Terrific ideas

All week I've been part of a blog on the future of orchestras. This hasn't been public; it's for people taking part in the Mellon Foundation's Orchestra Forum, a long-term funding project involving 14 orchestras, which is about to half its semi-annual retreat. The blog (moderated, and wonderfully, by ArtsJournal's own Doug McClennan) was meant to focus everyone on the subjects to be discussed at the retreat, and I'm sure it did that. Generalities aside, this means I had a week of blogging with orchestra administrators, board members, and … [Read more...]

Encounter with reality

So, after all the Orchestra Forum blogging, all that writing, and even more striking for me, all that reading of everyone's exciting thoughts…I went to an orchestra concert. The Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie Hall. My first reaction? "My God, why are they dressed like that?" Now of course this isn't a criticism of the Baltimore Symphony. Any orchestra on that stage would have been dressed the same way. And this wasn't a considered reaction. It came right from my gut, and took me by surprise. I wasn't taking a posiition, intellectual or … [Read more...]

Philly record deal

I'm grateful for Peter Dobrin's fine reporting in his Philadelphia Inquirer story about the Philadelphia Orchestra's new record deal. I'm sure some people want the meaning of the story to be something like, "Philadelphia Orchestra Gets Record Contract." After years in the desert, with no record deal, the orchestra has reversed the trend in the industry and now has a contract with the Finnish Ondine label, etc., etc., etc. Ondine, of course, is not quite Columbia Masterworks, which for decades recorded the Philadelphia Orchestra in the full … [Read more...]

Indie rock

Three notable newspaper stories, in the past few days. 1. The Boston Globe, April 24. Indie rock is thriving. Terrific bands, exposure on TV shows, buzz spreading on the Internet, six-figure sales, which in the case of Death Cab for Cutie are now ten times larger than they used to be. All this largely without commercial radio play. ''The Internet is challenging the corporate clutch on both radio and retail," says the founder of Kill Rock Stars, an independent label. 2. The New York Times, today (April 28). Radio won't play current rock any … [Read more...]

Question responses

A couple of weeks ago I asked a question -- how many people would like to see more inside information in reviews and other writing about classical music? As an example, I told a story from the New York Philharmonic. Semyon Bychkov had replaced Christoph von Dohnanyi one weekend, and had substituted the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony for most of the music Dohnanyi had planned to conduct. The Shostakovich, though, is a very expensive piece, because it needs many extra brass players, and so the Philharmonic must have had some special reason for … [Read more...]

Why Muti?

Yes, he's glamorous. Yes, he's polished. Yes, he's a wizard of the podium, or some such hackneyed thing. And yes, he's full of larger than life energy. But does anybody really want to hear him? Or, more to the point, will they want to keep on hearing him? What music do we identify him with? Itallian opera. This isn't a criticism, merely a fact. That's the repertoire he's best known for. And otherwise, well, sure, he conducts other things, but do many of us have any sense of what he does with them? Are any of us looking forward to Muti's … [Read more...]

Something good

I've been very critical of classical music press releases, which typically say nothing that would give me or anybody else -- and especially someone new to classical music -- any reason to go to the concerts they publicize. Biographies of classical musicians -- the ones we find on press releases, and in program books -- have the same problem. They're deadly. Long blank lists of distinctions and superlatives, and never anything to tell you what kind of artist the musician in question might be. This gets especially annoying when the musician is … [Read more...]

Why classical music might die (still more)

I'm looking at the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, today's edition (it's April 17). The lead story -- "The Long Goodbye: Why the most celebrated departures in njetwork news are still some of the most visible faces on television" -- doesn't concern me here. We all know what it's about, and I don't see a classical music connection. (Hmm…why are the most celebrated dead composers still some of the most visible voices in concert halls? But let's move on.) What does interest me are the other two front-page stories: The Strangest … [Read more...]

Another reason classical music might die

Here are thoughts from the opening pages of Paul Light's book, High Performance: How Robust Organizations Achieve Extraordinary Results. It summarizes lessons learned from more than 10,000 studies done over many years by the RAND Corporation, and it's fascinating to read. (How did Volvo, which hadn't changed its ways in many years, figure out how to introduce a successful SUV? Why did Pearl Harbor take the U.S. by surprise, when all the information necessary to suspect that an attack was coming was available?) One of the book's mantras is that … [Read more...]

Sobering statistics

One way to define the classical music crisis is in terms of shrinkage, starting to happen now, and maybe accelerating in the future -- shrinkage of the number of people interested in classical music, and thus in the market for it, and then in the organizations that perform it. So for anyone who thinks this is a danger, or, worse, even a reality right now, a story linked on ArtsJournal yesterday is really sobering. It's from the Chicago Sun-Times (their music critic, Wynne Delacoma wrote it), and it's about staff cutbacks at the … [Read more...]

Music students — another way the crisis hits?

Here's something I might add to my list of ways that classical music is in crisis: Even music students now don't seem to have the same interest in classical music that students used to have, years ago. (And as they did when I was a graduate student in composition at the Yale School of Music, from 1972 to 1974). A fair number of my Juilliard students say they never listen to classical music. Of course, they play it all day, and maybe that explains why they don't want to listen when they're not playing. But some of them show no curiosity about … [Read more...]

Depressing CD

I was browsing in Coliseum Books, a very fine and serious bookstore in New York, and I noticed that they sell a few CDs. Some were fascinating compilations from the All-Music Guide (African rap, for instance), and some were low-rent, like a two-CD collection of Sousa marches with nothing on the box to say who played them. But the worst, the nadir, the rock bottom was something called Classical Music for the Reader, which claims to feature "specially selected triumphs in classical music appealing specifically to the dedicated reader." And so … [Read more...]

Striking photos

And speaking of Pittsburgh (see two posts earlier), the Symphony has marvelous photos of its musicians, which is uses, in effect, to brand the orchestra. They're all in a delightful book, posed in groups by sections, and individually. And then they're used on the cover of the program book, on posters outside Heinz Hall, where the Symphony plays, and in cutouts standing in various places inside the hall. Here's one of them, showing the oboists, from a program book cover a few months ago. It's friendly, human, inviting, easily the best cover … [Read more...]

Setting the record straight

Some time ago I wrote about two newspaper articles, one from San Francisco, the other from Cincinnati. Both, I said, seemed to be saying that musical organizations (the San Francisco Opera and the Cincinnati Symphony) were in improved financial shape, when in fact details of the stories made it clear that both were still in trouble. I wondered why the press sometimes seems to go easy on major classical music institutions. But I'm happy to say that the Cincinnati article misled me. Janelle Gelfand, the music critic at the Cincinnati Enquirer, … [Read more...]

Audience participation

I was just in Pittsburgh, where I did the last of my "Symphony with a Splash" concerts this season. We shaved someone's head on stage during the Bacchanal from Samson and Dalilah. We asked for volunteers from the audience, and got several, including one player from the Pittsburgh Steelers! I picked someone else, though, who'd caught my eye the moment he stood up. Our haircutter was both expert and theatrical. She actually shaved the guy's head in rhythm with the music, and paced herself so she'd finish with a flourish, just as the music … [Read more...]