Recently in prdebate Category

Thanks to everyone who read and participated in our virtual panel last week! I'm sorry to report that you're back to Just Me now. Shoes over Schubert, if you will.

If you find yourself missing my co-panelists, start reading Matthew's excellent blog Soho the Dog, check out Michael's special-by-any-definition University Musical Society series in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or--now that you know him--go see Jonathan in concert and buy his most recent CD. Which happens to be Schubert, not shoes, and is Grood - great and good. I'm not sure how you can support James and his artists directly, but buying him a Maker's Mark (neat) the next time you see him at a concert should do the trick.

Thanks again! If you'd like to access the panel in the future, go to http://www.artsjournal.com/lifesapitch/prdebate/.
January 24, 2010 1:36 PM | | Comments (0)
On Thursday night, my soon-to-be 82 year old Iranian grandmother sent me the following text:

Hi amanda joshua bell and his friens are on pbs live in kincolon center iam having blast watching him
I called her yesterday to discuss birthday plans for the big 8-2 (chugging contests, Chippendales, etc.), and she was still so excited about seeing Joshua Bell on PBS that she refused to talk about anything else. "I didn't watch it," I said. "YOU DIDN'T WATCH IT??" "Um, no, I missed it. I'm sure it will be on some other time." "Yes, tomorrow at noon. I'm going to watch it again." "OK, OK - I'll DVR it." "It was so great, Amanda. He was there on TV with all these singers who are so much better than American Idol and I thought, Amanda knows him! I know him!."

It's true: a few years back, Noona met Joshua Bell backstage at a Carnegie performance. "This is my grandmother," I said. "Grandmother?" he replied incredulously, which of course gained him one loyal fan for life.

Something happens when you see someone you know perform, and as it turns out, you don't even have to really know them. The actor Paul Dano went to the same ballet school and and swim club as I did growing up. I can't recall a word I said to the man, but whenever he pops up in a movie I think, "Ah! I know him!" Of course I don't know him, but I know many things having to do with him, many things surrounding him, and that's enough to elicit a personal, excited reaction from me. Just when the summer film Taking Woodstock started to get slow, there was Paul Dano in a VW van! My sister and I both perked up in the movie theater, "Paul Dano!" we jerked forward in our seats and looked at each other. "Who?" our friend snapped. "We know him!" we shout-whispered in unison. And as I said, we don't. 

In addition to loose and not so loose, quasi-personal ties (David Letterman lived down the road from us growing up, my college e mailed us all about our fellow alums who are going to the Olympics, I've seen Drew Barrymore twice in the same West Village Starbucks), the amount of access we all have to mainstream celebrities also creates in us a sensation of knowing people we don't actually know. My entire family talked about Tiger Woods' marital problems at Christmas dinner like he was That Cousin We Never See who Just Can't Get it Together. We are exposed to a tremendous amount of information about celebrities in sports, movies, television, and even theater, and guess what? People seek out and spend money on those things.

On Wednesday, Jonathan wrote the following:

Then there is a whole other kind of special: the human interest special. The feature-story-in- another-section-of-the-paper special. The "get-to-know-the-artist-away-from-his-instrument" special. And while I see the value in this, at least from a marketing perspective, it makes me uneasy. This is a blog about PR, and so I know I'm outlining a rather radical position here, but I feel it's important, so here goes:

Sunday night, while stranded at the Toronto airport, I found myself watching the Golden Globes, of all things. Meryl Streep, in accepting her award, made a charming comment about being mistaken for an extraordinary woman because she's played such a long string of them, and then, as a corollary, said that she thought of herself as a vessel, through which these characters came to life. And it occurred to me that while I've seen her in plenty of movies, I know very little about her, and that that mystery probably makes it much easier for her to disappear into a role - and for me, her audience, to buy it. I won't name names, but I imagine we probably all can think of certain fine actors - likely of a younger generation - in whom it is very difficult to suspend the disbelief necessary to appreciate their performances (or, rather, appreciate them as something deeper than "performances"). Their every move is broadcast to us by the media; they never become characters because they are always their personae. (We don't really know them, of course, but we are encouraged to think that we do, and that's the point. And I assume this happens because everyone in the equation - the actors themselves, their representatives, the people marketing their movies, and the media - feels they are gaining something by it.)

