Opening Weekend

We’ve just finished our first subscription concerts of the 07/08 season. We started very late this year (the latest start since I came here in 1987, in fact), which caused some cash-flow problems for many of us, as the last paycheck of the 06-07 season was on June 15th. That’s what unemployment insurance is for, of course, but stretching it over three full months had the potential to be an adventure (ameliorated a little by our management’s willingness to make our first bi-weekly paycheck two weekly checks instead; very helpful in making the mortgage payment).

It’s sad that unemployment insurance is the single biggest
government subsidy to the operation of my orchestra (aside from the tax
deductibility of donations, of course). It likely doesn’t exceed what
musicians and staff pay in taxes either. I love Wisconsin, but arts
subsidies are a very hard sell here. My orchestra is still having to
pay sales tax on ticket sales, even though the local baseball team
keeps the sales tax they charge to pay off their small portion of the
bill to build the nice new ballpark we built for them a few years ago.

The good news is that all three concerts were very well-attended.
Friday night was a virtual sell-out; the first one on opening night I
can recall for a long time. Saturday night was almost as good. Even
Sunday afternoon, when we were competing with the Packers (playing the
hated Minnesota Vikings for a possible 4-0 start to the Packers’
season, with a guaranteed most-career-touchdown-passes record to be set
by Brett Favre to boot), there were a lot of people in the hall. Our
marketing department has done really good work the past couple of years
and no doubt deserve the lion’s share of the credit. All the same, I
don’t think it hurt that both the Rachmaninoff second concerto and the
Beethoven fifth symphony were on the program (along with the Barber
first symphony, a semi-benign piece of 1940s radio drama fluff und drang).
There were good reasons for both; the Rachmaninoff was a return
engagement for Adam Golka, who made a great hit here last season with
the third Rachmaninoff concerto, while we’re doing all the Beethoven
symphonies this season.

But why should an orchestra need reasons for programming warhorses
aside from people wanting to hear them? It’s almost a meme these days
that orchestras need to program differently. People passing themselves
off as authorities about the orchestra industry tell us that all the
time (often citing Salonen / LA Phil, while conveniently forgetting
that they had acres of empty seats from doing "interesting programs"
year after year prior to the opening of Disney Hall). Whenever we play
Beethoven or Brahms or Tchaikowsky, and market the programs well, we
sell tickets. And there was a nice mix of ages in the hall as well.
Apparently even Gen Text likes Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.

Orchestras are accused of being “museums.” What’s wrong with that?

It was only after writing this post that I realized that I hadn’t
said anything about the concerts as musical events. In my experience,
how well concerts go is not something that orchestra musicians talk
about much unless something really embarrassing happened. I think
that’s not from apathy so much as from trying to avoid argument about
subjects beyond their control. But the concerts went well. My orchestra
has an affinity for Rachmaninoff (as it does for Bruckner; go figure)
while our music director has a very good feel for Beethoven, making him
rather unusual amongst music directors of American orchestras.

That didn’t stop us from making the same musical mistakes that every
orchestra in the known universe makes in Beethoven, of course. My
personal favorite is the way that musicians universally read the
crescendo before the finale as a subito mezzoforte. But we all
have our pet peeves, and making crescendi too soon is mine. One of the
galling things about working in an orchestra is the inability to do
much about such things except complain.


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