Sunday, November 16, 2014

"An orchestra that sounds like itself"

I have written in the past of the increasing homogeneity among orchestras worldwide.  Of course, much of this is due to Music Directors on task only 8-10 weeks of a season and a plethora of podium guests each bringing an individual sound ideal and interpretation to the works at hand.  No longer is a Frederick Stock, George Szell, or Eugene Ormandy (among others) on hand for the majority of his orchestra's rehearsals and performances. Mostly, this has resulted in nearly every major orchestra sounding the same, with the Vienna Philharmonic (largely because of the different instruments employed therein) being a possible exception.

I have also lamented the fact that American orchestras seriously ignore the music of their own countrymen, particularly on tour.  In all honesty, what Russian would want to hear the NY Phil play Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich?

Jiri Belohlavek
Another, less heralded orchestra has maintained very close to its roots, as Zachary Wolfe has noted in a recent commentary in the NY Times.  That orchestra is the Czech Philharmonic, once again under the baton of Jiri Belohlavek (the orchestra performs today at Carnegie Hall and commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution tomorrow at Washington's National Cathedral).  Wolfe is spot on in his assessment of this ensemble:

The tour is an opportunity for audiences here to experience a rarity these days: an orchestra that sounds like itself. The internationalization of classical music over the past few decades has resulted in more versatile ensembles but also more homogeneity.

“The key is in the strings, which are really warm and down to earth,” [concertmaster Josef Spacek] said by phone. “Because we Czechs came from a sort of peasant lifestyle, there is a great sense for folk tunes. Smetana, Dvorak — they really derive their music from simple tunes from the countryside.”

Having heard this wonderful ensemble twice (in Chicago and in Prague itself), I could not agree more.

Wolfe goes on to write:

Part of the reason the orchestra’s sound has endured is its intimate home, Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinum in Prague, which rewards sonic richness. And part is simple numbers: According to Mr. Spacek, just two out of the 118 players are not Czech. “It’s not because we don’t allow foreign people to apply,” he insisted with a laugh. “But we have a huge overload of musicians coming from the Czech Republic,” a country of 10 million with more than a dozen conservatories.

The Rudolfinum, Prague
Also at home, the orchestra is bucking the trend--musically and financially--that we're seeing on this side of the pond.  Since 2000, musician salaries (while still quite low) have increased 60% and concerts--now offered three times/program instead of two--are playing to 90% houses, compared to around 65% not so long ago.

The Czech Phil's tour schedule appears below (N.B. dates read day/month/year).

4. 11. 2014 / COSTA MESA, California

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

5. 11. 2014 / NORTHRIDGE, California

  • A. DVOŘÁK: Stabat Mater op. 58

6. 11. 2014 / LA JOLLA /SAN DIEGO, California

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

8. 11. 2014 / DAVIS, California

  • B. SMETANA: From Bohemia's woods and fields, Šárka - symphonic poems from "My Country"
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

9. 11. 2014 / BERKELEY, California

  • A. DVOŘÁK: Stabat Mater op. 58

10. 11. 2014 / SANTA BARBARA, California

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

13. 11. 2014 / ANNAPOLIS, Maryland

  • B. SMETANA: From Bohemia's woods and fields, Šárka - symphonic poems from "My Country"
  • J. SUK: Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 24
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

14. 11. 2014 / FAIRFAX, Virginia (Washington D.C.)

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

15. 11. 2014 / PURCHASE, New York

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

16. 11. 2014 / NEW YORK, New York / Carnegie Hall

  • L. JANÁČEK: Taras Bulba
  • F. LISZT: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"

17. 11. 2014 / WASHINGTON, Washington D.C. / National Cathedral

- Concert commemorating 25th anniversary of the Velvet revolution
  • B. SMETANA: Vltava, symphonic poem from "My Country"
  • A. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 "From the New World"
Hmmm. No apologies here:  everything is Czech except for that Liszt concerto. They're playing what they know best, and why not?  While I'd rather hear Dvorak's Seventh any day, it's interesting that the Ninth is being performed. The manuscript of the same pays a five day visit to New York's Czech Center, the first time it has returned to the "New World" since the composer took it "home" in 1895.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Postponed until?

Still an empty hall in Atlanta...
A cursory glance at the Atlanta Symphony website indicates that concerts are "postponed through November 8."  Since there has been little to no public announcement of movement between management and the Player's Association, one is left to assume that another notice is in order (especially since November 8 is this Saturday).

As my previous post posited the view that management was more or less dragging its feet (to save even more cash?) when the parties seemed so close to an agreement.  With a continuation of that tactic, it's painfully obvious that the management at the WAC has any idea of the mechanics of orchestra operation.  Does Ms. Hepner (chief of the Woodruff Arts Center) think that the orchestra can just show up and play a gig with little to no notice?

