Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The most interesting conductor in the world

September 20, 2009

Dos Equis, the Mexican beer company, recently ran an ad campaign around a character they named “The Most Interesting Man In The World” (my favorite ad was this one). It was, among other things, a take-off on how the press love to anoint individuals, or institutions, as the “best” or “worst” or “sexiest” or pretty much anything else that will sell newspapers and magazines and radio advertising.

Every so often the press go on a “best of” binge in our business as well. The latest examples come from the English press; the Observer has anointed Valery Gergiev the greatest conductor of his generation:

Even those who disagree concede that he is the most electrifying. His high profile internationally is based on his spellbinding effect on audiences and musicians alike – not to mention his famous performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony to an audience of Russian soldiers and tank commanders amid the ruins of the capital of his homeland, Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, after fighting between Russian and Georgian troops…

In terms of sheer, thrilling unpredictability, a Gergiev concert is the musical equivalent of what it must be like in the seat of a racing car rounding a hairpin bend and holding the road; again, not only for the audience – it is like that for the musicians too. “I doubt we will see another conductor like him,” says Noel Bradshaw, who has played the cello with the LSO for 25 years, “during this generation, if ever.”

Is Gergiev a major conductor? Unquestionably. But by what criteria is he “the greatest of his generation”? And why do we need the Observer to make these determinations for us?

Along the same lines, the Daily Telegraph has decided that the Chicago Symphony is “America’s finest orchestra“:

The orchestra’s rise to fame began with the great Fritz Reiner in the Fifties, but it was during the 22-year reign of the fierce Hungarian George Solti that the orchestra became the brawny yet subtle precision instrument that it is today, famed especially for its noble and stupendously powerful brass sound. A recent orchestral poll in Gramophone magazine named it as the best American orchestra, and fifth in global terms.

To be ranked ahead of the New York Philharmonic was sweet indeed for this city, always chippy about playing second-fiddle to the Big Apple.

Times are tough for American orchestras. For years audiences have been ageing and falling in numbers, and at least a dozen US orchestras have gone to the wall in the last decade. All this is familiar to British orchestral managers, as is the orchestra’s determination to “add value” to the concert experience by putting the music in its cultural context. What’s unique about the CSO approach is its combination of razzle-dazzle and high-mindedness. Three times a year it hosts Beyond the Score, a “cultural portrait” of the evening’s main work combining theatre, film documentary and commentary. These have been so successful that several orchestras in the US and Europe have syndicated them.

I hope there’s no one in our business who doesn’t realize that 1) rankings like these are meaningless, whether of conductors, orchestras, or instrumentalists, and 2) that articles like these are the product of a great deal of time and money spent by those anointed as “the best.” No doubt such articles serve a purpose in promoting the appearances of the anointees, and selling tickets is always a good thing. But I suspect there is damage done as well, both to institutions and musicians less able to spend the resources necessary for this kind of publicity and to the public’s potential understanding of our business as something more than “Transatlantic Idol.”


Test post from Blogo

August 27, 2009

This is a post created in Blogo by Robert and posted directly from there (I hope).

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…)

Fixing what Nobel forgot

December 8, 2008

Perhaps there’s something in the water that causes Swedes to endow prizes:

A lucrative, international classical music prize has been established, thanks to late Swedish opera star Birgit Nilsson, who died in 2005.

The Birgit Nilsson Foundation announced Friday the launch of a $1 million US prize to honour outstanding achievements in international opera and concert performance.

According to organizers, Nilsson herself had planned for the creation of the prize years before her passing and had even selected the first winner — who will be named in early 2009.

They added that the singer had placed the inaugural winner’s name in a sealed envelope and requested that the prize not be announced until three years after her death.

I’ve long wondered about the point of such awards. I know a few people who’ve gotten high-profile prizes – my Dad’s first cousin, Fred Reines, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1995, and a close colleague of Dad’s, Robert Sapolsky, won a MacArthur award a few years ago. Both were richly deserved. (Dad received a couple of less high-profile awards in his time as well).

But would they have not done the work for which they were awarded in the absence of such awards? There are certainly instances in the history of science when topics were tackled in part because everyone recognized that whoever solved the problem would likely win a Nobel. But they were high-profile topics anyway (otherwise they wouldn’t have been worthy of the Nobel committee’s attention), and whoever solved them would be guaranteed riches and fame (or what passes for that in the scientific community), Nobel or –  no Bel.

