Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Alex Ross, the Oregon Symphony and the argument for coherence -- not to mention drama

Carlos Kalmar, ebullient/Photo: Leah Nash 
By Barry Johnson

The triumph of the Oregon Symphony at Carnegie Hall was duly noted by the New York Times (and still somehow created a kerfuffle of sorts), and the New York Times is a very good recommendation indeed. But I was waiting for the full review from Alex Ross at the New Yorker. He'd given a vigorous, positive nod toward Carlos Kalmar and company on his blog, and for me, the author of The Rest Is Noise, is at the top of the classical music reviewing heap.

Just to remove all suspense, Ross called the Oregon Symphony's performance of its "Music for a Time of War" program "one of the most gripping events of the current season." He then proceeded to describe the music and its playing in the poetic phrases that are central to Ross's gift as a reviewer. You know, like "the brutal timpani strokes that open Britten's symphony fell like cannonballs on the hospital ward." And then: "A sense of fragile resolution at the end of the Britten was torn asunder by the scouring dissonances of the Vaughan Williams...."  Great stuff.

The primary point Ross made had to do with the thoughtfulness of Kalmar's programming, the way it created drama and a sense of coherence, the power of its concept. He compared this to the usual programming at American symphonies: "The mechanical reshuffling of canonical repertory creates the impression that classical music is all-purpose fabric that can be cut by the yard." (And may I just say that I love the professionally employed metaphor here?) This programming -- one old warhorse, one bright piece for the soloist, one newer but mostly harmless piece -- may serve some of the symphony's constituencies, but maybe isn't the most satisfying for any of them at the end of the day.

Can we connect a symphony's programming and "quality" to attendance (and financial health)? Does a symphony that plays more conceptually exciting programs very well have a better chance at success than one that plugs away at the old format in the old way? I'd love to see some attempt to measure this.

The problem is that you can't conduct a good experiment. We'll never know how much better the  San Francisco Symphony does, financially, with master conceptualist Michael Tilson-Thomas at the helm than it would with someone less daring.

Ross doesn't mention the precarious financial state of the American symphony orchestra, so he isn't prescribing  deeper connections between the elements of a program, a deeper purpose, as an elixer to cure their money problems. Still, an audience in a heightened state at the symphony has to be a good thing for all concerned. "Such programming forces you to lean in rather than sit back: it demands alertness," Ross writes at the end of the review.

American critics, in my experience, push for more adventurous programming, almost invariably. A critic is a peculiar audience member, though. How many concerts does Ross see in a year? Enough to know that the Oregon Symphony's performance was a highlight of the season in New York City, which is a lot of concerts. For that reason, possibly, music directors ignore the pleas of critics. Plus, they don't want to offend the strict constructionists in the audience, who might take offense if Firebird (the safest possible Stravinsky) appears in the program rather than... I don't know, Strauss? What do the strict constructionists want? Brahms? Well, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Symphony showed that it's possible to make Brahms part of a convincing new music program (even though the death of Gorecki took the edge off their last program, by denying the symphony they commissioned from him).

But Ross wasn't asking for new music necessarily -- just some coherence, a reason for existing, maybe a little musical drama or enlightenment thrown in to boot. Why? Maybe because anything else amounts to an insult to the audience. It assumes the audience doesn't know better. Maybe it doesn't, but then whose fault is that? To a certain extent, don't symphony orchestras make their own audience? And if that audience doesn't know better, why are symphony orchestras in so much trouble, economically? But our argument is getting circular here.

Commitment: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony committed themselves to "Music for a Time of War." They raised the stakes for themselves and for the audience. They demanded attention, the kind of attention that Ross gave them. And here, I think, I'm starting to make a case for fewer, more intense programs, which is a case I've made before. I don't know how it pencils out in the ledger book (speaking metaphorically). But I think it does work for the artists on the stage and the audience.  Will that lead to larger audiences, ultimately? Well, lots of other factors come to bear on that problem. Don't we know by this time that pushing one button won't create a healthy future for classical music?

Yeah, I think we know that.


Not everyone agreed with my position on fewer, more intense programs. James Bash, for instance, at his Northwest Reverb site. I wish we could have debated the proposition.