For the uninformed, this is Virginia Hepner.  She's a banker.  (Surprise!)
So many variables some into play:

  • The availability of the (meager) 77 musicians left on the roster.  How many have other commitments due to lack of movement on the lockout?
  • For that matter, the availability of soloists who may have accepted other guaranteed dates, given that the ASO has been in such turmoil.
  • And what of those fussy rehearsals?  It takes an ensemble some time to jell even after a summer hiatus; it could be weeks now, given the fact that the members of the ASO have had so much unexpected time away from each other.
The time has come for Hepner and Co. to step up (and at least update the website).  Even if an agreement--undoubtedly to the detriment of the players--were signed at this precise moment, one cannot predict when the ASO can be reassembled and become concert-ready.  One thing is certain:  the remaining players will work harder toward that goal than management has demonstrated during the disastrous past few months.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

So....what the hell is up with the WAC?

Folding the tents....
Things have been relatively quiet on the Atlanta front, although there has been some news, and--as always--it's not good.  Management "negotiators" walked away from the table just as it seemed that the impasse was near its conclusion.  The federal mediators (in disgust, I am sure) have left town, and the players of the Atlanta Symphony are left twisting in the wind.

From all that outside observers can surmise, the Player's Association has caved on their last (and many deem most significant) sticking point.  The complement of players--once at 95--is now a mere 77, although the 2012 contract guarantees 88.  WAC and the ASO management have simply decided not to fill the vacancies that have occurred since the lockout, be it due to attrition or players simply looking elsewhere for work.  A number of other orchestras, including Dallas and Chicago, have benefitted.

The future Atlanta Symphony?
But now the players have given up on their insistence that they field a full orchestra.  Simply put, one cannot perform a Mahler symphony with 77 players.  In certain works, 95 is a stretch and often requires additional substitute personnel.  But given in they have.  And the reaction from Virginia Hepner and her management cronies at the WAC?  Silence....that same deafening silence that has accompanied this debacle since the beginning.

Here's what the players have given up:

  • Any salary guarantees whatsoever.  Their modest proposal would have increased levels (which were slashed 15.4% in 2012) something a bit over five percent (total!) through 2018.  As it sits now, the orchestra will spend millions less in 2018 than it did in 2012.
  • Health care:  the players accepted a higher deductible plan, again saving management a figure attuned to $500,000 annually.
  • Work rules:  management will put forth its "best effort" to raise the orchestra complement to 88 by the close of the 2018 season.  Of course, anyone close to this lockout has to doubt the veracity coming out of the mouths of anyone having to do with the WAC or ASO management.
So.....since the players have folded the tents and given in on every negotiating point, what the hell is management waiting for?  These players have been without paychecks since early September and without healthcare (unless out of their own pockets) since October 1.  Players who won auditions since the last season ended have yet to play a note.

Ms. Hepner and friends:  the world is waiting for the sunrise and for the return of the Atlanta Symphony.  What's taking so long?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Changing conventions for a changing audience....

Baldur Brönnimann, incoming Principal Conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música, offers ten changes to "spice up" orchestra concerts. This raised a large number of often spiteful comments from readers at Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc.

1. The audience should feel free to applaud between movements

Gustav Mahler introduced the habit of sitting silently until the end of a piece and I think after some 100 years, it’s time to change that. I love it when people clap between movements. It’s a spontaneous expression of enjoyment and people should feel free to show their feelings in a concert.

David H. writes:  If you consider audience applause disruptive, I already have doubts whether you are a real musician. It makes no sense to say you feel disrupted by an audience showing positive appreciation. It happens in opera frquently. How would you feel if they booed and jeered instead as they did at Minzcuk in Rio a few years ago? Real musicians earn their living principally by playing to live audiences and if the audience doesn’t approve of what it hears, then that audience will not come back, let alone encourage new people to come along. Since audiences bring in a large slice of a musicians income you have no place to be so sniffy about them. However, if you are so of the opinion that audience applause between movements is disruptive you could always play to an empty hall to solve the problem, but let’s see how much you get paid for doing so.

Tommy notes: OK, start with an easy one. It’s impossible to stop people from clapping between movements and, out of the hundreds of concerts I’ve been to, I think I can recall maybe 2 times that anyone has ever actually said something out loud to someone clapping between movements. There is no rule about it, so therefore there is no problem. Audiences do, however, like it when people can understand and appreciate a particularly moving or still moment in a piece that benefits from silence. That’s called appreciation of the art.

Maestroblh adds:  Let us not forget that Mozart himself wrote passages (I recall the "Paris" Symphony) in which he intentionally elicited applause.  Enough said...

2. Orchestras should tune backstage

There is something really exciting about hearing a great orchestra in a great hall. We shouldn’t spoil the impact of the first sounds of a piece by giving away so many of these magical sounds in a random way at the beginning of a concert. Works like the Lohengrin Prelude, Gigues or Lontano do sound strange after tuning onstage. They should emerge from complete silence.

Maestroblh writes:  It's often been my experience that a number of European orchestras enter the hall en masse (to the applause of the audience) and simply tune, without the scratchings and scrapings (and hootings) that one hears in American concert halls.  I like it.