Now, the analogy to classical music is an imperfect one, but not so imperfect that it isn't worth making. We performers are interpreters. Re-creators. Vessels, if you will. The performer's feeling for the music comes into it - how could it not? - but in the greatest performances I've heard, the person or people playing have seemed to disappear, and my feeling that I was connected purely to the music I was hearing was absolute. And the more of a persona the person onstage has cultivated, the harder it is for this magical disappearance to take place. To put it bluntly, rather than a vessel through which the music is communicated, he or she becomes an obstacle between the audience and the music.
 
(Click here for his entire post.)

While Jonathan may not know a lot about Meryl Streep, he certainly could if he wanted to. In fact as I type, her smiling, annoyingly you-probably-wake-up-looking-like-that photo is staring up at me from the cover of Vanity Fair. When an actor can't lose him or herself in a role, I don't blame tabloids and gossip blogs, I blame being a lesser actor.  And it's true: most people are lesser actors than Meryl Streep. Similarly, if you buy a ticket to see Susan Graham perform because you read somewhere that she hangs out in cigar lounges, and then that's all you can think about when watching and hearing her, she's not giving a worthwhile performance. Having seen Susan Graham many times in many different settings, I assure you cigars will be the last thing on your mind when she's on stage.  But why not have that information out in the world? Why not give audiences the materials to feel like they know the person on stage if that's what they need to begin to relate to the music?

I think classical music is great. James, Jonathan, Matthew and Michael have all told us here that they think classical music is great. Most people reading this blog probably think classical music is great. But it bears pointing out that most of the population immediately assumes this music is inaccessible to them. There aren't lyrics to relate to, for example, and when there are, they're probably in a different language. Most of what is performed by major orchestras and top soloists was written a hundred or hundreds of years ago; what could that possibly have to do with me? And of course it's true that music written a hundred years ago without lyrics can affect someone, but if a shutting-down, a brushing-off, occurs before even setting foot into a concert hall, how will anyone new ever discover this?

My sister Aliza, frequently utilized and referenced on this blog as A Shining Beacon of Pop Culture Knowledge and All-Around Normality, has been reading our discussion this week. She e mailed to ask when Jonathan was next playing in New York. "February 10th at the 92 Street Y," I told her. "Are you going?" "Yup." "Can I come? I'm curious to see him play." She has no musical reason for going to this concert, but in a delicious irony was intrigued by someone who wrote that he hopes his performance will have nothing to do with himself. Far from being an obstacle to understanding the music, the person, for Aliza, is the way into it. Can she have a great experience solely because she "knows" Jonathan and having nothing to do with his playing? Will "knowing" him, however little, actually help with the appreciating of the playing, or is its only usefulness getting her in the door and then his playing is on its own to win her over for the long-term? And among these things, what is he, as a performer, comfortable with, and does he even have the right to judge?

I had a decidedly unsuccessful career as a high school swim team member. Mostly I stood on the deck and cheered (publicist?), but occasionally they'd let me take part in a relay.  And relays were the most exciting part of the meets: so much drama and energy and team spirit. Leads could be lost and regained, false starts abounded, the other three participants got to stand right there around the block and cheer - it was great.  Throughout this week, I've been thinking that this whole process is a bit like a relay race. We hope the manager can get us a healthy lead, the presenter takes it from there, the publicist and journalist set up the big finish, and the musician, the anchor, brings it on home. Sure, everyone's relay team is different, and depending on the situation some legs are stronger than others, but throughout, communication, passion and lots of hard work are key. Which is why I want to thank our four virtual panelists--James Egelhofer, Jonathan Biss, Matthew Guerrieri and Michael Kondziolka--for taking time out of their already over-saturated schedules to participate this week. Now get back to work!


Jonathan responds to this post in the comments.
January 23, 2010 8:05 AM | | Comments (5)
Wow...so many complex questions...and so little time this week.


She IS a cruel, cruel blog-mistress.  (I think I like it.)
 
Seriously, as I divulged in my first post (ever), I am new to this blogging thing.  So...up went my first submission Monday night...next thing I know, it's Thursday, and the tidal wave of commentary has hit.  I will try to get caught up now by addressing some of the pointed questions to me...and some of the more general ideas bandied about.  Let the jibber-jabber begin.
 
Amanda asked:
 
I'm interested to hear from Michael about how well he feels he knows the artists he brings to Ann Arbor, since he spends short but concentrated amounts of time with them.
 
