Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Musical chairs or falling dominos: Levine...Chailly...who's next?

Conductor James Levine, still the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera (even though it is not known when--or if--he will ever conduct there again) stepped down from his role with the Boston Symphony last season.  As has been the case in New York, his performances in Boston were frequently cancelled due to a variety of health issues.

The New York Times reported today that Ricardo Chailly, leader of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, has cancelled his own upcoming concerts with the BSO.  Seen by many as a possible heir apparent for the vacant position, this is certainly damaging to his future opportunities with the orchestra.  Read more here.

While an ensemble the stature of the Boston Symphony will surely have no difficulty finding "suitable" replacements for the programs, this does set the orchestra back from its quest of obtaining a permanent music director.  This writer hopes that the organization does not take the "New York/Chicago route" of hiring an "elder statesman" (such as Lorin Maazel or Bernard Heitink) to serve as a kind of caretaker until a music director is named.  To me, there remain a number of highly qualified candidates that might be lured away to what may be arguably America's greatest orchestra:  David Robertson (St. Louis Symphony) anyone?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A worldwide orchestra...

Here is the text to the new #1 song in the Netherlands, a "protest track" sung by many of that nation's leading popular singers and performed by the "Metropole Orchestra."  This is the musicians' response to anticipated cuts in government funding to Dutch cultural institutions.  May it resound around the world.

Miss the target words they seem to be powerless
Your hands empty silence in the absence of a story
Your eyes are just .. might get
They still speak a language unknown to me
.... No one to reach
You would like to scream, but where can you still hearing
The world makes you tired you dare not look at
So shut up and the roof because you do not voice calls

But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings
As a fire in the chill
If you feel cold and alone
And that puts an end to the silence around you
You are not alone

Every heart an instrument
And the fate of the conductor
So you will agree with the rest
In a world orchestra

But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings
As a fire in the chill
If you feel cold and alone
And that puts an end to the silence around you
You are not alone
But if I sing to you you will shine
because that is the language that has everything
That your thoughts and dreams give wings

Your words they seem to lack purpose become powerless ...

The video can be found here.

The highest paid conductor

The Dude
Currently it's Gustavo Dudamel.  The Dude rakes in somewhere between $1.4 million and $1.6 million/year.  Not bad for a part-time job (remembering that the average MD leads some ten sets of performances these days).  At the highest rate, he's only making $200,000 more than the LA Phil's General Manager, Deborah Borda, who allegedly works 60 hour weeks.  Is either of them worth the money being paid to them?  Judging from the financials, it's quite hard to argue.  For more information, check out this from the LA Times.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Staging Messiah?

Apparently the Pittsburgh Symphony will do just about anything to get a crowd into Heinz Hall: now they're turning Handel's Messiah into an opera.  The most revealing note in the descriptive article about the event?  Conductor Manfred Honeck, while admittedly has led "enhanced" versions of the Requiem masses of both Mozart and Verdi, has never conducted Messiah!

I'm still trying to get a handle (no pun intended) on such a cursory knowledge of the repertoire.  How does one rise to the podium of one of America's great orchestras without conducting a work I first led in an ad hoc performance in my early 20s?

Reaching the goal in a roundabout way...

"When we focus too hard on anything and apply unreasonably high standards and expectations or targets, we soon become anti-social, overly critical and stressed out. Everything then vexes us and nothing is good enough. We cease to enjoy life, to judge things fairly and we are unable to find the practical solutions which would make life seem worth living. Very soon matters are on top of us, because our focus on one area means another has suffered neglect. The unfinished tasks add to the stress, and there is usually someone who feels they have had a raw deal from this period of dedicated obsession and won’t mind saying so. Pushed to an extreme, the workaholic attitude causes us to get ill or to fall out with people. We start to make poor decisions with dire consequences. Over a life-time, such one-sidedness can cause us to miss out on many of the good things of life altogether, leaving a catalogue of personal disasters behind us.