3. We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode)

I don’t mean making phone calls, of course, but rather than switching phones off, people should be able to tweet, take pictures or record concerts silently. If people buy tickets, they should have the rights to record what they see and share their thoughts with others.

David B. writes:  Loathsome. Terribly distracting to those not wishing to comply (plus some idiots think “buzz” is interchangeable with silent …. and some will forget to turn the ringer off anyway). If I’m listening to and watching the Sibelius 7th, and some philistine in front of me can’t make it through 22 minutes without tweeting and showing tweets to others, I would want to pour my beer over his/her head. 

David A. adds:  People now do record the performance on tablets and most are entirely silent when doing so. Strangely enough they have learnt their own voice adds nothing to the recording. Also, and this is the great benefit, that audience member will most likely play the recording again and even possibly to someone else and enjoy what was played a second or a third time. It is just possible it might encourage someone new to come to a concert. Recording performances on a phone or the like is not an issue for me and the vast majority will have no commercial value, so it has nothing to do with the unions. Again, if you don’t like it, play to an empty hall. Perhaps I should also ask, if you have so much time to look round the concert hall for lights coming from mobile phones, just how much attention are you putting on the music unless of course you are the cymbal player in Bruckner 7?

4. Programs should be less predictable

The encores are often what sticks most in people’s mind and I think programmers should take the risk and not always print the whole program, but just certain key works. There must be an element of unpredictability about a concert – if it’s a piece, a different location, a little item of chamber music or anything else. Just something unexpected.

Maestroblh: Almost everyone agrees that the "Overture - Concerto - Symphony" model of programming is a thing of the past.  Exactly why would you put your audience through the most demanding work (the symphony) when it has already been seated over an hour.  It's no wonder than so many mink-coated septuagenarians snooze through the second half (I've seen--and heard it!). 

5. You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall

You can do this in a pop concert and I don’t know why you shouldn’t in a classical concert if the hall allows it. I like to feel relaxed at a concert, have a good time and not having to empty my glass in one after the interval.

David B:  Fraid not. Much as a tasty ale or three would genuinely enhance the experience, the constant back-and-forth to the concession and the loo would destroy the pleasure. This is not a football game.

Neil:  Concert halls are not pubs. Please keep glasses out of auditoriums. And mobile phones too!! 

David A:  Yes, but glasses should be plastic for safety reasons and many halls will need some adaptions close to the seat to make it possible, but this can be done.

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Many of us do: we speak to the audience before, after or during the concerts. But this can’t be an option, it must be mandatory for every artist to at least be able to introduce a piece, greet the audience or to sign a program. On that note, I think it is a shame that the public is often prevented from going backstage after a concert. Everybody should be able to talk to the musicians and share their thoughts and opinions, if it’s backstage or in the bar. We don’t live in an ivory tower and we have an obligation to talk to the people who love music as much as we do.

Josep:  The artists should engage with the audience! They are storytellers, and that means telling stories with words and music. If you give a story to the audience, they will follow during the whole performance.

Duncan: I was once seated in the front row for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. At the end of the 2nd act a cellist interacted with me – he asked if he could scrutinise my programme. I asked him why. He replied, “I’m a ring-in and I haven’t played in vocal rehearsals, so this is the first time I’ve seen the singers. .I need to know the name of the singer playing Sophie, because I swear I’m going to marry her – she’s absolutely gorgeous.” Indeed she was – a young Swedish soprano starting out on her career, who could sing as well as dazzle. Miah Persson no less. Is this the type of interaction with audiences that is being advocated?  Maestroblh: snark.

7. Orchestras shouldn’t play in tail suits

That’s an old and easy one. But I think it’s still true. I don’t think the perception of an orchestra changes by simply playing in coloured shirts, but tail suits are definitely out. Too 19th century. There are classy and much better looking suit options around.

Maestroblh:  True story that has happened more than once.  In some European orchestras, when it is too warm in the hall, the men in the orchestra are not required to wear coats.  Of course, the "maestro" is always expected to don his tailcoat.  I've sweated through Beethoven, Brahms, and too many others to count....and, for the record, renowned cellist Lynn Harrell calls this kind of attire, "dressing like Captain von Trapp's butler."
8. Concerts should be more family friendly

People with small kids want to go to concerts too, but they have to be able to leave the hall quickly and silently when the little ones get bored. Just as airlines, concert halls should do more to think about families with small kids and offer priority seats near the exits. I have never minded if a baby starts to cry during a piece, but one should be able to come and go, because some concerts can be long even for adults. Playing areas, interactive content, even child-minding facilities – concert halls need to think about families.

Nick:  Yes and no. Babies crying should not be part of any concert experience, except for concerts geared specifically to mothers and their young children. There has to be a certain minimum age, and I know some venues where it is 6. Creches for younger children is a great idea.

David B:  Ye gods, spare us this tyranny. Say, let’s just provide diaper-changing tables amid the seats too. If I pay $190 for good tickets to hear the Mahler 9th played by a fine orchestra, do I have to tolerate some baby (who should be home asleep hours earlier) getting loose and screeching during the end of the Adagio? Choose another type of entertainment.