Hmmmm....the dreaded and nuanced meaning of the word "know".    If you mean "as people":  very well; uncomfortably well (really); kinda well; not at all - the entire spectrum.  If you mean "as artists" then I would like to think that knowing in the sense that I am familiar with a person's artistry minimally reaches the "kinda well" threshold, but there too, I sometimes take risks by committing to someone whose work I less than "kinda know", but have other reasons to be curious about.  Personally knowing an artist and developing a relationship can be a double-edged sword.  At times very rewarding, sometimes humbling, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes beside the point.  (I certainly don't need to recount the bubble-bursting experience that we all have probably had in some fashion when meeting someone whose work we really respect and learning that he or she is a _____________.)  I ALWAYS try and separate the work from the person.  Honestly though, I am also aware that the truly less-than-pleasant often have to ultimately jump through a higher hoop when it comes to a return engagement.  And jump they do...and jump we do.  After all, when it's good...it's good.
 
This knowing question becomes more complex the more I ponder it.  Upon the five minutes of reflection I have just engaged in, I do make two very big distinctions when it comes to the importance of personally knowing an artist: 
 
1) is the artist essentially interpretive or creative.  Ultimately, I need to know far less about the inner-workings or sensibilities of an interpretive artist than I do a creative artist.  With an interpretive artist, the proof is in the interpretive pudding; with a creative artist, I often times find myself in a position of wanting to support his/her "new work" or "next project" - composer, improvisatory player, dance maker, performance artist -- and final decision making is often times based on a personal discussion of ideas or intent.  I certainly don't intend for this to sound so black and white.  OF COURSE, this can also be critical in working with interpretive artists as well, especially when it comes to project-based or conceptual work, but it is MORE critical with the former; 
 
2) is the artist already established on a clear career path...or just starting out?  Younger performers, regardless of their interpretive OR creative endeavor, demand our (presenter's) attention as they need sounding boards, mentors, experts, colleagues...."professional friends".
 
AND all this being said, a good presenter is ALWAYS a good host...period.  And the process of getting to know one another which is the result, I am happy to report, is most often a joy.
 
Interestingly, this forum does offer a kind of remove from the charged world of the performance environment within which to ask questions...so, I can't resist Jonathan:  How important is it to you to get to know a presenter who has invited you to play for their audience?  (Full disclosure everyone:  the last time Jonathan was in Ann Arbor, I was traveling and missed his Hill Auditorium recital, and have never MET him...I do not KNOW him personally.)
 
 
Then, O Mistress Mine posed:
 
So to our esteemed virtual panel I ask, whose responsibility is it to make a concert special? The artist's? Their manager's? The presenter's? The PR and Marketing departments'? The production team's? Or maybe we should all stay out of it and let concert-goers decide for themselves what's special to them; perhaps our versions or what's going to be special shouldn't factor in at all. Should concerts even be considered special occasions, or would it be better for the industry if they were part of people's everyday lives?
 
Shucks...more gray.  Everyone plays a role, of course.  Remember, it takes a village.  YES, manager communicate critical planning info, and PR and marketing departments disseminate, frame and voice that info to ensure that an audience arrives at the special event.  That is of no small importance...but also seems pretty obvious.  Less clear, but very important, I believe, is the role of the production department in making the event rise above the ordinary.  Care and understanding backstage can make or break an event; respect for the extraordinary demands placed on an artist when he or she walks on stage is of paramount importance.  (I know, it all sounds a little precious maybe...but I actually believe this is true.  And I see the fruit that this approach bears over and over again in my own auditorium.)  I have also always pretty much sympathized with those dreaded diva shenanigans backstage as either veiled nerves OR the necessary need to command an inner authority before walking into that pool of light.  Speaking of light...production departments can also make all the difference to the audience's sense of specialness when it comes to the stage look.  One of my fellow guest bloggers talked about "special lighting" as an enhancer...it's a no brainer...and can really imprint a "memory picture" of that which is otherwise ephemeral.
 
Manger...check; PR/Marketing...check; production dept...check.
 
That brings us to artist's and audience member's responsibility to this specialness equation. One easy...and for me, appropriate answer, is that we can never really know...thus all the wonderful flailing about on this blog in an attempt to answer the question.  I guess that the fact that it IS ultimately an unanswerable mystery is one of the reasons it is so cherish by some...me included.  But, not to let myself off the hook too easily, there are certainly things that we know are part of this murky equation:
 
Beyond being ABLE to communicate something, the artist has to HAVE something to communicate...or, put another way, musically voice some kind of opinion...have a point of view...about his/her chosen repertoire.  This almost always comes across as a kind of performative conviction that demands attention.  Artists shouldn't perform music they don't ultimately care about...even if the repertoire "makes for a good program".  Audiences can smell ambivalence.  I would much rather hear a "lesser" performer launch into something they really care about, than one of the greats "phone it in."  This might seem like too obvious a point...but...I see it all the time.  (LMO, indeed.)
 