You can listen to a recording of the Oregon Symphony's "Music for a Time of War" concert on NPR.


James Bash said...

Hi Barry, The programming that Kalmar developed for the Oregon Symphony concert at Carnegie was terrific, but if the orchestra had played it poorly, it wouldn't have made such an incredible impression.

But I don't see how you can make a jump from the Carnegie Hall concert to fewer concerts for the orchestra. And if you have fewer classical music concerts, then you'll have to have more pops concerts or something to get the money to afford the musicians.

Barry Johnson said...

Jim, Welcome! Of course I agree with your first point. And I think there was little chance the orchestra would have played poorly -- I'm betting they rehearsed that program more than almost any other (and I just throw in "almost" as a cheat word, really).

Maybe that jump was only clear in MY head! My argument runs something like this: It takes time to create and test inspired program concepts and rehearse them thoroughly. It also takes time to do the audience education work necessary to help us appreciate the concept and the individual pieces of music. That goes together with the "marketing" of the concert, and this is the link with the financial part of things. Because symphonies play so much, they don't have a chance to build demand for any particular concert. No concert is special. If you are a single ticket buyer, what distinguishes one program from another? You need time to make that case to them.

I wouldn't substitute pops concerts for classical concerts -- unless the orchestra has a real thirst and mission to do them. I would do more young audiences work, certainly. I might break the orchestra into "pieces" -- wind ensembles, new music groups, string quartets, percussion units, etc. -- whatever the musicians were interested in doing and produce concerts for them. These could occur almost anywhere -- at the Newmark, sure, but also various places around the state, wherever you could find an audience. And I'd be counting on fewer, better marketed concerts to attract bigger audiences that eventually would require expanding the "run" of each program a day or two. But really, "I" wouldn't do any of it. I think the artists at the symphony should work out what they want to create together, setting the quality bar higher and higher.

I could go on, but... maybe that sketches the idea better?

James Bash said...

If the orchestra went with your idea and reduced the number of orchestra concerts, it would then be best to reduce Kalmar's pay accordingly. This is because you don't need a conductor for small ensemble work. If you reduced Kalmar's pay then, most likey you would lose Kalmar. Right now, this would not be a good idea.

You should be aware that even larger ensembles like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have been hammered by critics like Ann Midgettee of the Washington Post who says that they need a conductor to give the ensemble more focus.

However, it looks like your idea is that smaller ensembles could go out and play in different venues - perhaps play something by a specific composer and then build up enthusiasm for concert that would feature the music of that composer for a larger ensemble. Is that correct?

Barry Johnson said...

I'd guess that with multiple musical units deployed in various ways, a symphony would need the guiding hand of a music director at least as much as now, even though he or she wouldn't conduct a quartet, of course. I'm not for eliminating the position. Pay for music directors is a complicated subject. For the purposes of this thought experiment, I'm assuming pay for everyone would remain the same. The outcome we're seeking is that the symphony would be able to pay its artists more than they pay them now.

Would Kalmar leave if his job changed this much? I have no way of knowing -- maybe he'd enjoy the creative task of re-organizing as much as the creative task of conducting? That sounds far-fetched as I type it, but I don't know.

And yes, right, a woodwind ensemble playing in Hillsboro is a great promotional vehicle for a concert at the Schnitz. Someone could even talk about the upcoming concert and tickets could be available in the lobby. They could rent a MAX car for the trip! Of course, the idea is to have as many people as possible listen to great music, played by excellent musicians, in whatever venue or configuration makes sense.

Actually, "my" ideas have been tried in various places already. The striking Detroit Symphony musicians played in the suburbs, for example, and that practice is carrying over to next season. Oregon Symphony musicians already work in various other modes and styles on their own time (Arnica, Third Angle, Fear No Music). The opera has limited its "inventory" of shows quite successfully, I think. You could probably come up with more examples than I can!

James Bash said...

