Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why are orchestras in trouble? (the financial side of things...)

I have previously written of the plight of many of our nation's orchestras, including both smaller, regional ensembles as well as the "too big to fail" (see the continuing plight of the Philadelphia Orchestra).  Given the proliferation of the availability of financial information, it is now possible to examine all of these ensembles with closer scrutiny.

Orchestra Hall, Detroit--6M refurbish
The myriad problems of the Detroit Symphony remain a prime example of nearly everything gone wrong.  Orchestra management decides, in the early 2000's to build a major addition to historic Orchestra Hall, to which the DSO had relocated in 1989 (deserting the horrendous--and now demolished--Ford Auditorium).  The cost of the project? $60 million. Amount raised? $60 million. What's the problem? Management decides to invest the endowed funds instead of paying the bill. Economy tanks and the musicians are left holding the bill, subsequently agreeing to salary freezes amidst negotiations of a new master agreement.

"The Max"--60M boondoggle
Management proposes a 27% salary decrease; musicians counter with 24. Management counters that offer with 33%!!!!!! Over six month long strike ensues; many of the orchestra's most prominent musicians leave the DSO for greener pastures (as if that could be difficult).  The end result (the strike ended in April 2011)  left the orchestra's personnel depleted (74 full-time players, down from 96 and seven below the contractual mandated 81), salaries slashed (the orchestra's pay scale currently ranks somewhere between 17th and 20th place among the orchestras in the U.S.) and a continuing mountain of debt.  A report from the musicians of the DSO can be found here.

The most recent financial report filed to the IRS notes a $15 million deficit, despite the sacrifices of the musicians--the people that patrons pay to hear.  On top of this, DSO CEO Anne Parsons, who has presided over this folly, received nearly $300,000 in compensation and benefits.  An additional endowment provides Ms. Parsons with free housing and "social club dues" to the tune of another $76,000! On the flip side, the base salary of Music Director Leonard Slatkin is a mere $165,000.  In these days of skyrocketing conductor salaries, he is a bargain on the level of Sam's Club.

Note that amidst all of this dire news, the Detroit metro area ranks ninth nationally in the number of millionaires. Methinks there are a lot of potential patrons to help dig the DSO out of this mess, but it is going to take action on a grand scale and undoubtedly with new management--a completely clean slate--in place.

How many other orchestras have suffered from a gross mismanagement of the budget? Well, we could start with Philadelphia...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not only in Dubuque...

"A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim." (Wikipedia)

"Some might say that the standing ovation has come to be devalued..."   (Ibid)

Since moving to Dubuque nearly 20 years ago, I have noticed the pandemic increase of  the standing ovation.  It has gotten to the point  that my own daughter is almost embarrassed to attend any kind of public performance with me, as  I do not immediately leap to my feet to honor what I may--or may not have--seen or heard on the stage.  Here it has definitely gotten to the point that the  "s.o." is  an expected  part of the evening's festivities, as audiences regularly stand for elementary band concerts, middle school musicals (with which  I have a basic educational problem) and countless other events.  As long as there is  not a major   collapse on stage, the s.o. appears.

Of course this suffices to dilute acknowledgement of the truly exceptional and is now a phenomena not limited to Dubuque--or the Midwest for that matter.  Read here for a  discussion of the matter in NY.

As a performer, do I appreciate applause?  Of  course.  As for the s.o.?  I'll take it  when it is   truly earned.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tear-jerking in triplicate...

Dietrich Fischer-Diskau, whose amazing voice I equated with how a baritone should sing, died today at his home in Bavaria.  One has to consider who of his generation could sing such a wide repertoire--ranging from much of the significant lieder in any language to Wagner (he sang in the first LP recording of the Ring with Solti, the Vienna Phil and the greatest singers of thelate 50s and early 60s.

This afternoon, my "friends" at IPR just  had to play a recording of Fischer-Diskau singing the Ruckert-lieder of Gustav Mahler (who, himself died 101 years ago to the day). The pianist?  Leonard Bernstein...what a line-up of talent...what a sad day for singers everywhere...

Friday, May 11, 2012


I am sitting in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott having attended all but the last morning of the Iowa Bandmasters (don't you hate that term?) Conference. It used to be called a convention, but they changed the name to conference so that school administrators wouldn't think of it as a drunken brawl.  Some of the attendees never got the word.