Maestroblh:  I remember a particularly magical moment that happened during an undergraduate performance of Vaughan Williams' Hodie.  During the "lullaby movement" a baby began to unobtrusively coo.  The effect on the music was priceless.  That being said, my own child has attended concerts since she was eight days old.  I can recall but one occasion that her mother had to escort her from the concert hall.  Most of the time (when she was quite young), she would simply sleep--until she heard something she "knew."  As she grew older, one can hear rapturous applause and a tiny voice shouting "Yay Daddy!"

9. Concert halls should use more cutting-edge technology

Part of the excitement of live classical music is to see people play it up close. Nowadays we have a different visual perception than a hundred years ago, so why do concert halls not use screens to show details of a performance to people who can’t see it from the back? Or why are we not using more physical enhancement for acoustically difficult concert halls? Or offering more contents to download before and during a performance? There is an unnecessary purism about technology in concert halls, but we should move the concert experience into the 21st century. As creative artists we should be at the forefront of using technology creatively.

David B: More catering to those without attention spans. If you need visual spectacle, try opera.

Tommy:  Do you know how much it costs to do this? Do you have any suggestions for who might pay for such things? In order to put an image up on a screen, you need cameras, camera operators, rigging, someone to select the shots, a projector, a screen, and all the personnel it takes to achieve this. All these things cost money, and most orchestras are just trying to break even on a concert. To raise money to support these ideas, manpower and time is needed – and they cost money too. It should be mentioned, however, that many orchestras do actually have screens during performances. And you’ll find that, almost without exception, some of the audience like it and some of them hate it. Promoters wrestle with this.

10. Every program should contain a contemporary piece

Along with the unexpected element, there is often a lack of relevance or cutting edge to classical programs. Every piece was once new and unexpected and we have to reconnect the classical repertoire with our contemporary lives, we must play the music of our time. This is not to say that we shouldn’t play the historical masterpieces, but classical music has become a kind of “fetishizing of the past”, as Alex Ross calls it in a great article about Beethoven’s influence on classical music for the New Yorker. Programming the great works of the past alongside the music of our own time will shed a different light on the musical past as well as the musical present.

David H:  NO! What on earth? I can understand the good intentions behind this and more needs to be done to promote and incorporate modern music, but there is a wonderful corpus of music written throughout history which needs to be heard. Sometimes it is better WITHOUT such an addition.

David A:  Hard and fast rules like this do not help. The reverse is to say every contemporary program should contain a piece from the 18th century. This idea does not work. What is needed is variety in programming. 

Tommy: I have to assume you know how much it costs to perform contemporary music: the commissioning itself (if appropriate), extra rehearsal, usually extra players and hiring of extra instruments (especially percussion), the expensive music hire costs and royalty collection. Although it should be noted that many, many orchestras around the world do exactly what you suggest and programme “the great works of the past alongside the music of our own time”, so at the very least your suggestion is rather redundant. And, hard as it is for you to accept this, some audiences are very happy to listen to the old pieces, sometimes without contemporary works – and anyway, intelligent programming doesn’t mean box-ticking.

Maestroblh:  Obviously, as I conduct a number of wind groups, much of our repertoire is contemporary in nature.  I more often than not cajole orchestras for playing nothing but "dead, white, male, European" music.  I think we need to remember that, until sometime in the mid to late nineteenth century, all of the music offered at concerts and recitals was new.  Movements of symphonies were rarely played in succession, and audiences applauded when they heard something they liked (how many stories have we heard of premieres in which particular movements were encored?).  To me, the solution is simple.  The "classical" world needs to get off its high horse and make the concert experience more enjoyable.  Maybe even leave the lights up so they can actually read the program notes!

For the record, here's my upcoming concert with the Quad City Wind Ensemble:

Stafford/Stamp:  Star-Spangled Banner (a love song for my country)

Karel Husa:  Smetana Fanfare (1984)

Carl Friedemann, trans. Lake:  Slavonic Rhapsody No. 1 (1904, ed. 1913)

Robert Russell Bennett:  Rose Variations (1955), Kurt Dupuis, soloist

Richard Scott Cohen:  Azcárraga (1994)

Ralph Vaughan Williams:  Toccata Marziale (1924)

Ralph Hultgren:  The Hornets' Nest (1988)

Ottorino Respighi, trans. Leidzen:  "Pines of the Appian Way," from Pines of Rome (1924)

Hmmm.  Split almost 50-50 between dead and alive.  Three Europeans (a German-Swiss, a Brit, and an Italian), a transplant (Czech-born Husa has been a U.S. citizen since 1959) two Americans and an Australian.  And more than one surprise in store.....

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Atlanta: lots of commotion but little motion

While Atlanta burns, the fiddles are silent...
Depending on who or how one reads the situation, Stanley Romanstein, CEO of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra resigned or was let go from his position.  While his tenure has been the source of much of the friction between management and the players (two lock outs in two years), it does not readily appear as though his pending departure has changed anything.

