Archive for the ‘Clusterf*cks’ Category

Why one should go to every single service

January 28, 2009

…aside from that’s how to get paid, of course.

I missed the rehearsal last Thursday afternoon on account of having to leave town for a day. So of course that was the rehearsal that my colleagues will be talking about for the next decade or so.

On the agenda was the Chopin first concerto with a Canadian pianist by the name of Louis Lortie. The conductor was Vasily Petrenko, our guest for the week. The only thing out of the ordinary was the orchestral accompaniment.

A few years ago we commissioned Paul Chihara to re-arrange the accompaniment for a performance we did with Bill Wolfram. As most orchestra musicians know, Chopin’s version is massively tedious to play (and, to my mind, to listen to as well). He only wrote a handful of works for anything except solo piano, so it’s not surprising that his writing for orchestra is undistinguished. I remember the Chihara version (which changes not a note in the piano part, by the way) as an improvement, at least from the point of view of getting from one end to the other without dying either of boredom or of pain.

Back to Thursday. It was an open rehearsal, with a number of donors invited to attend. As well, Paul Chihara was in the audience, having flown in from LA for the occasion. The rehearsal began with a run-through of the first movement. Then things began to go off the rails with  Lortie standing up and telling the orchestra: “I have an announcement.”

Indeed he did. Reportedly, his announcement (delivered, I’m told, in a very accusatory tone at a group of people whose only sin was to play what was on their stands) was that he, Louis Lortie, had been engaged to perform the Chopin first concerto, that this was not the Chopin first concerto, that we (!?) were free to find another pianist to play what was not the Chopin first concerto, but that, if we (!?) were to do that, of course we (!?) would still have to pay him. He also made it clear that he was not aware in advance that we (!?)  were not going to be doing the Chopin first concerto. Petrenko, rather surprised at this turn of events, suggested the orchestra take a break.

When the orchestra returned, there was a different set of parts on the stand, Chihara had headed back to the airport, and the principal strings had a homework bowing assignment to occupy their previously free evening.

I am told that his assertion that he was unaware that we (!?)  were not doing the Chopin first concerto was not entirely accurate, although it does appear that he was not aware of the existence of the Chihara arrangement until his arrival in Milwaukee.

I can understand why someone might object to an alternate version of the accompaniment of a concerto that he/she was engaged to perform. It shows a certain insensitivity to the suffering of others to insist on the original Chopin parts, but I don’t expect pianists to get that playing a string instrument can hurt.

What I can’t understand is choosing to make a fuss about it in front of the orchestra’s donors, or blaming the whole thing on the orchestra. Did he think that he was on tour with Orpheus? Did he think that the money to pay his fee was coming from the Society for the Preservation of Lousy Original Orchestrations rather than from the people who were out in the hall listening? Did he think that the number of orchestras looking for piano soloists is greater than the number of piano soloists looking for orchestras? Did he think he was living in pianist nirvana?

It sounded very reminiscent of the old joke (slightly re-worked for this occasion): what’s the difference between God and a piano soloist? God doesn’t think he can play the piano.

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.

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…)

A kludge by any other name…

July 12, 2008

The Seattle Times is impressed by the naming of of Maria Larionoff as concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony:

A long and sometimes discordant episode at Seattle Symphony came to a close Friday when the orchestra announced that Maria Larionoff had been named sole concertmaster.

Larionoff was one of four violinists appointed to share the leadership post in 2007 after an arduous three-year search for Ilkka Talvi’s successor.

That arrangement, based on a “European model,” according to a symphony statement, violated the terms of the musicians’ collective bargaining agreement, which doesn’t allow for part-time positions. (more…)

Why a clusterduct?

March 27, 2008

Andrew Taylor at The Artful Manager blog suggested that my reaction to
the Flanagan report might be better characterized by putting in into
the Clusterf*cks category than by the relatively measured tone of
what I actually wrote about it. And he’s right; I found the whole thing
enraging.

The Flanagan report, and the process that brought it about, is a
classic example of how not to make our field a better place. It should
never have happened in the first place. So why did it?

