Marginalized

Here’s a comment from Eric Lin, a college student, to my “Why I’m Here” post. I’m giving it a post of its own, because I think it’s important:

There is some overlap between the theater folks and the classical music folks at the school I currently attend, and I happen to have worked and know people in both circles.

This season, student dramatic productions include works by Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Sondheim, a Mac Wellman play from the mid-1990s, and The Front Page, a comedy from the 1920s. This is not including the bi-annual productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakespeare. Sarah Kane’s controversial Blasted and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses from 2002 both graced the main theatrical venue…

On the other hand, what has the classical music scene done? One orchestra does a composition contest each year and another chamber strings group generally does some student work, and I’m quite grateful that these opportunities exist. But beyond this?

The pattern is quite obvious. Theater types go around talking excitedly about the crazy Sarah Kane play. Sondheim productions are events. For the actor, yes, Shakespeare is great. But I certainly don’t hear many (or any) person going around talking about how Shakespeare is better than Miller or Albee. That sort of distinction just doesn’t register with them. It doesn’t make sense. Albee’s plays are great too…but for different reasons. Further, and more importantly, the plays are mostly chosen by THE STUDENTS themselves. People actively recruit teams of production staff to put together an Albee play. And people are genuinely excited to do a play/musical because they picked it.

Classical music? The new commission for the orchestra (if there is one at all) is usually treated like its spinach. The Classical music equivalents of Albees and Kanes barely register with the performers, let alone the larger community. Why? The performers don’t know about them. So how can they get excited about their music?

Whereas your average theater geek with know who Edward Albee is, chances are the violinist in the orchestra will not know who Thomas Ades or Helmut Lachenmann is. Or care.

Whereas Shakespeare and Albee are equals, Beethoven and Birtwistle are not. At least not for the practitioners. Until these attitudes change, Classical music is and will be marginalized.

When I posted the comment, I added an anecdote of my own. I know a consultant who’s worked with theater companies and orchestras. He told me once — with real perplexity — that if he’s in a theater company’s office the day after a new production premieres, everybody talks about it. Everyone debates the play, the acting, the directing, the sets, the costumes, whatever.

But when he’s in an orchestra office the day after a concert, nobody says a word. The concert just as well might not have happened.

This doesn’t mean that many people, in the audience and on the orchestra’s staff, might not have loved the concert. But in a very tangible way, classical concerts are non-events. If the people most directly involved can’t get aroused to talk about them, why would anybody else?

 

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Comments

  1. Yvonne says

    Seth is right: it’s easier to talk about a primarily verbal art form with easily articulated ideas than to talk about instrumental music.

    But I also want to add my experience, some of which is very different to what you describe (Greg’s “consultant”, that is, not Eric). I’ve never worked in a theatre company, so I can’t make a direct comparison, only report what I’ve observed in and around orchestras.

    American period instrument orchestra: very lively informal discussion of concerts – comparing performances of the same program, audience reception, style of presentation, effect of venue, discussing the program itself, comparing to similar programs in the past. (The matter of staff not attending was moot – we all “worked” the concert in various ways.)

    Major Midwestern orchestra (not an employer): I was shocked to learn that comp tickets weren’t provided for musicians and general staff. (This may have relaxed more recently.)

    Australian symphony orchestra: All admin staff (not just “artistic” staff) encouraged to attend as many concerts as possible and comps provided accordingly, with the exception of performances that sell out. Staff do talk about the concerts and their reactions to them, compare notes with colleagues who attended different performances, dispute (or agree with) the reviews. The discussion can be especially stimulating because participants will range from the aforementioned artistic staff and musical experts to people who’ve maybe heard the piece or those artists for the first time or who are relatively new to orchestral concerts. Critical opinions are formed and defended. And it’s one of the things that makes working for an orchestra so enjoyable. Just sayin’…

    ["Wheeling southward" was my Captcha phrase – seems apt.]

    Psychic capchas — we’re a full-service blogsite!

    I did a project once with the staff of the Pittsburgh Symphony — worked with them on how to talk about music. Even the goth kids who did telemarketing in a basement somewhere came. And the staff people — without any background in classical music, in many cases — talked wonderfully. Better than most published critics.

    I can imagine, though, that there was no followup, and the goth kids retreated to their basement, with no more interest in going to concerts than they’d had before the session. I’ve often said that the staff of big orchestras are a perfect focus group for new initiatives, and for understanding why people in their 20s and 30s are generally not coming.