Meanwhile, former Coca Cola executive and ASO board member Terry Neal has been named interim chief. Apparently, Neal will have no role in the current negotiations.  Acting Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, Alison Beck, who successfully brokered the agreement between the Metropolitan Opera and its unions, is attempting to bring both sides back to the table and reach some kind of consensus.  Unfortunately, this may be of little consequence for the true culprit behind this gutting of the ASO is the "parent" organization, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC).

As previously reported the WAC manages the symphony, the High Art Museum, and other arts entities.  Its own honcho, Virginia Hepner, is a former banker with Wachovia.  Her most recent statement notes,

The protracted financial challenges at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are very serious and threaten the health of the entire Woodruff Arts Center…The ASO has had 12 years of accumulated deficits, a severe reduction in its endowment and an annual operating gap that we cannot afford to continue. Over the last eight months, our team has proposed many potential scenarios to the musicians in an attempt to find a solution to the problem. We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation.

WAC chief Virginia Hepner
From the outside, there seem to have been considerably less than "many" potential scenarios.  Rather, management has entrenched itself in the same old "we need a new model" ideology that it employed in 2012, when the players sacrificed $5.2 million in salary cuts over the past two years.

Worse yet, ASO Board of Governors Chair, Douglas Hertz (whose non-profit expertise extends to his position as CEO of a beverage distributorship), offered a lengthy and rambling interview to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  From one who has had absolutely no role in the current negotiations, Hertz is certainly a man of weighty (and inflammatory) opinions.  The entire interview can be found here, while Drew McManus offers a very concise overview.

Booze seller and union buster Douglas Hertz
Who's crazy?

1. He believes the musicians and conductors are “a bunch of crazy people” for failing to appreciate contributors and understanding the WAC’s bargaining position.

2. He doesn’t think very many people in Atlanta care about the ASO and the orchestra’s artistic employees are not doing enough to reverse this perception.

3. The WAC is only interested in zero-sum bargaining and their financial terms are intractable.

4. The WAC would be willing to amend proposed terms that afford the employer with final say on numbers of musicians employed and how positions are potentially filled, but only if the musicians agree to their financial terms.

5. He thinks ASO music director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles are a pair of populist carpetbaggers who only support the musicians because they feel guilty about getting paid while the musicians are locked out.

6. Spano and Runnicles are hyperbolic when speaking about degrading artistic accomplishment.  Instead, Hertz believes they should not be talking about artist matters at all but they should be proposing solutions for “developing a more sustainable model.”

7. The ASO should operate via a commercial model and never run a deficit.

8. The ASO is a financial anchor that drags down the entire WAC.

9. He holds culture bloggers in low regard.

10. He doesn’t believe the deluge of social media vitriol against the WAC indicates the public sides with the musicians; instead, he feels that the general public, corporate community, and large donors support the WAC’s strategy.

Obviously, Mr. Hertz has no idea how musical organizations, or non-profits in general, really work.  This is the kind of rhetoric that will do little more than galvanize the musicians even further.  And it has had that effect.  A recent statement by the Players Association indicates that this is not Hertz's first attempt to "break the backs" of employees.

Douglas Hertz was serving on the Tulane University Board of Administrators when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. In response to the financial problems the hurricane caused, Tulane then-President Scott Cowan proposed to eliminate tenured faculty at the university, and replace existing faculty members with less expensive, non-tenured new hires. This action was supported by the Tulane Board of Administrators, including Douglas Hertz, and the despite numerous lawsuits that ensued, notifications of release were issued to approximately 200 faculty members in December 2005. This action led to the immediate censure of Tulane University by the American Association of University Professors.

One can only hope that Ms. Beck is able to rein in the entrenched ASO/WAC Board and get all sides working to get the Grammy-winning orchestra back on stage in Orchestra Hall.

Works I USED to hate....facing the music....

The infamous Pachelbel...
Yesterday I offered up a post, courtesy of Norman Lebrecht and Slipped Disc, discussing those musical works that many people would be better off never hearing again.  A majority of them are ubiquitous, having become hackneyed through use as wedding music (the "Taco-Bell" Canon), advertisements (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) and many, many others.  Some respondents skewered the entire canon of given composers (Mozart? Mahler?  Really?) or cherry-picked as did Lebrecht himself, dissing all of Tchaikovsky, with the exception of the last three symphonies and the violin concerto.

These "Seasons" I really dig....
It's hard for me to come up with a list of those works that I truly could do without, although Vivaldi's Four Seasons, the aforementioned "Taco-Bell", and Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring would probably appears.  Those pop up immediately because of many years as a church organist and, at weddings, it seems that these appear all too often.  As an aside, my favorite wedding music (unfortunately I was not part of the musical retinue) took place at a ceremony held on the Fourth of July.  At recessional time, the brass quintet broke into a rousing version of Stars and Stripes Forever.  I have to imagine that the Catholic priest was shuddering in disgust, but for me, the moment was priceless.