But, I think that the whole calculus for "achieving a sense of specialness" is placed too heavily on the artist's shoulders. (An interesting audience values and impact research study my organization helped commission referred to this achieved specialness as "flow"...WOW!!)  The one thing that is clear is that it is a 50/50 proposition...artist/audience member...and that there are many contributing factors well beyond the performance that play a role. 
 
I am pretty surprised how unaware audience members are of their own responsibility in preparing themselves to possibly have a special experience.  (Or their own culpability in undermining it.)   The process of opening one's self up to the experience...in my mind it is a kind of "unclenching"...is hard, and getting harder it seems.  Helping audience members understand that they need to meet an artist half way is a start.  (I take a lot of grief from some colleagues because I need to be at the theater early to ensure that I have a buffer of time to "let go" and prepare myself for the performance.  I see it as my responsibility in meeting the performer half way.)  And then there are the extra-musical, circumstantial, knowledge-based, and serendipitous things that intervene that also add up to the memorable experience.  For some of us, it is hard to accept that sometimes it has NOTHING to do with the music.
 
And what about perceived and real value and its role in the specialness equation?  I am not sure if when one adjusts ticket prices from current day dollar values and compares them to the past, if they are truly MORE expensive...but it certainly seems so.  And when an experience is fundamentally MORE expensive and, therefore, NEEDS to be assigned more value in dollar terms...what kind of pressure is that putting on the experience to be special.  The currency of time seems to also be at an increasing premium...therefore, more specialness pressure.
 
Enough flailing for the night...
 
A special shout out, though, to Matthew and his reminding us of the radical nature of the continuum that we all connect with every time we sit at a concert house listening to "classical" music....or, really, music period.  It is one of favorite things about going to concerts...the imagining I find myself lost in...it feels like time travel to me...those who listened before me...those who sat in my seat once upon a time...and, yes, those who will listen in the future.  It makes me feel connected in a way that few things do.  So there, even for me, it isn't ALWAYS about the music or performance itself, but sometimes what the music conjures...


Jonathan responds to this post in the comments.
January 21, 2010 10:46 PM | | Comments (2)
Jonathan asked:
[G]iven your desire for each audience member to have an authentic, individual experience, who are you writing for when you review concerts, and what do you hope your readers' relationship to your writing is?
Being a critic is weird. All you can really do is write what your own individual reaction is, and hope it has a little bit of resonance with a reader or two. I think if you try to anticipate the reader's response--by either deliberately going with the flow, or going against it--you turn into either the worst kind of shill, or the worst kind of scold. So I guess I'm writing for people who are interested in expanding their own listening technique by eavesdropping on how someone else does it. I don't think my ears are any better than anyone else's, but they've at least had more practice than most, so I try and articulate exactly what it is I listen for, what I notice, how much historical information I think is worth bringing to the table. I think one learns to listen the same way someone learns to compose--you start off with a vague sense of what you like, then you try a bunch of different things in order to hone in on it. And those things can and do include flat-out imitation. I tried on a lot of other people's ears via criticism when I was working out my own relationship with music.

I think that gets back to that tension between inherent specialness and manufactured specialness. One of the things that's inherently special about classical music is that it has a lot of history, and that a lot of that history never becomes obsolescent. It's the sort of thing that often gets rather fuzzily incorporated into the the term "timeless," or pejoratively incorporated into the term "old." But I think that aspect of classical music is one of the most radical things about it, the fact that it puts you into such a wild and far-reaching continuum--that a lot of those ears I can try on so effortlessly are listening from vantage points decades or centuries away from mine. Frankly, I like being plugged into that much possibility every time I go to a concert. (Whenever I hear Beethoven, for example, I always remember that Friedrich Engels liked Beethoven. Take that, Che-t-shirted hippies!) Jonathan, you were using the term "vessel," which I think hints at that aspect, but give yourself credit: it's more active than that. Performers are like the bioengineers in Jurassic Park. Classical music might be a dinosaur, but bring that dinosaur back to life and let it run amok in present-day culture? I'd say that's a special concert.

