Archive for the ‘What they think about us’ Category

Philly at risk?

March 25, 2009

An article in the Guardian (UK) last Wednesday raised the possibility that one of the Big Five might not survive the current economic crisis:

The [Philadelphia Orchestra]- best known for the soundtrack to Disney’s Fantasia – has lost $2m (£1.4m) in public funding. Though it has an interim music director in Charles Dutoit, it has no permanent holder of that post, nor a chair of trustees, nor an executive director. It has just announced staff and pay cuts, and cancelled a tour to Europe this summer. Music lovers in the US could start to think the unthinkable: that one of their “big five” orchestras may not survive the economic crisis. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s temporary executive director, Frank Slattery, told the New York Times last week that he “can see catastrophe for American orchestras” if the markets do not recover.

I can’t really see Philly folding, regardless of how long it takes for the markets to recover. That’s not to say that major changes wouldn’t be required to keep it going, though.

There are two points to make about the current crisis. The first is that orchestras – even American orchestras – have survived worse. The second is that the current iteration of the American orchestra – full-time, underwritten by large dollops of donated cash, and with a solid underpinning of 10s of millions in endowments – has never been tested as severely as it appears is about to happen. I suspect that our industry is going to look somewhat different when this crisis ends, especially if (as appears likely) it doesn’t end soon.

But the article’s identification of Philly as the Big Five orchestra least likely to survive will not surprise most industry insiders. Philly has been rightly regarded for a long time as the weakest of the Big Five institutionally (not musically), and I suspect that most informed observers would even rank many of the next five or ten orchestras above it in terms of institutional strength.

I have no explanation for that. But I do wonder if the orchestra’s unique relationship to electronic media over the decades helped them avoid the kind of institutional development that other orchestras found essential to survive and grow. Philly is, after all, the only orchestra that was ever able to sue a major movie studio over royalties. A large external source of ongoing revenue makes life a lot easier for boards and managements – at least until it ends. And it ended, for Philly as for everyone else, around 10-15 years ago. Philly appears to have struggled as an institution ever since.


NPR is clueless (again)

March 22, 2009

I swerve between anger and terror whenever I heard the mainstream media cover our business; anger due to just how wrong they usually are and terror when I consider how wrong they must therefor be about all the stuff they cover I don’t know anything about.

The latest example to fuel my rage comes from a frequent offender, National Public Radio. On Friday, NPR’s flagship news show All Things Considered had an 8-minute segment on Mark O’Conner’s Americana Symphony, which began:

Mark O’Connor says he’s created an orchestral language from the seedling of Americana.

OK, I thought to myself, “a new orchestral language” would be interesting, especially if avoids replicating the mountains of music mined from the vein of Americana created by Copland, Schuman, Sessions, Ives, Harris, Cowell and others.

Imagine my surprise when it turns out that this “new orchestral language” is essentially a pastiche of Copland and Lord of the Dance. So I kept listening for discussion of the historical context of this “new language” and some mention of the folks that actually invented the “American sound.” There was none, of course. But I did discover another old source for the new language:

One of the most visual sections of the symphony is the fifth movement, “Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun,” which depicts the climbing of the mountain face of the Rockies.

“The entire movement is one large crescendo that lasts six or seven minutes, that starts very low, in the basses where it’s barely audible,” O’Connor says. “And as the heavy footsteps climb that mountain, the music describes the elation once you’re at the peak and you can actually see the setting sun.”

Lord of the Dance, Copland, and Richard Strauss. Can’t beat that.


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.

Xmas Xrap

December 6, 2008

December is not, for most orchestra musicians, the most wonderful time of the year. For many of us, December involves a kind of musical Groundhog Day – endless performances of Nutcracker or Hansel and Gretel – for the lucky ones, and a Purgatory of bad arrangements of Christmas carols and holiday dreck for everyone else. (more…)

Flanagan speaks!

March 30, 2008

Soundcheck, a daily program at WQXR,  WNYC Radio, did a segment on the Flanagan report on March 26. Flanagan was interviewed at length, while Deborah Borda, President & CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, took the opportunity to rebut many of the reports’s conclusions. The entire segment can be downloaded, as well as streamed from the above link. My transcript of the segment (complete save for re-introductions of the participants at various  points in the segment) is below the jump.


Flanagan (the beta version)

March 27, 2008

The Flanagan report is, in many ways, merely the latest iteration of
the symphonic artform known as the “self-inflicted wound.” By no means
the earliest such report was one cited in an earlier post on this blog (which I
believe was a study done by SRI, although I can’t find any
documentation for that). The most recent was “The Financial Condition
of Symphony Orchestras,” known fondly throughout our business (perhaps because of the aptness of the author’s name) as “The Wolf Report,”
published in 1992.