For musicians, these pressures are particularly acute, because the temptations to over-work are great indeed. Opportunities have to be seized like rare birds, while the pressures to perform at a high level are immense. Travelling is often part of the package, so we rarely turn up as fresh as a daisy, and this often makes us dissatisfied and anxious. Sometimes the technical demands of the music require huge effort that does not bring much musical or financial reward. Then many musicians are sometimes juggling with family life, teaching, practice and performance. It is perhaps a cruel truth that a performer always believes they can improve, even when any improvement would be marginal and go unnoticed by the public. Musicians thrive on self-criticism, and arguably you have to be a bit obsessed to be a musician at all. But these very qualities can exert physical and mental pressures which can all too quickly destroy well-being.  Because a musician aspires to enjoy their work, if they do not, there can be a sense of bitter disappointment. To avoid this, we need to learn to know when to quit trying so hard and living with the compromise."

Peter Davison, in Kenneth Woods' blog
A View from the Podium

For the entire article, look here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Will the bad news ever stop?

Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall
Quite recently I finished reading Michael Charry's biography of conductor Georg Szell, most noted for his lengthy tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra.  While it seems as though the book whitewashes some of the stories of the maestro's temperament, it proves to be invaluable as an in-depth view into the man and how he created one of the world's great ensembles in one of America's  rust belt cities.

The Clevelander's were the rage of Europe during Szell's tenure and all signs indicate that they still play at an extremely high level.  Franz Welser-Möst, its conductor, has continued the traditions of the ensemble, while expanding residencies in Miami, Lucerne, and Vienna, as well as a future excursion into Paris.  The orchestra's endowment, now set at $130 million, increased by $24 million in the past year, a remarkable feat.  However, the financial picture is not as bright as those numbers would indicate.

Deficits for the past two years have been $2 million and $2.3 million, respectively.  This fiscal year the deficit is slated to be $2.7 million, all of this with increased fundraising commitments and ticket sales at Severance Hall.

The officers of the orchestra's Board of Trustees was just re-elected for another year.  One has to hope that this same-old leadership gets its financial house in order.  This fine ensemble is in no way teetering on a Philadelphia-like precipice, but a continuing bleeding of dollars will only eventually catch up with them, especially in our present economy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Everything's Up To Date.....

On June 23, I wrote of the pending opening of the Kauffman Center for the Arts in Kansas City.  The Center, with separate auditoria for opera/ballet and the Kansas City Symphony, appears to be everything that its builders promised and more.  Here is proof that the philanthropic efforts of an American city, sometimes down on its luck, can rise above even the worst of economic crises to build something equal to the artistic efforts playing within it, raising the level of the art and artists to even greater heights.

Convention Hall interior, capacity 15,000!
Performing arts facilities in Kansas City have a rather precarious history; the first of these, Convention Hall, burned to the ground a little more than a year after its opening and only a few months before the scheduled Democratic National Convention of 1900.  Demonstrating what would become known as "Kansas City Spirit," it was rebuilt before the July 4 opening of that event.  Unfortunately, the 1922-24 meetings of the Ku Klux Klan at the facility seem to outshine any artistic endeavors that took place there.

The Convention Hall was demolished in in 1936-37 and turned into a parking lots) as part of a WPA project to build the new Municipal Auditorium.  The new building was designed as a multi-purpose facility with a 7300 seat area, 2400 seat music hall, and a "little theater" holding approximately 400.  For 75 years, the Municipal Auditorium served as home for all of the area's major cultural institutions:  orchestra, ballet, and opera.  The original Kansas City Philharmonic was dissolved in its 49th season, following a series of strikes and a general decline of corporate and community funding.  Almost immediately, however a group of local music supporters inaugurated the new Kansas City Symphony in 1982.  Under its new name the symphony moved into the Lyric Theater, originally a 3000-seat Shrine Auditorium.

The Lyric Theater
Founded in 1957, the Kansas City Ballet made the Lyric its home from the beginnings of its history.  Although it has in fact gone through several name changes, including the State Ballet of Missouri, it has returned to its roots (and original name) and appears to be a quite solvent third partner in the Kauffman Center triumvirate.

To say that the new Kauffman Center is stunning is a gross understatement.  Zachary Wolff writes in the New York Times, "From the outside the two theaters are curving inverted ziggurats, pristinely white, that evoke Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum; the stainless-steel cladding on the arched exterior gives off a Frank Gehry vibe. And those nesting arches recall a familiar Australian opera house: when I told someone here that I was in town to see the new performing-arts center, he said, “Oh, the Sydney-looking one?”