It has been a rejuvenating time of clinics, concerts, and conversations--with a few close friends as well as a  number of people I have not seen in too long.   While I found nearly every concert enjoyable to some extent, this evening's performance will not be counted among them.   Band X is a fine ensemble, nearly as good as any in the state.  So the problem was not in the band, it was in the program.  I listened to the first three works on the concert and left--fortuitously, as I ran into a colleague in the lobby and we went out for a coffee.

The problem with the program (I like the way that sounds) was that I could not make any sense of the music I was listening to.  Although the printed document contained descriptive program notes, I felt that one could have called the pieces just about anything and had the same effect on the audience. In short these were compositions that left one thinking, huh?  Why? What prompted the composer to write such strident, bombastic "music." I was actually developing gastric distress at the sounds I was being subjected to.

Sometimes I think I'm getting old and set in my ways, but dammit, I hadn't purchased a ticket so I felt no guilt in walking out, even though I knew that pleasant experiences awaited me within two of the remaining four pieces.  I just couldn't take any more of it.

Guess it's easy to understand why I won't name the ensemble....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Berlin Phil at Carnegie Hall
In a response to my probably all too often tirades about American orchestras and the repertoire they present (here and abroad), I created the "Huey" Awards, acknowledging creative and progressive programing in Eastern Iowa orchestras.  The original posting can be found here, but I'll remind readers (if there are any) that there was no winner during the 2011-12 season.  While an orchestra did include one program of significance (the QCSO's War Requiem), the sum total of every orchestra's season was seriously lacking.

As I wrote last summer:

The "Hughes awards" are totally arbitrary, based upon my own criteria which include possible thematic content, inclusion of both contemporary and American composers and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of important note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory; i.e. why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players).  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works and that's just the works of the "masters."

It is incumbent upon the modern day symphony to be a proponent of the music of our time BECAUSE that is the heritage of the medium.  It was not until the mid to late nineteenth century that works of the past started to form any kind of "repertory."  In the time of Mozart and Haydn, people were "discovering" the works of Bach and Handel as if they'd been composed in another millennium, rather than some one hundred years previous.  In Mozart's time (and Beethoven's and many other's) the music presented on a concert program had to be new.  There were no "interpreters" of the music of the past; most performers were led by the composers themselves.  But, somewhere along the way (the early twentieth century and the rise of serialism?) the audience became disconnected from the music of its time.  If we are to remain viable, we must espouse the changing milieu in which we live.

I was attempting to make this case with my daughter just yesterday, telling her that there was a time when all that a concert-going public would hear was "new" music (and using my own descriptions above).  I had to convince her (try reasoning with an eleven-year-old!) that there is, in fact, new music being written for the same kinds of concerts as those from hundreds of years ago.  The fact that I have personally conducted 15 premieres during the past 14 years is evidence of this.  But there are certainly many other conductors championing the music of our time.

Two of our regional orchestras stand out for not offering particularly creative or progressive programing:

The Dubuque Symphony trots out Beethoven's Fifth Symphony again (sigh) even though it opened the orchestra's fiftieth anniversary season four seasons ago.  A program of American music seems more like "classics lite," with stalwarts like Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man and Old American Songs), Bernstein (choral selections from Candide) and Grofe (Grand Canyon Suite, a piece I recall first hearing on Captain Kangaroo.)  An all-Russian program offers Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, the Polovtsian Dances of Borodin, and two of Rimsky-Korsakov's triumvirate of orchestral splashes, Russian Easter Overture and Capriccio Espangol.  Ho-hum.

The culture of times past...
The Quad City Symphony does little better with a line-up of dead and (mostly) European males.  Although it has been difficult to access the orchestra's entire season line up, a capsule summary includes:

Wagner: Rienzi Overture
Violin concerto featuring new concertmaster (tba)
Dvorak:  Symphony No. 8

November 3 & 4: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony & Mozart's Clarinet Concerto

December 1 & 2: Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet & Verdi's Falstaff

February 9 & 10: Valentine’s Day with Five by Design

March 9 & 10: Pictures at an Exhibition & Rite of Spring

April 13 & 14: Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony & Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto

As I said, where are the living composers? Where are the Americans? The once progressive QC orchestra seems to be only concerned at putting bodies in the seats. Unfortunately, within the next ten to fifteen years, those bodies will be dead.