What I am caught up in are those pieces that I actually used to despise, either through overplay, or due to the fact that my opinions are often based on the last bad performance I heard of a given work.  Some of it, too, is better based on age and maturity.  For example:

  • The works of Brahms.  I truly didn't appreciate the guy until my 30s.  It obviously takes a level of maturity or life experience to really dig into them.  For what it's worth, every note written by old Johannes is perfect.  As for the German Requiem, my first live experience was a plodding performance; the music went nowhere and I hated it (and hence the piece itself).  Then I studied it--at length.  And I mean returning to original sources, including the composer's own personal conducting score, which is full of metronome marks that he expunged from the published version (even though he used this particular score for 25 years!).  In case anyone needs a conductor, Brian and his score are ready.
  • Beethoven 6:  again a ponderous live performance.  To successfully lead this work, my contention is that one must go for several walks in nature.  Therein is the key to the Pastorale.
  • Schumann 3:  a performance that had no clear musical ideas and little sense of balance.  Mnay, MANY people score the composer's sense (or the lack thereof) of orchestration and it's extremely difficult music to pull off without alteration.  BUT, again through a lot of preparation (and thanks to a then newly issued critical edition) I think my musicians and I pulled it off.
Took me awhile to figure this one out..
Maybe that's the point.
  • Elgar:  Enigma Variations:  a performance offered by a conducting candidate who obviously didn't want to be there: totally uninspired and downright sloppy.  And then I experienced it in the hands of one of my mentors, who brought out all of the amazing details.  Need I say more?
This is a very short list and I'm sure that there are more; it's just a matter of what I've come up with over a single cup of morning coffee.

Oh yes, and one more for the "hate" list:  the so-called "Wedding Song," which I often refer to as "Johnny One Note."  Most uninspired melody of all time (yes, worse than Taco-Bell).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Your least favorites....

Lots of lists are compiled about the most favorite operas, conductors, singers, even opera houses and concert halls.  Today, Norman Lebrecht shared:

The pianist Katya Apekisheva has started a social-media ball rolling with a list of the ten composers or works of music that irritate her the most.

Katya’s list*:

1. Vivaldi. Four seasons
2. Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals
4. About 85% of music by Liszt
5. Berlioz
6. Ending of Tchaikovsky piano trio ( around 8 last pages)
7. Neapolitan song ‘O Sole Mio’
8. Beethoven Fur Elise
9. Virtuoso violin music, such as Sarasate and Weniawsky
10. Brindisi from Traviata

And Norman's own list?

1 National music
2 Tchaikovsky (except last 3 syms and violin concerto)
3 Anything with Moon in the title – any language – lune, mondo &c.
4 Mahler’s Adagietto except when played within the fifth symphony
5 Vivaldi’s you-know-what
6 Messiaen
7 Bernstein’s Mass
8 Anything by Puccini after Bohème
9 Elgar’s oratorios
10 Barber’s Adagio

This may be the funniest, from one Colin Reed:

1. 1 of 5 pieces written by Karl Jenkins
2. 1 of 5 pieces sung by Katherine Jenkins
3. 2 of 5 pieces written by Karl Jenkins
4. 2 of 5 pieces sung by Katherine Jenkins
5 – 10 repeat ad libitum, ad nauseum

So far, some 81 of Norman's readers have chimed in.  From Mozart haters to those who can't stand much after 1920, the results are at least interesting.  Their comments can be found here.

And no, I'm not offering my own list....

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lies on top of lies....

Atlanta Symphony musicians outside the WAC on what
should have been opening night...
In my most recent post, it was noted that the management of the Atlanta Symphony (ASO) had proposed bringing in a federal mediator, now openly identified as Allison Beck, the individual who assisted in the successful negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera.  What is now extremely baffling is how this development has been handled by management itself.  While I have had this information in hand for several days, the ASO only publicly announced it in a Saturday evening (9/27) press release.

Management has made no attempt to negotiate any kind of agreement--even the popular "talk and play" employed by countless such organizations around the globe.  In essence, the orchestra continues to function under the former collective bargaining agreement until a new one is agreed upon.  A part of the ASO statement reads,

“We are pleased that after weeks of an open offer, the musicians’ union has accepted mediation and we’re looking forward to getting back to the negotiating table,” ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein said in the statement. “We are ready to resolve our differences and start the ASO’s 70th anniversary season.”

"Open offer"?  Why hasn't management proposed meeting with the musicians since the lockout began on September 7.  The countdown has been ticking for months and the players lose their health benefits after September 30.  Obviously, someone thinks that he can simply bend the players to his will.

HOWEVER.....a musician's statement reveals an entirely different scenario:

“We received a formal request for mediation on Monday, September 22nd at 10:55am from WAC/ASO management,” the Players’ Association statement explained. “Three hours later, we accepted the suggestion to speak with Ms. Allison Beck, the Acting Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and were told that FMCS officials would be contacting us accordingly, which has not happened yet. …

“The musicians are happy to speak with FMCS Director Beck about pathways forward when she is able to be in touch with us,” the statement from ASO musicians Murphy and Laufer continued. “There is as yet no further agreement about the process.”