Amanda asked
about reviewing a concert of an artist [I've] met or heard significant buzz about versus reviewing a concert of an artist whom [I know] nothing about
This is the risk of "special" concerts--the more hype there is, the more the review is going to be about whether or not the concert lives up to the hype. The risk can pay off--Dudamel, e.g.--but can also distract. (Lang Lang and his sneakers, &c.) There are composers and performers I keep my eye out for because of buzz, but there are also those I keep my eye out for because I happened to hear them and wanted to hear them again. And I'm more likely to take or create the opportunity for promotion in the second category. The trick then, maybe, is generating enough specialness to get people in the door but not so much that it gets in the way of making fans within the concert, because that does more in the long term. Personality can certainly get people in the door, but if you can't channel that personality into a memorable musical experience, it'll only get them in the door once.

Incidentally--Moe is the actual dog. "Soho the Dog" was lifted from Sir Michael Tippett--not so incidentally, a musician who really knew how to let his personality shine through in his work. (And be careful asking for a conversation on Boccanegra--I can blather on for hours.)
January 21, 2010 2:39 PM | | Comments (1)
Anne Midgette weighs in on the discussion over on her blog The Classical Beat:

I do think it's unfortunate, though, when there's no sense of a person behind the playing. Classical music can suffer from a sense of entitlement: there's an idea that the music is so great it's enough just to play it, and everyone should be in awe. Yes: the music is that great. That's precisely why the performer has to work so hard to delve into it, to bring it across, to make it more than merely notes executed well. (The same thing, incidentally, holds true of reviews: in an ideal world they should be more than merely obedient reports.) As for the extra-musical aspect: historically, audiences have always been hugely interested in the figure of the performer on a personal level. To say that this aspect should be off-limits, or is not relevant, is to draw an artificial boundary.

But how far, in our age of media saturation, do you go? Are people in Washington this month going to be more likely to go hear Jeremy Denk if they read his blog (they should!), or Augustin Hadelich if they know he was badly burned in a house fire when he was in his teens, or Anne Schwanewilms if they know that she was involved in the story of Deborah Voigt and the little black dress? Even more to the point, for marketers: How do you distinguish Garrick Ohlsson from Emanuel Ax in the season brochure in a way that would help a first-time ticket buyer to understand which of the two he might rather hear? (That question is usually answered, in practice, with the egregious overuse of terms like "great," or "leading pianist of his generation.") 

Click here for Anne's entire Smart-and-Good-As-Always post. 

January 21, 2010 2:22 PM | | Comments (3)
Amanda is, as she says, the Blog Mistress, so I'm starting by responding to her latest post. (I'm also going to try to fold as many points as possible into this post as it may be my last - I don't have any more transatlantic flights this week which will provide me with hours to write/a valid excuse not to practice.)

In answering Amanda's question about where the responsibility for making concert presentations special lies, I'm going to return to one of my original points (fine, OK, Alex Ross' point, which I seem to have unofficially co-opted): the presentation doesn't have to be "special," or different -- it has to be musical, and in making that the case, there is responsibility on all sides, but the buck stops with the artist. This means thinking about many things. One (and this is Alex's specific example - I hope we don't get into a copyright situation) is lighting, which can create or destroy an atmosphere, and should not, to use an obvious example, be bright and clinical when the subject of the music is death (and perhaps transfiguration). Another is applause: it seems clear to me that there are certain pieces which are entered into more effectively from silence than from a room full of clapping, and other pieces which lead into silence, and should be concluded that way. One can make these requests of an audience, and at the very least, it will force them to listen differently, and just as importantly, think differently about what it means to listen -- really listen.

The most important aspect of this, I think, is programming. A good program - a musical program - should be constructed in such a way that one's hearing of each piece is -- altered? enhanced? challenged, I think -- by what came before it and what comes after. This doesn't mean that every program has to be all over the map: to address Alex Benjamin's comment, the last 3 Beethoven Sonatas make for an extraordinary listening experience, in part because of a certain uniformity of extraordinary language. But each of the last 3 Beethoven Sonatas threw down a kind of gauntlet for all piano music that came after it, and it is in fact extremely easy to find 19th/20th/21st century music of an inarguably high quality which makes for an arresting pairing with any one of the three. (And a serious fringe benefit is that the diversity serves the artist as well: playing new music will deepen your understanding of late Beethoven, and vice versa. Or: what's good for the listener is good for the player.)

