than anyone in the world, the people we are serving provide the economics we need to propagate our future service and building downtown Elgin is what we are passionate about.

How an orchestra should serve its community is not an easy question. I believe the ESO should focus on bringing educated and upper income people into downtown Elgin, but that does not mean that the Elgin Symphony Orchestra can forget broadening our constituency or serving our young – and we have (and must have) a number of highly successful strategies in these areas.

Chicago Sinfonietta, Grant Park Music Festival and Orchestra X have clear and effective ways of serving their communities that work well for them. One day, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra might find a better way to serve Elgin, or might define our community in a way that changes how we serve. In the meantime, we will need to regroup once a year and have a deep discussion on the subject to be sure we agree that we are on the right track.