So, where's the beef (in this case, the truth)?  As I've known of the mediator's involvement for several days, I'm surprised that ASO waited until Saturday evening for such an announcement.  What does the ASO or the Woodruff Arts Center have to hide.  AND, for that matter, where is the rest of the cash going?  Financial reports indicate that musician compensation is roughly $12 million out of a total budget of $38 million.  AND, what happened to monies previously donated or pledged ($114 million as of 2007) to WAC for a new concert hall, the plans for which were shelved several years ago?

The hall that won't be....
More pictures to come....

So many questions.  So few (honest) answers.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lots of happenings in Atlanta, and (of course) not at all good....

The saga continues...with pages from other executive's play books.

Earlier this week, the management at the Atlanta Symphony (or is it the Woodruff Art Center--any more it's hard to tell) canceled all concerts between now and November 8.  That we can safely call a "Henson," after the ill-fated CEO in Minnesota, who started putting off concerts until the orchestra did not perform for 16 months.  But then, in a reversal of sorts, Stanley Romanstein (we'll assume) pulled a Peter Gelb and is considering calling in a federal mediator, but--like Henson--it's after the lockout and concert cancellations.  A case of too little, too late--at least for the musicians and patrons of the Atlanta Symphony.

But too many questions remain, such as, what exactly happened to the $5.2 million wage reduction negotiated in the 2012 lockout?  How is it that the ASO is still running multi-million dollar deficits when the musicians are giving back so much?  The orchestra, which has been running deficits for 12 consecutive years, announced a $2 million shortfall for fiscal 2014.

Spano speaks...
Earlier, it was reported here that the two leading conductors of the organization (Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles) came out in a letter supportive of the musicians.  Spano has taken his own views to a higher level in a September 23 interview with the New York Times.  Among his comments:

"This is a dire and critical juncture for the city of Atlanta, which is in danger of losing the flagship of its culture."

“If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?”

“Our brilliant and creative musicians, who need to be intimately involved in the creation of our path to the future, have been asked to leave the building — and Atlanta is left with a deafening silence.”

Reporter Michael Cooper noted the conductor's dedicated commitment to the orchestra and its community:  this week, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, a volunteer group that was established 44 years ago by Robert Shaw, wrote an open letter in support of the orchestra in which it disclosed that Mr. Spano had made donations to the orchestra and helped fund its tour last May to Carnegie Hall, where it gave acritically acclaimed account of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.”

In the interview, Mr. Spano acknowledged that he had helped cover the costs of the tour.

“There was basically a movement to cancel our appearance,” he said, “at which point I marched in to one of our symphony board meetings and said this is not going to be canceled — there are people who think it should be canceled, I don’t agree with them, I’m putting $50,000 on the table right now. Who’s going to join me? I then started calling people all over the country, and we garnered the support for that engagement within a week.”

To me, it sounds like Romanstein and Co. just need to get on the damn phone.

Bailey Center at Kennesaw State
Meanwhile, this from the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony:

Musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) will perform two free concerts on Friday, September 26th, at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. at the Dr. Bobbie Bailey and Family Performance Center at Kennesaw State University. The musicians will also hold an open rehearsal with School of Music students on Friday afternoon.

The concerts are free and open to the public; seating is first come, first serve and no tickets are required. However, the ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation will be accepting donations onsite.

On Monday, Sept. 22, the School of Music received notice from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management that the ASO concert scheduled for Sept. 26th had been cancelled due to labor negotiations. Ticket holders were contacted by Kennesaw State on Monday regarding exchanges and/or refunds.

Michael Alexander, Interim Director of the School of Music, said, “We are proud of the partnership we have formed with the ASO, and we are disappointed that the concert that we originally planned has been cancelled due to the ongoing negotiations. We continue to hope for a positive resolution. As a School of Music, our job is to support great music and provide an educational opportunity for our students. These free concerts will help us provide a positive outlet for all involved during this difficult time.”

For more information contact the Box Office at 470-578-6650 or

Anyone within driving distance of Atlanta needs to attend...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is bigger better? (Part 2) Not necessarily for acoustics....

Part one of this examination of concert halls posed the original challenge:  Is bigger necessarily better?  How many of these halls might be noted for their acoustics?  Well......Kallie Szczepanski wrote of the following as our "best."  (Her complete commentary is found here.)

Boston Symphony Hall
Look at the shape...
1) Symphony Hall, Boston. The home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops was inaugurated in 1900, and is considered to be among the top three halls world-wide in terms of acoustics. Its tall, boxy shape, shallow balconies, and sound-boosting niches echo (and some say, exceed) the best halls of Europe: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Vienna's Musikverein.

2) Carnegie Hall, New York City. Funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, this is probably the most famous concert hall in North America. Carnegie Hall officially opened in 1891, with a concert conducted in part by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In the 1960s, the New York Philharmonic moved from Carnegie to the acoustically problematic new Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

3) Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. The "New Met" is the second home of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company; it opened in Lincoln Center in 1966.