But before leaving this topic, I have to say, beating a dying horse, that I found it slightly dispiriting that Amanda's LMO list included lighting, program books, artist appearance, and usher attire, but made no reference to the way the music sounded. Because my feeling is that while all of these issues are important, they are side issues. Or: If the playing was memorable, the concert was not LMO; If the playing was not memorable, none of the rest of this is going to be make the slightest bit of difference.

Switching gears, I'd like to turn my attention to Matthew's excellent post. I share many of the same concerns, particularly about the many ways listeners' expectations are manufactured. I think often about how to give an audience useful context for what they are going to hear, without telling them what they should think/feel about it. It's a tightrope act, honestly.

So here are my questions: given your desire for each audience member to have an authentic, individual experience, for whom are you writing when you review concerts, and what do you hope your readers' relationship to your writing is? I hope it doesn't seem impertinent to ask. It's just that I've always been fascinated by criticism -- musical and otherwise -- but I've never seen a discussion of its aims, and I think this could be a great forum for it.

Once that's out of the way, we can talk about Simon Boccanegra, my hope that you'll create a cartoon for this week's discussion, and the vexing question of whether your dog is named Moe or Soho.


James responds to this post, and then Jonathan responds to him, in the comments.
January 21, 2010 12:32 PM | | Comments (2)
If I may--and I may, because I am the Blog Mistress--I'd like to steer the conversation toward classical music concert presentations. If I may--and again, I may---I'm going to quote my own blog entry from November:

I saw three excellent classical pianists last week: Jonathan Biss, who performed at the club (le) poisson rouge with my client Gabriel Kahane, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Pierre Laurent Aimard, both of whom played at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. I went in knowing two out of three would be "special."

Let's start with concerts that I was told would be special. The Jonathan Biss CD release concert (for this album) featured an opening set of Gabriel's original chamber pop-ish songs, Jonathan playing Janacek, Kurtag and Schubert, and finally Jonathan and Gabriel performing Schubert songs together. I would say the venue, set-up of the concert, and repertoire choices were what "promised" to make the evening special. What actually made it special, to me, was the reverence of an audience that included Richard Goode, Gary Graffman and my other client Eric Owens for all the music heard that night nearly equally. In the Leif Ove Andsnes' Pictures Reframed concerts on Friday and Saturday nights at Alice Tully, Andsnes performed Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," among other works, accompanied by projections by South African video artist Robin Rhode. What "promised" to make these concerts special was six massive screens, the projections themselves, and Andsnes' reputation for not doing "crazy" projects like this one (and yet, here he was). What made it special, to me, was how dark it was in the theater and a story Andsnes told in the post concert discussion about a Russian pianist who started playing recitals with just a desk lamp on the instrument.
Is a pianist-on-a-bare-stage-playing-a-recital-with-regular-lighting special? I suppose you could end up sitting next to the person you're going to marry, and then it would be retroactively special. But on its own, is it special?

My friend Christine from college had the same last name as the Dean of Admissions, and because of the way the Dartmouth e mail (ahem, "Blitzmail") system autofilled names, she was the recipient of many amazingly inappropriate mails. Which naturally she forwarded to all of us. There was one e mail about some applicant with connections in which the dean wrote, "This is strong, but as we say, LMO: Like Many Others."

How many concerts have you seen in the past month (week?) that were LMO? Similar looking musicians? Same repertoire? Same lighting, stage set-up, program book layout? Similarly dressed ushers? Same CDs in the gift shop?  How do classical critics stand it, I often wonder.

So to our esteemed virtual panel I ask, whose responsibility is it to make a concert special? The artist's? Their manager's? The presenter's? The PR and Marketing departments'? The production team's? Or maybe we should all stay out of it and let concert-goers decide for themselves what's special to them; perhaps our versions or what's going to be special shouldn't factor in at all. Should concerts even be considered special occasions, or would it be better for the industry if they were part of people's everyday lives?
January 21, 2010 10:44 AM | | Comments (3)
If you're just joining us now for the virtual panel on specialness that friends and colleagues have described to me as "intense," "required reading," and "wordy," here's what's been going on this week. If you could hear Benjamin Linus' voice in your head when you read this, that would be great.

Previously, on Life's a Pitch.

