Archive for January, 2008

How many bytes does that buy?

January 31, 2008

The New World Symphony has received a lot of money – but for what?

The orchestra also received a $5 million grant, from the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation, to advance its use of digital technology
and transform the way audiences experience classical music.

Alberto Ibarguen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, said the
Miami-based foundation chose to give NWS this grant because of the
orchestra’s innovative approach to concerts, such as its use of
Internet2 technology for the remote exchange of master classes,
seminars, rehearsals and symposia.

The orchestra’s new building, NWS officials say, could further change
the way classical music is presented and performed, allowing for
performances throughout the building so the audience can have a
progressive concert experience through different rooms, different
repertoires and various musical experiences.

”That’s very much the kind of thinking that we’re trying to apply at
Knight Foundation to everything we do,” Ibarguen said, “whether it’s
community development, whether it’s journalism, or in this case, the
potential for the arts to transform a community.”

I must be getting a really good deal on Internet service at $30 a month or so. And is NWS the first orchestra to have the ability to provide its audience with "a
progressive concert experience through different rooms, different
repertoires and various musical experiences?" Notice that they haven’t actually done this yet, if I’m reading the quote correctly.

What I find interesting about this grant is that several arts groups
are already using the Internet to “transform the ways audiences experience
classical music.” The Metropolitan Opera is probably doing the most
innovative work, with their live transmissions to movie theaters across
the country. But they’re not even using the Internet do to that.
Orchestras are using the Internet for ticketing, to sell downloads, to
make available new recording technology, and for audience development
of various kinds. And Philadelphia is already using Internet2 to transmit concerts.

By contrast, NWS uses Internet2 for what amounts to teleconferencing.
It’s upscale teleconferencing to be sure, and no doubt it’s very useful
to be able to have teachers and coaches not always have to travel to
Florida to do their teaching and coaching. But it feels to me as if
it’s mostly a gimmick at this point – maybe at any point. There’s a
reason that teleconferencing and videoconferencing haven’t replaced
business travel;  sheer physical presence still matters. I can’t
believe that’s less true of teaching – much less rehearsing and
performing – than it is of business meetings.

As regards the transmission of concerts, Internet2 is not going to be
very useful until it’s more of a public network than it is now; in
fact, until it’s not Internet2 anymore. And, as the Met has proven,
Internet2 is neither necessary nor sufficient for high-quality
transmission to remote locations.

This grant seems to represent a “build it and they’ll maybe find a use
for it” philosophy. Or perhaps it’s just another illustration of how
grants are often not for their stated purpose. I suspect this grant
materialized as an expression of the Knight Foundation’s continuing
support for NWS and for institutions in south Florida generally.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only confusing for those who
might be led to believe that there’s $5 million of value in Internet2
for orchestras in 2008. Except for NWS’ ability to convince Knight to
give them lots of money for it, there’s not.


The NY Times insults just about everyone

January 30, 2008

This revealing categorization of American orchestras was in this morning’s New York Times:

Major American orchestras — those of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston and San Francisco — will traipse through, as usual, along with other regular orchestras, like the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. Of smaller American orchestras, Baltimore, St. Louis and Minnesota will be on hand.

“Smaller American orchestras?” By that standard, I must play in a semi-professional orchestra. Doesn’t anyone in the press know anything about what we do anymore?

Musicians’ brains are different. So what?

January 27, 2008

An interesting article at
(the online
home of the American Music Center) talks about the keynote speech that
neurologist Oliver Sacks gave at Chamber Music America:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

… If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. … This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

Wrong conclusion, but then, as they say in the computer biz, garbage in, garbage out.


So how did the Adams go?

January 25, 2008

Thanks for asking. It went pretty well.

As I mentioned a few days ago, we’re doing the John Adams Chamber Symphony this week, with Nicholas McGegan conducting. Most of us had the same reaction on first seeing the parts as I did, which was despair at ever being able to play it at the marked tempi. But it’s amazing what hard work can do. And the fact that Nic didn’t insist on the marked tempi made a big difference as well.

McGegan is known primarily as a Baroque expert, but immersion in Baroque ideas of rhetoric is quite useful in doing a piece like the Adams, which was to some extent inspired by cartoons. So, all in all, I think the piece came off pretty well. The audience certainly liked it, and it’s an older-skewing crowd on Friday mornings – not an audience that loves new music.

I’m still not convinced by the piece. It reminds me of how the French used to call Napoleon "Teacher of Energy." The piece has got plenty of energy. I don’t find it to have a lot of heart. And, not surprisingly, the balance issues are virtually insurmountable. There’s a reason that the ratio of strings to everyone else in a full orchestra is 2 to 1. Six winds, 3 brass, 2 percussion, and a Kurzweil are more than a match for 4 poor solo string players.