4) The Concert Hall at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C. (Hmmm.)

Schermerhorn Center
That shape is so familiar....
5) Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. Opened in 2006, this new concert hall is designed in that familiar acoustics-boosting box shape.

6) Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis, Missouri. This 1925 building seats 2,689, and is home to the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

7) Benaroya Hall, Seattle. The Seattle Symphony's new home was inaugurated in 1998, and spans an entire city block in down-town Seattle, Washington.

8) Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon

9) Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Since a $10 million renovation in 1992, the Davies Symphony Hall has had superior acoustics to go along with its lovely dcor.

10) Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Saddled with a somewhat "Mickey Mouse" name, threatened with incompletion due to lack of funds, sued by neighbors whose condos were being cooked by sunlight reflecting from the metal shell, and mocked on a 2005 episode of "The Simpsons," the Walt Disney Concert Hall has seen its share of troubles since construction began in 1992. The Frank Gehry-designed hall finally opened in 2003, however, to near-universal praise for its acoustics. The beleaguered building seats 2,265 people, and houses both the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The focal-point of the stage is an unusual organ, also designed by Gehry. Resembling a mangrove tree with many roots, the organ has been described somewhat unflatteringly as a "log-jam." It consists of 6,125 pipes, including the largest which is 32 feet long!

And what of the world's "great" halls, regardless of location?  Robert James offers this list of the 14 best (why 14?).  He leaves plenty of room for argument.

Carnegie:  The world’s greatest and most renowned artists come to perform here, and as such it represents a pinnacle of achievement.

The "golden hall" of the Musikverein
Musikverein, Vienna (1744 seats): (Acoustically speaking) Back in 1870 architects didn’t have a whole lot to go on. They guessed, with the result that concert halls were designed and constructed based on not much more than intuition. Luckily, (Danish architect Theophil) Hansen’s sense of acoustics was more of a hit than most, which is why the Great Hall, as it’s known today, is recognized as one of the greatest concert halls ever built.

Walt Disney Hall (this one keeps showing up!)

Royal Albert Hall, London (nearly 6,000 seats):  Really?  The Kensington Gardens venue is perhaps best known for the Proms, the world’s biggest classical music concerts featuring the best artists in the world performing some of the most amazing music in the world for some of the most reasonable, some might even say cheapest, prices in the world.  Cheap and big make for greatness?

Madison Square Garden, New York.  Seriously?  They should have left the old Pennsylvania Station, an architectural wonder in itself instead of stacking an area on top of the underground railway lines.

Concertgebouw.  That darned rectangle keeps showing up!
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam:  A reverberation time of 2.2 seconds with audience intact make the Concertgebouw – literal translation: “concert building” – one of the world’s great concert halls. Without going into any detail here, because it’s a dull subject – 2.2 seconds is a very good number if you’re a concert hall.

Symphony Hall, Boston:  Built for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1900, Boston’s Symphony Hall was designated a US National Historic Landmark in 1999. Acoustically, it is considered the finest in the US, and among the top handful of concert halls in the world.

The Helix, Dublin (never heard of it):  Everything from opera to rock concerts to ice shows. Sinead O’Connor has played here, along with Van Morrison and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, although none of them, so far as we know, at the same time. Roddy Doyle’s “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” was also performed at the Helix, and the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra and The St. Petersburg Ballet have also performed at the venue. In 2003 it was awarded the Opus Building of the Year Award.

Vienna State Opera:  The Vienna State Opera is excellent bang for your buck in that it is both an opera house and an opera company. More than that, the members of the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from its orchestra. This is definitely something to tweet home about, as The Vienna Philharmonic is widely recognized as the top of the orchestral world, possibly the tippy top depending who you’re talking to.

Radio City Music Hall, New York.  It is home to the mightiest of Wurlitzer's, with, not one, but two consoles.

Berlin Philharmonie
Berlin Philharmonie:  The home of the Berlin Philharmonic is acclaimed both for its acoustics and architecture. It was completed in 1963, and has two venues, the main hall which seats 2,440, and a chamber music hall seating 1,180 that was added later.

National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing:  It’s a modernist look caught up in the triangle of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of The People, and the Forbidden City. The youthful appearance mixed in with places and architecture of such historical significance caused some controversy at the time. The building is a glass dome with titanium accents, the sort of look your hairdresser might go for after a bad trip. It looks like a beached whale, or as others have said like an egg floating on water, which if that’s the case better keep an eye open for whatever laid it.

Berlin Konzerthaus:  (Inaugurated in 1821) The theater was damaged during the Second World War, and only reopened in 1984, which is when it became a concert hall. Today it is considered one of the world’s great concert halls, on an acoustic par with Boston’s Symphony Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Sydney Opera House:  The House is designed with seven performance venues of varying sizes, the largest being the Concert Hall, which holds about 2,500 people. According to John Malkovich, the acoustics at The House make it impossible to stage anything except a circus.  (So that makes it great?)