Muriel Kauffman Theater
The Muriel Kauffman Theater is an 1800-seat house for the Lyric Opera and Kansas City Ballet.  With a 5000 square feet stage space and an orchestra pit seating 95 musicians it would seem to more than serve the needs of the companies that use it.  Its size also creates a level of intimacy rarely available in theaters much larger (it seems as though 1900 seats is the threshold here).  As operas have almost all taken to the presentation of supertitles for foreign-language works, the Kauffman takes that one step further: offering the new Figaro supertitle system, with personal monitors on each seat back.

Helzberg Hall
Helzberg Hall, a 1600-seat auditorium, is the new home of the Kansas City Symphony.  With a stage that extends a good length into the house, some 40% of the seats are located beside or behind the orchestra.  In fact, the furthest seat is said to be just over 100 feet from the stage.  The designers of the space also did not make any short cuts either as the hall includes a new pipe organ constructed by the renowned Casavant Freres Company, consisting of 79 stops, 102 ranks, and 5,548 pipes.  Would that hall builders/renovators in some of our other great cities had such foresight.

The entire center, which is connected by the Brandmeyer Great Hall, a large glassed-in atrium, is truly a sight to behold.  Placed on a 13-acre campus not far from the city's up and coming downtown, one can easily tell that the late Ms. Kauffman's dream, combined with civic generosity and brilliant architects have created a stunning model for arts facilities.  And, in a reminder to all the sports franchises demanding civic support or else, the Kauffman Center--all $366 million worth--was built solely with private dollars.

Kauffman Center and proximity to downtown

I know that there is fine music being made in this city as I heard the Lyric Opera many years ago in a Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci double bill.  Now, with the construction of this incredible pantheon for all of Kansas City's arts, there is much more reason to travel west (and south).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bad news now from?

Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, PA
The fact that the Pittsburgh Symphony played to a sparse audience on its November 5 subscription concert may be a harbinger of things to come for this respected ensemble.  Mark Tamburri, the President and CEO of the orchestra--which has included Victor Herbert, Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, Lorin Maazel and Maris Jansons--announced his immediate resignation on November 14.  He was replaced almost on-the-spot by James Wilkinson, a lawyer and Vice-Chair of the orchestra's Board of Trustees since 2003.  Wilkinson has absolutely no experience in orchestra management.

Still, Harold Smoliar, chair of the orchestra committee, says of the new boss, "While I know he may never have had the job of general manager of an orchestra, I think he knows an awful lot about the Pittsburgh Symphony and what makes it tick."  Personally I have been part of musical organizations that have employed "non-artistic" management personnel.  One of these showed her total ignorance of musical matters by hiring an operations manager, stating that "she had taken an orchestration class." Obviously that makes one qualified!

Pittsburgh has been running multi-million dollar deficits over the past few years and "sparse audiences" don't make for good forecasts for the future.  Of course, maybe it was the programming of a new work by Cindy McTee, Walter Piston's Viola Concerto, Vaughan Williams' "Dives and Lazarus," Jean Francaix's The Flower Clock and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.  Even reviewer Mark Kanny called it an "odd program."

It sounds to me as though Tamburri possibly decided to get out while the getting was good.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Yet another symphonic crisis

Meyerson Hall:  another "wow" experience
Just today, Norman Lebrecht broke the news in his Slipped Disc blog that the Dallas Symphony is on the precipice of insolvency.  Sources on the ground indicate that corporate and individual support is on the decline--undoubtedly another result of these difficult economic times--and that the ensemble is currently selling only 65% of its house, the renowned Meyerson Hall.  Expecting a potential $6.5 million deficit this season, the organization has already announced a series of salary freezes and the elimination of five weeks of subscription concerts for the 2012-13 season.