It’s also amazing how accurately the tempo markings in each movement are calculated to make at least one person’s part just a shade beyond unplayable in every movement – even the slow movement.

Is media worth the trouble?

January 24, 2008

The always provocative Norman Lebrecht, in his latest column for La
Scena Musicale, thinks that the real economic value of recorded music
is… zero.

It is generally accepted that the dog-and-horn type organisation that
has controlled the distribution of music for 110 years is on its last
legs. A decade ago, six labels held 77 percent of recorded music sales
worldwide. Today, those six are down to four – Universal (31%),
Sony-BMG (25%), Warner (15%) and EMI (9.5%)– and none has got to grips
with the internet revolution that has ravaged their complacent and
often collusive dominance.


Signs of the Apocalypse

January 23, 2008

A friend sent me this. Yes that really is Berlin; I recognize Fergus.

What’s next? The Vienna Phil with the Stones? Columbus adding 30 positions? New World donating $200 million to the Florida Phil endowment? Alan Mencken’s Aladdin on a kiddie concert? .. oops, we’re already scheduled that.

Now I have to go off to work and try to play the viola part to John Adams’ Chamber Symphony. That’ll be enough Apocalypse for me today. At least it’s 3 degrees F outside; dunno what I’d do if it was really cold.

It’s a good metaphor for bosses

January 22, 2008

I really hope they don’t teach this kind of thing in good business schools:

Tuesday evening saw 130 novices take the stage at the Barbican to play a symphony in the space of 90 minutes!

The challenge ‘Orchestrate’, conceptualized by teambuilding pioneers Catalyst has been billed as a world first in corporate training. It’s a unique exercise that uses the symphony orchestra as a metaphor for the workplace, allowing non musicians access to real instruments, a conductor and an especially composed piece of music. Orchestrate reflects the idea of going beyond perceived limitations.

Both Eventia members and Catalyst clients immersed themselves in a challenge that seemed unrealistic at the outset but resulted in a full performance on the world famous stage of the Barbican Hall, home to the London Symphony Orchestra. The evening provided an opportunity for buyers and organisers to network; experience Orchestrate first hand and learn a little more about the iconic venue.

After the initial briefing by the conductor, participants were split into instrument ‘sectionals’ and trained in a variety of the breakout areas available. The finale performance was electrifying with many people genuinely surprising themselves at finding hidden talents.

Izania Downie, Executive Director, Eventia, said: “The evening was an overwhelming success with the team behind Orchestrate fully demonstrating its application as a powerful tool to engage delegates and bring inspirational company values to life.”

Is there a workplace anywhere in the Western world which is as lousy a model for how a workforce of educated, engaged and talented people ought to be led as is the typical symphony orchestra? It always amazes me just  how badly outsiders – even ones as smart as Peter Drucker – misjudge the true nature of the relationship between conductor and musicians.

I’m glad the participants at this event had a good time and "genuinely [surprised]  themselves at finding hidden talents." Maybe they even learned something. What they didn’t learn is what it’s like to play in a professional orchestra.

Playing in a foreign language

January 22, 2008

We did a program of mostly French music last week. We even had a French
conductor (Ludovic Morlot, who’s been on the guest conductor circuit
this year and who did a very nice job). It was just like Bastille Day as celebrated at the French
research station at the South Pole. Fortunately such weather does not
deter us Milwaukeeans, and the concerts were surprisingly
well-attended. (Unfortunately such weather doesn’t deter the New York
Giants either, but that’s another story.)


Mercury rising in Columbus

January 21, 2008

It didn’t take long for the Columbus Symphony musicians to react publicly to the the Board’s plan to save the orchestra by destroying it. Doug Fisher, a bassoonist in the CSO and president of the AFM Local in Columbus, writes:

This weekend we protested the announcement with two actions. Last night we had been invited to a reception hosted by the Board Chair at his law firm in honor of our Concertmaster Charles Wetherbee who brilliantly performed the Korngold Concerto. All of us, including the Concertmaster, refused to attend and we instead organized our own reception in his honor at the Hyatt Hotel next door.

Second, today we performed a demonstration during the intermission of our concert. Ten minutes before the end of intermission the entire orchestra minus 22 violinists took the stage as a group and sat silently in front of the audience. Five minutes before the intermission ended, the missing musicians took the stage as a group and the rest of us applauded them as they took their seats. Although these were small acts of protest, we hope they sent a message. (quoted with permission of the author).

Good for them. The board needs to know what things are going to be like if they proceed along the course they’ve announced.

Drew McManus has more.

Buffalo not kosher?

January 20, 2008

No, no… not the animal (I assume it’s got the proper kinds of hooves, being related to cattle); the orchestra.