Archive for December, 2008

What not to say when talking to the audience

December 23, 2008

When Greg Sandow singled out not talking to the audience as one reason why “classical music doesn’t connect to our larger culture,” he probably wasn’t thinking of this kind of talk as the solution:

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready”…

Politics aside, where are manners? Where is consideration for a minority of audience members? Where is a sense of public space, and what is appropriate and not? The guy was uncouth, as much as anything. And the sad thing is: There’s no one to call him on it…

I suppose that conservatives, somewhere, act like that conductor, injecting politics where it doesn’t belong, transgressing against public decorum (and simply displaying bad manners). I have not witnessed it, though.

He’s got a point. But that’s the problem with talking to the audience. Does the audience really want to know what the performer thinks?

When I’m in the audience, I sure don’t. I attended an event at a local nightclub a few months ago, as a favor to a friend. I liked some of the music and didn’t like the rest of it. But I liked none of the talking, and found it lowered my confidence in the performers’ abilities overall.

I think it’s a mistake to think that, because performers are good at communicating when they perform, they also have a gift for communicating when they talk.

But I think the conservative critic underestimates the extent to which liberals are subjected to politics in public performance venues. Kate Smith singing God Bless America started showing up at Milwaukee Brewers games a few years ago, in which seemed to me a clear correlation with the Iraq war. And, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, we showed up at a runout and were ordered to start the concert with the National Anthem. We start every season with the National Anthem, which is a venerable tradition that I have always enjoyed. But being required to play The Star-spangled Banner at the start of a preventive war that many of us opposed was equally “uncouth.”

Maybe we should just focus on the music.



December 23, 2008

While I was off doing different things the past few days, the classical blogodinghy was percolating madly about Gilbert Kaplan’s appearance with the New York Philharmonic. Charles Noble had a long post worth reading that captured pretty much every interesting angle on the subject. He was especially critical of what Norman Lebrecht had written on the subject, and I think he was right to be hard on a statement like this:

[The New York Philharmonic] are a bunch of very fine players. They also have a reputation for very bad attitude. There is a reason why many of the world’s best will not conduct the NY Phil. And that may be the same reason why the next music director barely ranks in the top league. If there was a story to cover here, it was about the New York Philharmonic behaving badly. But are we going to read that in the New York Times? When pigs can fly, perhaps.

But I found an even better quote from Norman at La Scena Musicale, where he wrote:

In September 1982 [Kaplan] put his life on the line by conducting the symphony for the monetary elite and brought off an astonishing feat. Among many firsts that night, he had cracked one problem that eluded the professionals – how to communicate with the offstage brass band which, unseen and ‘in the far distance’, heralds the Resurrection. Most conductors give cues to an assistant at a half-open door. Kaplan, reviewing Mahler’s original notes, decided to run television cables up to the band in an upper corridor. Audience members craned their necks to see where the ethereal sound was coming from. No performance of the Resurrection would ever sound the same again.

Norman is right: anyone who has discovered that Mahler used closed-circuit TV when he conducted the Resurrection symphony deserves our whole-hearted admiration.

Perhaps it was Mahler 2 doo?

December 18, 2008

Gilbert Kaplan’s night with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony and the New York Philharmonic, which was imminent when I wrote a little about it here, didn’t make him any fans amongst the musicians, according to an article in the New York Times (as well as industry scuttlebut):

On Monday a trombonist in the orchestra, David Finlayson, laid out a sprawling indictment against Mr. Kaplan on his blog. It was an unusually public airing of complaints in a profession notorious for excoriating conductors in private.

“My colleagues and I gave what we could to this rudderless performance but the evening proved to be nothing more than a simplistic reading of a very wonderful piece of music,” he wrote. Mr. Kaplan acknowledged in rehearsal that he was incapable of keeping a steady beat, Mr. Finlayson added. Despite being a self-professed expert on the piece, Mr. Kaplan ignored Mahler’s “blizzard” of directions, Mr. Finlayson wrote.

He called Mr. Kaplan’s music career a “woefully sad farce” built on the complicity of orchestra managements and a willingness to donate money. “We can rely only on ourselves to stand firm against any attempts to promote this imposter,” Mr. Finlayson added…

Mr. Kaplan’s performances present a particularly extreme example of the gap that can exist between the way performers perceive a concert and the way listeners do: a gulf as old as music criticism itself.

In the case of Mr. Kaplan’s “Resurrection” concerts, musicians say that a top professional orchestra, especially a great Mahler orchestra like the Philharmonic, can bypass the conductor and produce a superlative performance on its own.

This musician wouldn’t say anything that dumb. There’s a reason that orchestras like the New York Phil, as well as orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and even orchestras like the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, have conductors – it’s because they need them. I doubt whether the New York Phil, or any other orchestra on the planet for that matter, could actually get from the beginning of the Mahler to the end without multiple train wrecks in the absence of a conductor.