Jonathan issued a throwdown about how the human interest press publicists dream of actually distracts audiences from the music. He writes, "the more of a persona the person onstage has cultivated, the harder it is for this magical disappearance to take place." After I punch some hanging meat and run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum, I will respond to that. I asked Matthew if the competition for concert and album press coverage essentially tells audiences and buyers what's special in the same way a marketing brochure does. He responded in a comment that most of his preview pieces were actually assigned by an editor, and that even when a performer or performance is profiled, he approaches the subject from a musical standpoint.  James and Jonathan were asked to what extent a manager needs to know things about his or her clients beyond their repertoire and playing. James explained that an artist's priorities--musical, career, personal--are what matters most in his managing of their career. He also points out that managers and bookers need to know presenters' priorities as well. Jonathan responded in a comment that while he does discuss non-musical aspects of his life with his manager of 13 years, he is unsure how those conversations factor in to her discussions with presenters. I'm interested to hear from Michael about how well he feels he knows the artists he brings to Ann Arbor, since he spends short but concentrated amounts of time with them. James also responds to Jonathan's post on audiences knowing artists, writing, "there are performers who are terrifically in demand about whom we know practically nothing of their lives outside of performance and who do not bring that kind of potentially-obstructive personality to the stage, and there are commercially more-than-viable performers who have chosen to make their persona an open book in everything they do."  Maybe Matthew can weigh in about reviewing a concert of an artist he's met or heard significant buzz about versus reviewing a concert of an artist whom he knows nothing about.

Let the smoke monsters, polar bears, and ghosts of Jack's dad commence.
January 21, 2010 9:43 AM | | Comments (1)
In response to Amanda's question (James: to what extent do you feel knowing about your clients' both musical and non-musical pursuits helps you pitch them to presenters? What prepares you to defend their uniqueness, or sometimes, is uniqueness not what a presenter is looking for?), I have to start with my favorite dodge away from oversimplification: it depends.

On the most basic level, greater knowledge of what my artists care about is always helpful to me.  It helps me talk to them, it helps me talk about them, it helps me get through the day by reminding me what we're all after.  However, beyond that most basic level, it gets far more complicated, because they all care about different things; of course they all care foremost about making beautiful music, but every factor that goes into that process has different priority and preference for each of them.  Maybe the most important thing is to focus on the specific repertoire they are most excited about playing at that time, and all else is secondary.  Maybe the most important thing is to work with the conductors and collaborators they most enjoy, and the repertoire can be chosen slightly more broadly.  Maybe the most important thing is to build a schedule around a certain project that takes up a lot of time both in its preparation and its execution, and the simple logistics of scheduling cause that to be the most important factor.  &c.

The bigger and further complication is, as Amanda suggests, that in addition to each artist having differing priorities, each target that we might be pitching to also has its own set of priorities.  I'm sobbingly grateful to the booking agents that I work with, as they are able to keep track of the huge range of possibilities much better than I can; some presenters (more at the moment than I would hope for) must keep their costs as the primary concern and book based on that, others have a very specific audience they're targeting, others have an individual taste based on which they make their decisions, others want to try to be as broad as possible in terms of styles/instruments/repertoire over the course of their seasons.  &c.

So in an attempt to find activity for a particular artist, we try to match up everything we know about that artist or that they want known about them with everything that the pitchees are looking for.  Obviously.  Now you know why managers get the big bucks.  But I hope I've reasonably summarized why this is not as simple as it sounds.  Although I always feel that I could talk for days about what makes each artist unique and why they are doing the things they're doing (musical or not), sometimes the other end of the phone or email might not be interested in nearly that much information.  It may be that I'm speaking to a concert presenter about a younger artist who is not yet on the radar of that presenter, and although there are many interesting and potentially relevant points to discuss, that presenter only has a certain amount of money to spend in their budget and just needs to know that they can find a pianist for that fee.  Or they need a female violinist to play Bach as part of a season-long festival that is weighed too heavily towards male performers at that point.  In these cases, knowledge is always power, but only some of the knowledge might be relevant to the situation.
 