This news comes a little over two years after the orchestra cancelled a nine-city 2010 European tour.  The ensemble did appear at Carnegie Hall in May of this year, offering the New York premiere of Steven Stucky's oratorio August 4, 1964.  Written in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Lyndon Johnson, the work reflects on catastrophic events of that day in history, including the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.  New York Times reviewer Anthony Tomassini spoke much more of the work than the performance of the orchestra rather than saying, "This was Mr. van Zweden’s first performance in New York as the Dallas Symphony’s music director. The goal of Spring for Music is to empower orchestras to take chances with their programming. That Mr. van Zweden and the Dallas players seized the opportunity speaks well of their shared artistic priorities and working relationship."

One can certainly try to guess the reasons for the orchestra's troubles.  Is it really all about the economy?  Or does a month-long Mendelssohn Festival just not play into the desires (and pocketbooks) of Dallas patrons?  One can only hope that a wise business plan will be put into place to save yet another great American orchestra.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Still lots of bad orchestra news...

The Philadelphia Orchestra seems to have found its way into a bigger mess as it tries to drag itself out of bankruptcy proceedings.  Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes of the organization's attempts to further renege on its pension obligations and a newly filed suit blaming the AFM for "harassing" the orchestra and its donors.  It just appears to be another never-ending tale of poor management making bad decisions and then blaming the musicians (or their duly-negotiated contracts) for the financial mess.

All fall concerts of the Louisville Orchestra have been cancelled as the musicians of that ensemble rejected the management's latest offer and have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board "claiming that orchestra officials have refused to bargain in good faith."  Executive Director Rob Birman (who actually cut his organizational teeth in Dubuque, IA) has even stated that the orchestra is considering hiring replacement musicians, a difficult task as the organization is now on the AFM "unfair list."  The Louisville Orchestra is also under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan approved in August.

The Syracuse Symphony has been dissolved, having filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April.  The assets of that organization, including musical instruments, a large library of printed music, and its historical archives, have been divided up among three area educational and cultural organizations.  The New Mexico Symphony was also struck by Chapter 7 in the past spring.

There are signs of the possibility of a resurgent Honolulu Symphony, but thus far, nothing has come to fruition.  As has been my experience in academia, it takes a long time to build a stable ensemble or musical organization.  Unfortunately, such ensembles can be undone in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Another look at America's orchestras

Practice?  Nope.  If you have enough cash, you can get to Carnegie Hall!

The 120th season is well underway at Carnegie Hall and an incessant stream of great orchestras is making its annual pilgrimage to that musical mecca.

The opening night gala, held October 5 featured an American orch.....oops, it featured world superstar (and the man who conducts with a toothpick if anything at all) Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg.  The program of Russian favorites also included cellist Yo Yo Ma in the Tchaikovsky "Rococo" Variations (yawn).  Three subsequent performances  included a complete cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies as well as excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the grandest warhorse of them all--Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and the first symphony of Shostakovich.  In all, nothing new here.

Possibly American orchestras can save the day (or the artform) at our nation's musical pantheon.  Here's a run-down:

Orpheus (October 13):  Mendelssohn, Haydn, Brahms and--what's this?  A world premiere by Cynthia Wong:  Memoriam.

MET Orchestra (October 16): sans its music director, James Levine.  Mozart, Mozart, Strauss guessed it! (maybe not) a John Harbison premiere:  Closer To My Own Life.

Leo Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra (October 21):  Lots of Bach and a smattering of Schoenberg.

(By the way, even though its not an American orchestra, the Vietnam National Symphony made its first American appearance, performing, among other works, three works by indigenous composers.  No apologies here!)

Philadelphia Orchestra (October 25):  Ho-hum, Faure, Beethoven and Shostakovich (at least it was his 10th symphony)

Minnesota Orchestra (October 27):  Not one, but TWO Tchaikovsky's and Neilsen's Third Symphony.

Mannes Orchestra (November 2):  Even this is pretty much old hat:  Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain, Kernis, and Rite of Spring.  It's almost 100 years old!  That's not new anymore!

And so it goes.  The Atlanta Symphony throws in a Rachmaninoff Concerto so the audience can swallow its diet of a premiere and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy.  

Readers should look toward Greg Sandow's blog.  He is developing a number of new ideas in audience growth and possible ways of advancing the American orchestra, rather than allowing it to become (if it hasn't already) a museum piece visited only by an every-graying populace.