Coming home...making strides...
Orchestra Iowa (I still have trouble not calling it the Cedar Rapids Symphony) returns to its "home court" of the Paramount Theater, four years after the catastrophic floods of 2008. The "homecoming" concert includes music by a local composer, Jerry Owen's Glee, Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite and the ubiquitous Pictures at an Exhibition.  

Other interesting items of note (pun intended) a "Star-Crossed Lover's" program that offers a beat poem by Frank Oden, Grinnell College composer Eric McIntyre's Drive By, as well as the "usual suspects" by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Bernstein. The orchestra has also teamed with Ballet Quad Cities (have to wonder how that is playing out in Davenport) to offer The Nutcracker and Prokofiev's Cinderella in venues in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities. The orchestra is also offering a premiere, Michael Daugherty's American Gothic, on its season-closing concert. 

Clearly the winner...
So while Orchestra Iowa must be congratulated for expanding its repertoire, the true winner of the 2012-13 "Huey" Award for creative orchestral program (again remember it's the sum total) must be the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony.  The orchestra established a new business model this spring, naming Music Director Jason Weinberger to a position as CEO.   While this may seem a daring move (and a daunting one for the Music Director), Weinberger has already proven that he has the chops to take the reins of an orchestra that had experienced at least ten years of conducting crises and turn it into a fine instrument, performing in the finest concert hall in the state.

Starting with an all-Bach program in April, the WCFSO includes new or little-known works on nearly every program, including:
  • September:   Gabriel Kahane: Crane Palimpsest (2012) with Gabriel Kahane, vocalist along with selections from Purcell's Fairy Queen.
  • October:  works by Ingolf Dahl: Quodlibet on American Folk Tunes and Folk Dances and Zoltán Kodály:  Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’.
  • November, in collaboration with the Cedar Valley Chamber Music Festival:  works by Walter Piston, John Harbison, Morton Gould, Peter Schickele (not in his nom de plume PDQ Bach), and Samuel Barber. 
  • February:  more works by Barber and Harbison, including the latter's 2006 Concerto for Bass Viol.
  • March, along with the Northern Iowa Youth Orchestra, Iowa composer Jonathan Chenette's Rural Symphony (2000).
The musical choices have changed a great deal during the past year, at least within two of our area communities. But, to hear the gamut of the repertoire--from Bach (and before) to the present time--the place to be is the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls. 

Now it looks like I have some work cut out for me!

Sunday, May 6, 2012


In my "music appreciation" course at the local community college, I have attempted to stress to my students the fact that everything we are listening to is being heard out of its intended context. We've actually heard no "Gregorian" chant as I feel it must be experienced in its natural setting (which would be at the monastery less than five miles south of our classroom). Symphonies, of course, are written for concert halls; chamber music for smaller venues (although often heard in spaces the composers wouldn't have dreamed of).  And opera? It is as ridiculous to listen to a recording of La Boheme as it is to sit in a classroom, reading and analyzing Hamlet.

It's all about context: the ability to experience the art form on its "home court." Zachary Wolfe writes of the HD opera phenomenon in today's New York Times.  Also in today's Times, James Oestreich writes of the "Spring for Music" festival going on now at Carnegie Hall.  (This was previously commented upon in this blog.)

Focusing on New York, my friend and musical colleague, Peg Cornils, is presenting another recital at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall on May 18. How I wish I could attend!

Across the country, critics in southern California are talking about Simon Rattle, Alan Gilbert, and the ubiquitous Gustavo Dudamel.  It's probably time for me to let up on the "Dude," especially since I'm stealing programing ideas from him...AND here is a considerably interesting report of a Pacific Symphony program that invited local amateurs (first come-first served, no audition required!) to join the pros in a side-by-side performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet.  Gotta love Carl St. Clair.

I am currently compiling information toward determining the 2012-13 "Huey" Awards for originality in orchestral programing (in Eastern Iowa).  I am please to note that--unlike last year--there are two orchestras in the running!  Unfortunately one orchestra is featuring a season full of mostly dead white European males and another is retreading works from its most recent past and definitely "selling out" its patrons relative to the musical world outside its sphere of influence. Stay tuned.