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 wanting Bychkov to do it. (Which, as I mentioned, might simply have been that they needed Bychkov badly, and this is what he wanted to conduct). Thus my question — would readers have wanted the New York Times review to talk about all this?

I got nine responses; eight people said they wanted the inside information. I also asked people in Pittsburgh Symphony audience, when I was in Pittsburgh leading “talkback” sessions, in which the audience gets to talk to the Pittsburgh Symphony. Almost everyone I asked said they wanted the information, too, the only exception being a polished, well-traveled board member, who knows all this stuff himself, but didn’t think others in the audience would care.

In a moment, I’ll quote some of the responses, which were quite compelling. But first, the real reasons why the Philharmonic could afford the change, as communicated to me by a number of people in the industry. First, Dohnanyi’s fee is a lot higher than Bychkov’s. So the substitution saved the Philharmonic money, which could then go to pay the extra brass. But that’s only the beginning. Dohnanyi had planned to conduct the Janacek Sinfonietta, which needs nine extra trumpets! So the orchestra had already budgeted for extra brass, and could schedule the Shostakovich Seventh without losing any sleep at all over money. They were already saving a bundle on the conductor’s fee.

And now the responses. From the person who didn’t want to go behind the scenes:

I do find that there is a preoccupation with the behind the scenes minutiae that inhibits the appreciation of the big picture. Reviewers offer us the option to learn what went on there that night, not during the day, not in the back room, not in the petty fight in the violin section — just what music was made. That is all I want to know about in a review.

And on the other side:

Once a performance is over, details about it are no longer very important, except as they illuminate larger issues — about the piece, the composer, the performers, the music business, etc. It is these larger issues that I think are most interesting, not who sang flat or played out of tune. (Of course, some performance issues lead to these more interesting issues, if you go beyond the bare facts: exploring why the tempo was wrong, why the orchestra doesn’t have a good string sound, or why some wind sounds are better in certain repertories than others, for example.)

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Having ushered every Cleveland Orchestra concert for more than 10 years, I have a pretty good feel for our audience, and I can tell you that people ALWAYS love “inside dope.”

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In addition to classical music, I’m also a sports fan, and sports fans are in my experience always fascinated by the “back room” details — things like how trades get done, why this player is drafted instead of that one, why this play is called instead of that play, why the defense lines up in one formation instead of another, et cetera. I can’t imagine why the classical music press would assume that all classical music lovers are interested in is the music itself, and not interested at all in the mechanics of bringing it to fruition.

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Look at the sports world. How much of any episode of Sports Center is devoted to ‘inside information’? Who’s a free agent? Who’ll they draft? Who got fired? Salary cap?

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Yes, I think they should mention it — if I saw an article like that, it would make me think “hmm, maybe this isn’t going to come my way any time soon again, since it’s so expensive”, and it would add an extra incentive to attend the concert.

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I would love to know when “extramusical” factors influenced the programming of a major orchestra such as the NY Phil.  In these straitened economic times, it would be worth knowing that an orchestra dug into its pockets to perform a piece of music that wasn’t part of its budget to accommodate an artist who was helping out the orchestra.  [Not to mention that] the writer will have missed a great story – talk about burying your lead!

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Greg, I personally believe that the audience is (or at least, can be) interested in this type of thing. It’s the newspapers that aren’t – unless there’s controversy, of course.

To that last response I’d add that, in my experience, people who write about classical music may not know the inside details, because they don’t know much about how the business works. So they don’t tell readers what’s really going on because they themselves don’t know.

I like the sports analogies, and often make them myself. But I also remember what Entertainment Weekly was like, when I worked there first as music critic, and then as senior music editor. Their readers just loved to read about what went on behind the scenes in movies, TV, and pop music. I can’t understand why classical music fans should be any different — especially since these backstage things often explain the musical choices that classical music organizations make.

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