And to look at Jonathan's question for a moment, about (in brief) the kind of special created by a performer acting as a sort of invisible vessel vs the kind of special created by a performer who remains very... um... present? in the act of performance and of everything else they do: this to me is related and part of what I was trying to say in my initial post about trying to separate "special" from a dichotomy.  I think (hope?) that we can all name right now multiple performances that have moved us and fall into one or the other category, and maybe we demonstrate a certain preference in the balance.  But when it comes to the commercial implications of this, it seems to me that it does not sort any more simply than it does in my personal experience-- there are performers who are terrifically in demand about whom we know practically nothing of their lives outside of performance and who do not bring that kind of potentially-obstructive personality to the stage, and there are commercially more-than-viable performers who have chosen to make their persona an open book in everything they do.  With each of these performers, and I've heard a lot of it directly, there are people who CAN'T STAND what they do.  Perhaps it comes down to the very sensitive and individual matter of the emotional conveyance that has been discussed here-- in the end, it is impossible to argue with what people feel, try as I might, and although I may violently disagree or be mystified as why a listener may not feel that an artist I work for is special even if I do, the only way to "win" that "argument" is to hope that they experience the same artist again with a different result.  No amount of talking will do it.
January 20, 2010 2:33 PM | | Comments (1)
Matthew, further to this:

As a critic, I make no bones about the fact that my own taste is highly idiosyncratic, and that I will never, ever be all things to all people. The fact that my own sense of specialness is driven more by repertoire than performer puts me, I know, in the minority, as does the nature of some of that repertoire.
I'm curious if every concert or recording you preview, or every artist you profile, is special to you. As you mention in your post, and as we all know, arts coverage is shrinking. Beyond repertoire, as you write in the excerpt above, what makes you feature one artist, one concert, one album, over another? And in taking the time to preview it, are you not--just as marketing materials are--setting the audience up with some kind of expectation that this event is a cut above the rest?  "This concert was special enough to be previewed in the Boston Globe or on that writer-I-like's blog. If he spent his time on it, maybe I should spend my money on it." I think about listings in places like New York Magazine and Time Out New York; not only is there competition to get a listing in the first place, but then there are the critic's picks, and the expanded listings, and the floating photos to compete for. Levels within media-coverage-levels of what's more special than everything else before anyone even gets to a concert.

Also, how do you write features that you are assigned differently than those you pitch to an editor yourself? That is, what's it like to cover something someone else may deem special but perhaps you do not?

There's also something to be said for competition for reviews. I remember a publicist friend of mine saying a client was going to fire her because all he wanted was a New York Times review, and because of various scheduling conflicts at the Times and other concerts in the city that night, he wasn't getting it. This was an extremely well-established and well-respected artist, but apparently not...whatever...enough to tip the scale. Reviews are assigned at least a week in advance, so basically newspapers decide what's special enough to be covered before seeing anything. Imagine if the New York Times writers could be at every music event in the city one night, and then pitch what should get reviewed to their editor based on what actually happened at the concerts!


Matthew responds to this post in the comments.
January 20, 2010 1:23 PM | | Comments (2)

About

Life's a Pitch Why don't we apply the successful marketing and publicity campaigns we see in our everyday lives to the performing arts? Great ideas are right there, ripe for the emulating. And who's responsible for the wide-reaching problems in ticket sales and audience development? Boring artists? Greedy managers? Overstretched marketing departments? We're beyond debating who owns the problem. Let's fix this thing.
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Amanda Ameer left her position as Publicity Manager at IMG Artists in June 2007 to start First Chair Promotion. She currently represents Hilary Hahn, Gabriel Kahane, The King's Singers, David LangEric Owens, Michael Gordon, Hélène Grimaud, Sondra Radvanovsky and Julia Wolfe, and serves as a consultant to Chamber Music America.
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Archives: 402 entries and counting

A Conversation

Jan 18-22, 2010: I hosted a virtual panel on when and how artists, managers, journalists, presenters and publicists single out musicians for being "special" in their promotion and career-building efforts. Participants included musician, pianist Jonathan Biss; a manager, James Egelhofer at IMG Artists; a critic, Matthew Guerrieri, who blogs at Soho the Dog and writes for the Boston Globe; and a presenter, Michael Kondziolka at University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

- Panel Disband
- One man's obstacle is another's way in
- Oh Mistress Mine...!
- You think they'll have that on the tour?
- The Representative from D.C.

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Now Play It
This site has musicians teaching viewers how to play their most popular songs on the guitar via downloadable video. more
MOMA - Eye on Europe
This microsite for one of MOMA's 2006 exhibitions is a(n extreme) lesson in what can be done digitally for special projects (world premieres?).
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Spoon
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The Metropolitan Opera
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Facebook 
Launched in 2004, Facebook is now the second largest social networking website in the United States (behind MySpace). The free-access website allows users to easily connect and interact with other people, and it is now also possible to create a Facebook profile for an artist, band, brand, or business. Users can add themselves as "fans" of an artist or business, write on an artist/business profile's "Wall," upload photos, and join other fans in discussion groups. more
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