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June 14, 2007

...same as the Old World?

by Robert Levine

I'm not used to not having a lot to say on a subject, but that's where I am at the moment. So let me add some comments on what's already been written.

Greg Sandow wrote:

I'll leap to a grand proclamation. (See? I can't resist pontificating.) The arts -- as traditionally understood -- are over. It just doesn't make sense, any more, to talk about some grand collection of plays and music and poems and paintings, which uniquely express our human condition, which stand apart from everyday life, and which we all ought to learn about. We're learning about ourselves in many other ways now; we're forging the uncreated conscience of our race (to use Joyce's phrase from the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) in many other places."

I think it makes as much sense to talk about canonical art as it ever did. There's always been lots more art than just the canonical works, and creators of what became canonical borrowed freely from that fast-flowing stream. Bruckner and Schubert stole landler, Bach stole hymn tunes, Mahler stole from everything around him. The difference between now and then - or even between now and 30 years ago - is that it's as easy for some unknown composer in a basement to make his/her works available to a worldwide audience as it was for, say, Stravinsky at the height of his career.

The fact that there is still a canon of art music is implicitly recognized by its repeated use in popular culture to signify "classiness."

Ed Cambron wrote:

"As any good marketer knows, word-of-mouth is your best friend. Technology has only made word-of-mouth even more important, as people can communicate instantly and to many, many people at the same time. ..

What does this mean for orchestras? First of all, we rarely present programs that run long enough to even begin to leverage word-of-mouth as a tool to make a choice. Museums, on the other hand, have had major success in mounting exhibitions which have long runs, creating the opportunity to leverage audiences and their voices. Imagine for a moment what might happen if a major American orchestra took a risk and scheduled the same concert for six months, or repeated a program five times in a year."

Aside from the fact that the musicians would go out of their minds? This is, in fact, what the major American opera companies do (not to mention theaters and movie houses). Either there's a qualitative difference between a drama (opera, musical, play, film) and a symphony, in terms of the nature of the audience experience, or orchestra audiences are simply a lot smaller.

Lynne Connor wrote:

"Who cares whether the audience is "engaged" or not? And furthermore, why is that my problem? Making (or delivering or professionally evaluating) art is what I do. How audiences connect with it is up to them.

If we think of our jobs as being restricted to providing the arts event, then this whole discussion on "engagement" will seem extraneous (or worse, the product of yet another cynical incarnation of marketing science).

But, if we see ourselves as part of a larger cultural operation in which the quality of the audience's experience is as important as the quality of the arts event we deliver, then we can have a meaningful discussion about the role and function of today's audiences."

I see myself as a musician who'd like to remain employed for the next decade or so and who'd like to see my younger colleagues employed for a lot longer. So I do care about audiences. I'd love to not have it be my problem, but that's not a choice I get to make these day. Orchestras will never be able to pay the bills solely from earned revenue, but it'll be impossible to raise funds to cover the difference if butts aren't in seats. People don't want to fund failure.

But she does allude to something I think is fundamental in this discussion. Orchestras do one thing very well; we perform that small segment of our musical history written for orchestras. If we are going to survive and thrive, it will be as orchestras, doing what we can do well. There are severe limits to our ability to morph ourselves to meet public taste. If there aren't enough people who want to hear that small segment - even though it represents one of the highest achievements of humanity - we won't survive. But if there are are - and I think there are - then the question does become how to engage them.

Lawrence Kramer wrote an article in the New York Times two weeks ago on the subject of orchestras as museums, asking in essence "so what's wrong with that?" He wrote in part:

Whenever people discuss the familiar plight of classical music in America - financial problems; aging audiences; above all, a loss of cultural authority - someone is sure to bring up the museum analogy. Classical music, we are told, may be old and valuable, but it is as remote from contemporary life as an old fiddle. Its culture is a museum culture. The public doesn't care about new works, and the old ones have been worn out with reuse like antique coins with faded faces.

But the museum analogy shortchanges both the music and the museum. ... The classical music world may have something to learn from the success of today's museums, where the art of the present elicits fascination, and the art of the past impresses visitors as the very reverse of stifling, myopic or merely out of date...

...concerts and museums purvey the same experience: revival. As collections, museums house objects - paintings and sculptures, artifacts and the paraphernalia of past life - that people often go not just to visit but to revisit. Many of us have favorite objects in museums. When in Philadelphia I generally make sure to spend a few moments with Thomas Eakins's "Concert Singer"; in Chicago I try to spend at least part of Sunday in the park with George: Georges Seurat and his "Sunday La Grande Jatte - 1884." Building an assembly of such favorite things is a primary means of experiencing and sustaining cultural values. In this way a museum visit can refresh our feeling for the meaningfulness of experience.

But that is exactly what classical music is supposed to do, and in the same way. The work of art does not change on the wall, and the fully composed work of music, though it does change from one performance to another, remains recognizably and durably itself. We keep returning to these works as cultural resources.

Now that's someone who gets it.

Posted by rlevine at June 14, 2007 4:33 PM


Lawrence Kramer's New York Time's article was also one I found of great interest as an orchestra administrator, who like Robert above, looks forward to a number of years of continued employment in this field. However I'd like to offer a slightly different take on Mr. Karmer's idea. I believe we are already, especially when we do our job's well, acting in some ways as the best museums do and doing so in a more challenging manner than just as a institution dedicated to "reviving" art.

We, like museums, we have a vital role to serve as the best curators of our art. When you visit a great museum, you usually only see a fraction of their collection at any one time. Similarly, at any given time, we in the orchestra business have out for public consumption only a fraction of our collection.

But the comparison also goes deeper. What sets great orchestras and museums apart from others is how well they present their collection for the public's consideration. What is the context? Monet and Manet created beautiful paintings and are often hung together. Similarly there are plenty of good reasons to play Beethoven and Brahms on the same concert. But don't we do our curatorial job a little better when we challenge our audience to think a little more? The Chicago Art Institute is currently presenting a show that explores the Islamic world's role as an intermediary between the East and West. It isn't just the presentation of the art itself, but the context of that presentation that makes this show compelling.

My orchestra here in far northern Minnesota just finished its concert season with a unabashedly exuberant staging of Porgy and Bess. It was insanely expensive and challenging for us to present, but even more wildly successful. And the reason we did it was because we loved the idea of presenting to our substantially homogeneous Scandinavian-descended audience the idea that Catfish Row had a compelling story worthy of their consideration. It was this juxtaposition of context that I believe made this show so special for us in Duluth (aside from the wonderful music!).

So in response to Mr. Kramer, I would say yes, we happily accept the challenge of engaging our audience with our art. And perhaps we've been doing it already for some time now and see it as more than just a practice of revival.

Posted by: Andrew Berryhill at June 14, 2007 7:14 PM

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