Monday, August 9, 2010

News and Notes: Symphony experiments and critics talking

By Barry Johnson

David Cole and Elizabeth Klinger in "Find Me Beside You"
Some issues just never seem to go away. Should the American symphony orchestra re-invent itself one way or another?  Is LA a good theater town getting worse or a bad theater town getting awful? And what about those musicals made from pop albums, anyway?

These are seen as perilous times for the American symphony orchestra, even though some of the biggest seem to be bobbing along nicely in Los Angeles (Dudamel!), New York and San Francisco, just to name a few. But other, mostly smaller orchestras are struggling, and one of the biggest, the Philadelphia Orchestra is in crisis mode.

A recent story in the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted the Philadelphia Orchestra's president, Allison Vulgamore at some length: "I'm not going to predict the plan at this point. We simply can't go on doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We've got a great musical heritage and ensemble, but we have to pay for it. And we also have to be able to experiment with it." I liked the sound of "experiment," but other elements of the story worried me.

What's the composition of the 27-member steering committee, for example, and why allow outside consultants to run it.  Worse was Vulgamore's use of "we" in the story, because I think she was talking about the staff, the orchestra and the board -- not the community of classical music lovers in Philadelphia. They're the first ones the orchestra should consult about about possible experiments and "profound change."

My tipster to this story was Joe Horowitz, who writes a blog for ArtsJournal called "The Unanswered Question."  Horowitz thinks the symphony needs some reinvention himself.
"It has long seemed to me that orchestras need to re-envision themselves as educational institutions. This would mean re-envisioning the content and purpose of subscription concerts: more thematic programs, more cross-disciplinary content embracing dance, film, theater, and the visual arts. One result would be a means of escape from the rigid confines of classical music. Another would be new links to museums, to high schools, colleges, and universities. An expanded mandate; an enlarged mission."
Horowitz then goes on to describe a 3-week education collaboration he recently worked on with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the National Endowment for the Humanities around his "Dvorak in America" program. His point is simply that instead of narrowing their focus, symphony's should be changing and broadening it. He has some bona fides, too, having run the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1990s.

The LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty got together with his LA Weekly counterpart, Steven Leigh Morris to discuss LA theater and its discontents. Just for some balance, audiences here marvel at the vast expanse of theater in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the undercurrent of their back and forth is worry -- about the dominance of actors over directors, the fate of truly experimental work, the conservatism of the audience, the effect of the financial downturn on the arts.
Not all of these have an immediate Portland parallel, but it's still an interesting discussion, not least because they are both so familiar with their theater scene.  When McNulty makes a generalization, which he frequently does, Morris is there with the exceptions. Fun! Wish this sort of critic exchange could happen in Portland.

Bob Hicks' review of "Find Me Beside You," Jessica Wallenfels' theatricalization of the famous Van Morrison album, "Astral Weeks," from 1968 is a great example of his patient and deeply explanatory style of writing about theater.  
What I like best about the review is that he gives us his three reference points for the show right at the top, and one of them, the film "Working Girl," is both surprising and contains his central suggestion for the show: let a little air out of the tires. By that he simply means that Wallenfels' desire to make the famous concept album into a convincing narrative complete with energetic dancing (she's a fine choreographer)  led her away from the true strength of the material and her cast, which have to do with the music. His other reference points, Schubert's Winterreise and New York City Center's Encores! series, give us a sense of what he means.

I haven't seen "Find Me Beside You" yet, and Bob's review (the familiarity comes from working together, one way or another for a quarter of a century or so) doesn't deter me at all, which is how he would like it, I'm sure.  My own reference points would be different, in any case. Julie Taymor's employment of Beatle songs in her film musical "Across the Universe," for example, and Twyla Tharp's invocations of Billy Joel in "Movin' Out" and Bob Dylan in "The Times They Are a-Changin'." It's entirely possible that I will find the looseness of the narrative unexceptional, though if the singers are huffing and puffing from too much dancing, that could be a problem.


M. Edward (Ed) Borasky said...

Historically, symphonies, operas and ballets tend to be *more* conservative and traditional during hard economic times. You hear less Shostakovich on KQAC now than you did five years ago, for example.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is probably in crisis mode simply because Philadelphia is in crisis mode. There was always the sense of competition between New York, Chicago and Philadelphia when they were the three most populous cities in the US. But the numbers have changed.

Barry Johnson said...

Excellent point, Ed, and thanks for joining in. Philly is in a different zone these days, and its big institutions, established when it was one of America's great financial engines, are having a hard time adapting.

When he was here in May, Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center warned arts administrators about the dangers of the conventional wisdom about programming. He suggested that they try to be more ambitious, not less. We'll see what happens!