    Interesting that the staff at your orchestra are in second place for concertgoing. Ticketbuyers come first. I understand why that is, but at the same time I’d think the orchestra should move heaven and earth to get its staff at concerts. Do you want a motivated team, or mere employees? I don’t mean to be harsh about this, and of course I’m not directly in touch with the situation, as you are, so maybe my words are too strong. Still, I’d think that the sold-out concerts are exactly the ones you’d want the staff at, because they might be the most exciting. (And yes, I know that popular appeal and artistic strength don’t always mesh, but when they do, it’s explosive.)

  2. Marko Velikonja says

    There’s one simple (though not definitive) explanation why people in theatre talk about the new work the next day, and at the orchestra they don’t: A major orchestra plays 24-30 subscription programs a year and probably 50 or more different programs overall. And rarely plays the same program more than four times. To put it sort of crassly, it’s crank it out and move on to the next thing. Most theatre companies do, what, 5-10 productions in a season? And they may do 10 or more performances of each one. Each one is more of an event because it took a lot more production and investment to get it onstage, and each constitutes a bigger part of each season. Plus, PR and reviews are more likely to be geared toward that particular production and attendance probably depend more on both than does an orchestra’s typical subscription program. But a new piece on a symphony concert is more likely to be lost in the shuffle, and even if it’s deserving of buzz, it’s not clear who will benefit from it. Unfortunately, orchestras are usually lousy at exploiting their successes.

    None of this is meant to suggest that I don’t agree with what Eric Lin said above. But there is another possible reason for the divergent experiences between music and theatre: new music may be much more likely to be a dud. Sure, there are lousy plays, but plays are usually about plots, and words(I’m sure there are exceptions, but bear with me). Music can be about nothing (and not in the hilarious Seinfeldian way), and a lot of new music, that hasn’t yet passed the test of time, just isn’t very satisfying to play. So I completely understand why students in a college orchestra would probably get more excited about taking on Mahler 5 than a new piece by even a highly-regarded modern composer, while their theatre counterparts are excited about a recent Albee play or even something written especially for them.

    All true, Marko, and very well observed.

    Still, there’s something sad about this. From one point of view, what you’re saying is that classical music — big-orchestra version — can be unremarkable, even boring. If all these concerts, these many orchestral subscription series, aren’t worth talking about, why do them? Maybe, in a better world, an orchestra that did 20 new programs each year would have its staff even more aroused than the staff of a theater company that did five productions. There’d be more to talk about.

    And, yes, new pieces can be duds (I’ve heard more than my share, and possibly even written some). But my sense is that a dud new classical piece is harder to endure than a bad new movie, which would last far longer. I suspect that’s because new classical pieces don’t mesh with many peoples’ culture, so if they don’t strike any chord, for whatever reason (including being just plain bad), many people don’t have patience with them. Or, to put it differently, new classical pieces on one hand aren’t meant as entertainment, in which case we could forgive them if they failed, and on the other hand don’t often try to do anything really powerful, and which would connect to our lives, in which case we at least could care that they’d tried.

  3. Yvonne says

    «Interesting that the staff at your orchestra are in second place for concertgoing. Ticketbuyers come first. I understand why that is, but at the same time I’d think the orchestra should move heaven and earth to get its staff at concerts. Do you want a motivated team, or mere employees? I don’t mean to be harsh about this, and of course I’m not directly in touch with the situation, as you are, so maybe my words are too strong. Still, I’d think that the sold-out concerts are exactly the ones you’d want the staff at, because they might be the most exciting. (And yes, I know that popular appeal and artistic strength don’t always mesh, but when they do, it’s explosive.)»

    I’m confused. Or perhaps it was simply that I didn’t express myself very clearly. Your reaction does seem a bit strong.

    Yes, absolutely, staff come second when there’s a choice between selling the last ticket to a member of our public who wants to attend a concert or finding a comp for a staff member. In many cases staff can still hear the program, just on a less popular day/time or in rehearsal, or they’re offered the “least desirable” seats (which are sometimes acoustically very good). And there is a generous staff discount for when something is outrageously popular.

    But my point was that I believe the orchestra in question to be a very good example of encouraging staff to attend concerts and providing the means for that (no limits or quotas), and nearly all staff do attend as a result. Some more frequently than others, of course, but there’s never a sense of not being able to be there or, worse, complete lack of interest.

    Above all, my point was that there are many office discussions about concerts, and that’s because people are interested and they’re attending them.

    Yes, I think my reaction was too strong, especially since I’m making judgments at such a great distance. Apologies.

    And I do understand why ticket-buyers would come first. I’m glad everybody talks about the concerts, and would love to know more about how that happens, and what gets said. I haven’t noticed anything like that at American orchestras I’ve worked with, or heard about, but maybe I’m missing something in my own country, too.

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