Admittedly Mahler’s an extreme example (not surprisingly so, given that Mahler was a conductor and believed in their indispensability), but could the New York Phil produce a “superlative performance” of any significant piece in the repertoire without a competent conductor in front of it? I doubt it.

That’s not to say that, if the conductor is bad, the orchestra will sound terrible (although it sure won’t sound or feel great to the musicians). Good orchestras don’t need a lot of help to fly at least loosely in formation in a piece they know. But, at least in my experience, superlative performances by orchestras only happen in the presence of both really good conductors and really good orchestras.

I’m not saying I like that fact that we need conductors. I daresay there are conductors who don’t much like the fact that they need orchestras. And it’s a lot easier for orchestras to pretend that conductors aren’t necessary than it is for conductors to pretend that orchestras aren’t necessary.

But it’s just as dumb.

Collapsing the supply chain

December 16, 2008

Bill Stensrud has another interesting post up on his Businss of Classical Music blog; this time about the supply chain for recorded music. I find his analysis of what’s happened to that supply chain more compelling than his predictions for the future, however.

The music recording industry involves a number of discrete businesses. These businesses link together in a sophisticated way to create a “supply chain”. Historically, the collaborative effort of these businesses created a viable economic ecosystem and an acceptable financial return for all participants. (more…)

Democracy comes to the AFM

December 15, 2008

99.9% of elections in AFM locals are barely news even for the members of the local. The other 0.01% happened last week in the Nashville Association of Musicians, AFM Local 257.

It was unusual enough that Local 257’s two executive officers, President Harold Bradley and Secretary-Treasurer Billy Linneman, were both defeated in their bids for re-election. Incumbents are rarely defeated when they run for re-election to local office, and Bradley had been president since 1990. More unusual is that both Bradley and Linneman were also members of the AFM’s International Executive Board, with Bradley serving as AFM International Vice-President. It’s been 25 years since a member of the IEB has lost a bid for re-election to local office. (more…)

More on not connecting

December 14, 2008

Greg Sandow had some additional thoughts on the subject of connecting with audiences a few days ago which are worth considering:

…In classical music, the point of performances — according to orthodox thinking — is to bring us to the music, which is defined as something more or less unchanging that lies behind all performances. So if I play a Beethoven piano sonata, Beethoven is more important than I am. My role is to realize his intentions. (Or is it His, with a capital H?)
But in other kinds of music, things are much more flexible. You go to a performance to see a show. You also go, more often than not, to see and hear a musician. The music the musician plays is music she’s written. And, when the music is jazz, music she’s written and also improvises on. So musicians play a much more creative role. (more…)

Definitely not constructive criticism

December 13, 2008

Back in September, Donald Rosenberg, one of the deans of American musical criticism (and immediate past president of the Music Critics Association of North America) was reassigned by the Cleveland Plain Dealer off the Cleveland Orchestra beat, which was given to Zachary Lewis, a newly-hired young reporter. There were some who viewed this as retaliation for Rosenberg’s rather negative coverage of the tenure of the orchestra’s music director Franz Welser-Möst. (more…)

Bits trump plastic

December 12, 2008

Reading the first post on a new blog is a little like watching the first voyage of a vessel designed by amateurs. Will she sail proudly out of the mooring field,  heeling gently to the freshening breeze? Or will she do a Wasa and turn turtle a mile into her maiden outing, drowning all aboard? (a few mixed metaphors there, I know). Bill Stensrud, in his very first post on his new blog The Business of Classical Music (hat tip to Charles Noble at Daily Observations) keeps the shiny side on the upside for the most part, and poses some provocative ideas about the future of classical music recording (as well as a few misconceptions, but then everyone gets a little wet the first time out):

In the 20th century, recording and distributing music was an economically viable industry. It satisfied the needs of the consumer (to have access to recordings of artists and repertoire) and it compensated the performers, composers, labels and distributors for their efforts.

Truer of the first nine decades of the 20th century than of the last one, perhaps. (more…)

Pissing off the patrons

December 11, 2008

Holly Mulcahy (who drives up from Chicago to play with us occasionally) wrote an article worth reading at The Partial Observer. She called it “How to alienate your audience in 10 easy steps: Musicians” to distinguish it from her first article, which was a tutorial on the same subject for conductors.

Some of what she writes about is stuff that clearly shouldn’t happen on any stage anywhere (checking email during performances, which is flat-out illegal in my band), complaining to audience members about not being paid enough, dressing badly, smirking when one’s colleagues screw up, and the like. It would be nice if this kind of stuff went without saying for adult professional musicians, but sometimes it doesn’t. I try to behave myself on stage, but I couldn’t plead absolutely innocent to any of the above save checking email during a concert. Of course, given that I sit up front and right under the conductor’s nose, that would be stupid as well as rude. (more…)

Oom pah pah

December 10, 2008

I showed up at work yesterday morning only to find out that, once again, I had forgotten to get myself off – somehow, anyhow – of a service containing waltzes. I have nothing against the waltz form in and of itself, but it’s been many years since I could get through the viola part of an entire waltz without serious pain. (more…)