I suspect that the same is true of this new prize. People don’t do good work in the arts because of the chance of winning a prize. As some wit once wrote, “the only thing one needs to know about competitions is that Mozart never won one.”

If the purpose of the new prize is simply to recognize great work, there’s another problem. Even deciding who gets a Nobel is a notoriously subjective judgement, and at least there’s some consensus on what Nobel-worthy work looks like in the sciences. But choosing amongst “outstanding achievements in international opera and concert performance?” Good luck in convincing anyone outside of the award committee that the award committee got it right.

Let’s hope that Ms. Nilsson’s choice of the inaugural winner will provide some useful guidance, both to those who will award future prizes and those of us who are skeptical of the entire notion. In the interim, we can celebrate a world in which a soprano can become rich enough to endow a bi- (or perhaps tri-) annual $1 million award. She didn’t quite make it to von Karajan territory. But then who ever did but von Karajan?

Only connect (or maybe not)

December 5, 2008

Greg Sandow recently wrote a typically insightful and provocative post on “ways that classical music doesn’t connect with the world we live in.” It’s worth reading. And it’s definitely worth a response. So here’s mine. (more…)

Do conductors make too much?

December 4, 2008

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on the meaning of the word “too” is.

The author of an article in the San Francisco Weekly (hat tip: Drew McManus) thinks he’s got a good definition: “too much” is what the San Francisco Symphony is paying music director Michael Tilson Thomas:

These are trying economic times — unless you’re Michael Tilson Thomas, the baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is one of a troika of symphony honchos who, when you include money allocated to agents and personal projects and a personal loan, drain $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers. (more…)

Boston joins the download party

December 3, 2008

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has joined the list of orchestras making recordings available for download:

…the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched a download service yesterday that will allow customers to buy new and historical recordings through the organization’s website,

The service made immediately available 179 previously released tracks by the BSO, Boston Pops, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. But listeners must wait until February for a recording created under the baton of music director James Levine. Four albums of Levine-led material will be available, two on CD, two digitally, though this week the BSO would only reveal one of the pieces to be included, the 2007 performance of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”… (more…)

But will they watch the computer from behind a screen?

December 2, 2008

Sometimes taking advantage of new technologies furthers the mission of the symphony orchestra, making more and more great music and performances available to more and more people. And sometimes… it’s just a gimmick:

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Through YouTube.  (more…)

McGegan does madness

November 29, 2008

We’re doing a program with Nick McGegan this week. Nick conducts us twice a season and the orchestra has always enjoyed seeing come him back.

This time the program was a little outside his “normal” range with us: Mendelssohn Hebrides overture and the Reformation symphony, followed by Symphonie fantastique. I’m told the program was originally intended for a former music director of ours and that Nick generously took it over when that didn’t work out. (more…)

Failing upwards?

November 21, 2008

The Cincinnati Symphony has made an… interesting choice in hiring a new executive director:

Trey Devey, 37, a Chicago businessman, was approved at a special board meeting this morning at Music Hall.

Devey will assume his new post on Jan. 20. He succeeds Steven Monder, who retired in June after holding the job for 31 years.

“His strategic thinking and problem solving skills truly differentiated him from other candidates,” said board chair Marvin Quin, retired chief financial officer of Ashland.

Devey is a strategy consultant for Boston Consulting Group, a global consulting firm with 66 offices in 38 countries. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but orchestras are his passion, he says. ..

From 1997 to 2002, Devey was with the Syracuse Symphony, which has a $5.3 million operating budget, serving first as its development director and then its executive director. He is credited with balancing the budget, increasing the endowment and spearheading the orchestra’s return performance in Carnegie Hall after a 15-year hiatus.

As president of the now-defunct Florida Philharmonic Orchestra (2002-03), he launched an internal audit and identified a structural operating deficit. During his tenure, the organization sought Chapter 11 protection and he oversaw its eventual shutdown.

He was also briefly executive director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

I hope that the CSO board regarded his tenure with the Florida Phil as a bug and not a feature.

To be fair, there’s lots of blame to spread around for what happened to that orchestra, and most of it pre-dated his tenure. But if my orchestra was looking for an executive director, I’d need a lot of really high-quality selling before I’d buy someone who folded up his last orchestra.