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....