I don't think that the orchestra is going to pay Kalmar to pick a bunch of pieces for ensembles he isn't going to conduct. But I think that it would be a good thing to have some symphony musicians do a few concerts in smaller ensembles in the community. Perhaps there is some grant money for this sort of thing. Otherwise, I think that it would be unwise for the orchestra to truncate its regular programming in favor of such an experiment. But that is just my opinion. You might try to engage Elaine Calder and see what she would say to such a proposal. She could give you some real numbers in terms of hall rental and musician salaries.

Barry Johnson said...

James, I'm not explaining this very well. The ensembles would play as part of their regular service time -- remember they are playing fewer concert, so they have time. Also, the orchestra doesn't have to be the presenter at all these smaller shows. It can be the "talent." This really isn't a proposal for the Oregon Symphony -- it's really just a thought experiment for symphonies in general -- but I quoted Elaine Calder in my original column for The Oregonian and I heard that there's some national talk going about reducing the number of concerts.

Not sure why you're focused on Kalmar's salary and what the symphony would or wouldn't do regarding a music director's payment in this scenario. If the symphony values him, they would pay to keep him, right?

If you disagree with this line of thinking, how do you propose to alter the financial direction of symphony orchestras?

James Bash said...

Kalmar is the orchestra's most expensive person. If you are worried about trying to save costs at the orchestra, then you can save a lot of money by hiring someone who is less expensive. Why pay a high salary to someone who has to conduct fewer concerts? Kalmar is an orchestra conductor, not a guy who picks out music for small ensembles that he won't be conducting. At least that's the way I see it. However, you should ask him. And you should talk to Calder again. She most recently said that the orchestra is going to be in the black again this year. Right now, it looks like the orchestra has decided to go with concerts oriented around big name talent that concert goers want to hear. Sometimes this means a concert with Tony Bennett or a special with Rene Fleming. This kind of thing seems to be working well. But I don't have the numbers. You are going to have to do a lot of research to find out how many small ensemble concerts you would have to do in order to make up for the loss of ticket sales that the orchestra can draw in the Schnitz. You are also going to have to ask the orchestra's donor base to keep it going with fewer concerts in mind. The orchestra's donor base mostly would like to hear an entire orchestra play, not small ensembles.

Barry Johnson said...

This thought experiment is NOT a formal proposal (so no, thanks, I won't be doing any research) -- it's an approach toward dealing with the problems that symphonies around the country are having. Lots of them ARE having problems, right? And many of them are experimenting along these lines? If the Oregon Symphony is doing just fine, then it would have no reason to change its current course. And even if it wasn't doing fine, I understand how unlikely radical changes would be.

James Bash said...

I think that if an orchestra is doing poorly, then this might be a way to get community support. It is certainly an interesting idea. Maybe the Vancouver Symphony should consider it. They are having a crisis right now, and the musicians are stepping up with free concerts this weekend.

I'm just wondering if you've looked at the Nashville Symphony. They have a new hall, they have increased their budget dramatically over the past 10 years, and they are hiring away the OSO's concertmaster. They are note shrinking to greatness.

Barry Johnson said...

I like the phrase "not shrinking to greatness." Of course that's not what I'm suggesting. I think orchestras need to expand -- into their communities, musically, into real and virtual spaces they've never been.

Some people think American orchestras face serious structural problems: Revenues are mostly down during the past decade. Attendance is mostly down. The demographics of the audience aren't promising. The culture seems to be marginalizing them. I happen to agree with those people. But the ideas for addressing those problems are all over the map. Some focus on programming, some on marketing, some on outreach, some on increasing government support, etc. And of course I have my ideas -- which involve various sorts of "community organizing," both inside the orchestra and outside it.

You apparently disagree that orchestras have structural problems that need to be addressed. You are going to oppose efforts to address a problem you don't think exists, naturally enough! I get it.

To me, Nashville looks like a special case, in many ways. You'd be hard-pressed to find another orchestra that matches its growth. I think local cultural reasons are behind it, rather than any particular buttons the symphony is pushing, but it's not like I've studied Nashville like I have the Detroit and Philadelphia situations (or even Louisville and Honolulu). You must see something in Nashville that is repeatable everywhere, but I don't.

James Bash said...

Maybe your ideas are spot on. I'm meeting with a bunch of music critics next week. I'll try to find out if they are seeing the same picture and future solution as you.

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