(more…)

Flanagan’s fatal flaw

March 24, 2008

In an earlier post I talked about problems that I saw with the data
that Professor Flanagan used in his report and some of the ways he used
them. But it’s very possible that, with the exception of the years he
chose as endpoints for his dataset, correcting those problems would not
have made a substantive difference to his findings.

The real problems with the Flanagan report are in his assumptions and
with his lack of understanding of how non-profits in general, and
orchestras in particular, function in their environments.

(more…)

Move along, people – nothing to see here.

March 23, 2008

You didn’t know that Mellon’s Orchestra Forum had a newsblog? That’s
probably because they didn’t until a few days ago. The very first post was about the
Flanagan Report. I guess Mellon didn’t know that it was going to be
released either – which would be odd, considering that they paid for it.

(more…)

First take on Flanagan – Part I

March 22, 2008

I had heard a lot about the various drafts of the Flanagan Report that
had been floating around since last summer (and had read Flanagan’s own
preliminary conclusions in a paper he read at a conference at UC
Berkeley in October 2007, which I found pretty appalling). But I hadn’t
seen a draft until the release of what Flanagan apparently considers
his final version this week. Whatever Dreadful Blood Oath the Mellon Foundation required recipients of earlier drafts to sign was pretty effective in preventing wider distribution. What did they threaten offenders with – having to listen to timpani auditions?

(more…)

Chicken Little, PhD

March 20, 2008

Every so often some economist discovers that orchestras can’t exist. The latest is Robert J. Flanagan of the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

(more…)

Chicken Little travels back to the future

March 20, 2008

From United Press International, 1970

25 Orchestras Doomed to Die

NEW YORK – (UPI) – Among events forecast for the 1970’s you can now include the demise of the some 25 symphony orchestras maintained in middle-size American cities out of civic pride in local culture.

The forecaster was a research organization without aesthetic commitments and interested only in monetary outgo and income and other telltale statistics. Its conclusion was that in the ’70’s local philanthropy will no longer be able to meet inevitably mounting deficits.

The forecast was a projection from detailed studies of income-outgo of nine orchestras, those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Louisville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, by the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City.

Its study indicated $1 million a year was the most any orchestra could expect to raise in subsidizing funds from all sources and even this figure is “optimistic.” By projecting the rate of deficit increases during the 1960’s into the 1970’s the statisticians arrived at their conclusion of doom.

It specifically set the demise of the Atlanta and Houston symphonies for the early ’70’s, that of the Baltimore and Dallas orchestras for the mid ’70’s, and of the Seattle Symphony for the late ’70’s. Shortages of money also caused Dartmouth College and Stanford University to cancel their summer music festivals this year.

The orchestras have one alternative to “going out of business,” the report said. That is to “reshape” – either by reducing the size of orchestras from 100 to 90 musicians or by shortening seasons. Either would be extremely difficult.

“In past years, as long as the musicians were underpaid and the service income was nearly equal to cost, the economical anachronism of the large symphony orchestras remained hidden,” the report said.

“Now, in an age of near socialism, with musicians unionized and asking for proper compensation in return for skilled services, the economic crisis of the symphony orchestra is becoming painfully evident.”

Symphony orchestras, the report said, have “become frozen in shape and structure, ceasing to evolve. Consequently the American symphony orchestra has become an unwieldy and inflexible bureaucratic and financial nightmare.”

In “Pollyanna-like fashion” they’re “still hoping for a light in the wilderness.” Further grants from the Ford Foundation, for instance. These grants will “hardly register in the widening gap between income and expenses,” the report said.

The idea of two cities sharing one orchestra is not likely to be workable, it found. Nor is that of “community arts funds.” It considered hope for federal government subsidies to be a vain one, in view of the “overwhelming social and economic problems” with which government must cope.

The study was made for the Kansas City Performing Arts Foundation which undertakes to support, among other civic cultural endeavors, the Kansas City Philharmonic. Its crisis is immediate.

By shortening its current season it met pay demands of musicians but this postponed the showdown until next season when musicians will expect to be employed for a longer season at the same or increased pay.

The study did not include the orchestras in the largest cities – those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. But it “presumed that an analysis of these orchestras would show a similar picture with respect to performance income and cost.”