Empty branding

The New York Philharmonic supports WNYC, New York’s public radio station. And so they get little quasi-commercials sprinkled into the station’s shows. In which they tout Alan Gilbert as the first Philharmonic music director born and bred in New York.

And so now I must tell my friends at the Philharmonic that this is pointless. If Alan Gilbert comes from New York, what difference does that make?

Just about none, I’d think. Because it’s not as if Alan — in his work as music director, in his programming, for instance, or for that matter in anything he projects personally — comes off as a New Yorker. Or even as someone with any special interest in New York. Which isn’t a problem, in itself, because he can be whatever he wants to be. But if the Philharmonic wants to market him as a New Yorker, then it matters if he doesn’t smell or taste like one.

And that’s especially true, because the Philharmonic, as an institution, doesn’t have a New York vibe either. Oh, sure, they play a parks concert in each New York borough every year, and play a concert annually in a big Harlem church. But that’s tokenism. They aren’t (just for instance) in New York neighborhoods all year long. Their musicians aren’t showing up on New York events, or on New York TV and radio. The orchestra (unless I’m missing something) isn’t playing the National Anthem at any New York sports events, the way the Pittsburgh Symphony played it at a Steelers game.

When Leonard Bernstein was their music director, well, that was New York, because Lenny — even if he was born in Massachusetts —  was a New York celebrity, the composer of hit Broadway shows, a figure in New York society and nightlife. Plus, back in those days, the Philharmonic did take on a New York vibe, at least in the summer, because it played concerts in Lewisohn Stadium, on 137th Street, right on the City College campus, attracting everyday New Yorkers who might not have paid big-time ticket prices for the regular-season events. Another New York connection.

But in 2012, if neither Alan nor the Philharmonic have anything that’s truly New York about them, anything that we can taste or touch, then to bill Alan as New York-born is meaningless. It’s a fact without a context. You hear it stated, and you don’t know what to do with it. So I’m going to guess that — in the minds of people who hear those spots on WNYC — it sinks like a stone.

(If anyone who’s heard these non-commercials reacted differently — or if anyone knows of studies that prove I’m wrong about all this — please let me know!)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I have not heard any of the radio commercials that mention Gilbert being the first NY Phil director born in New York, but I have come across plenty of similar magazine ads. You mention the ads dropping like stones, and I could not agree more. The most common magazine ad I’ve come across is one of Gilbert looking out of a coffee shop window that reads something along the lines of ‘Alan Gilbert… The first NY Phil director born in New York’ and that’s it. This ad and ones like it convey nothing about Gilbert’s taste, his choice of programming, or what NY Phil does for and within New York City. I find the advertising campaign to be both empty and a little strange, and Gilbert doesn’t look particularly comfortable in the printed ads so I’m guessing they are not his idea.

    I’ve noticed that background is a huge part of publicity in the classical music world, and that classical concert attendees are usually interested in reading the background of the night’s composer- where he or she was born, raised, educated, etc. It’s often a rather superficial matter of pedigree. I’m guessing that these Gilbert ads are meant to attract customers and consumers from New York who might think ‘Oh, he’s from here. He’s one of us. Maybe these shows are worth checking’. If this is the case, then I think there is some point to the campaign. I’m from Southern California, and have come across plenty of LA Phil concertgoers who grumble that they’d rather see one of their own (someone from or educated in LA) at the podium than Dudamel and would be enticed by an ad like the Gilbert ones. If the ads are trying to appeal to the ‘He’s one of us’ mentality, then they might succeed, but they do a disservice by not highlighting concert programming, community involvement, and other far more significant matters than where Gilbert is from.

  2. Frances Hudson says

    Significant community involvement is important. I attended the free concert of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) that the NY Philharmonic performed on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Tickets were distributed to families and survivors. Concertgoers generally wore casual dress and you could hear a pin drop in the hall. Until the end. Never have I heard such applause from people of all ages. I watched adults and children who may never have had the opportunity to attend a concert by this fine orchestra crying while they applauded on and on.

    Here’s the PBS link – http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/a-concert-for-new-york/watch-the-fully-edited-broadcast-program-with-tom-brokaw/1182/

    To your point about more ‘real’ community involvement, I’ve read that the NY Philharmonic plays 30 to 40 more concerts per year than most other orchestras in the top tier. The orchestra management must see that it is in their long term interest to plan effective outreach to the community, especially to schools. I also recently read that the only younger demographic that is on the ascendance at classical concerts is from the Asian community. That’s because a significant percentage of Asian children study music and play instruments.

  3. Condorcet says

    More than anything it’s a form of (cheap) boosterism, and is supposed somehow to energize New Yorkers to patronize the Philharmonic. You know, the hometown guy is back leading this classical music outfit. What would be interesting would be for Gilbert to highlight some interest in New York City, and the Philharmonic’s traditions, perhaps reprising famous concerts from the past, with a few changes. So he might pick a year, say, 1910, and conduct a concert that Gustav Mahler, then the Philharmonic’s chief conductor, originally led. Or, given his aesthetic interests as I discern them, he might do the same with a concert from the Boulez years. It could be interesting. Invoking Bernstein might also be nice. I’m not sure what the Philharmonic’s rules are, but what if brought some of its musicians (or urged some) to visit public schools in the different boroughs, to give demonstrations and play the music of some famous musicians who came from there? Or they might given chamber concerts along those lines, partnering with local musical groups. Maybe that’s already happening; I don’t know. There are many possibilities. I don’t see that the Philharmonic or Gilbert is interested in (m)any of them, though.

  4. Christina Jensen says

    I don’t see how playing summer concerts in Lewisohn Stadium in Bernstein’s day equals taking on “a New York vibe” but playing free summer concerts in parks in each of New York’s five boroughs in Gilbert’s day equals “tokenism.”

    Condorcet, you might check out this page for information about the Phil’s numerous educational initiatives, which do of course include programs with New York public schools: http://nyphil.org/education/schools_overview.cfm .

    • says

      You should have been there, Christina. Those Lewisohn Stadium concerts were about as New York as you can get, and they didn’t happen just once. That’s the key. The orchestra played a special season there. The parks concerts today feel like isolated special events, but the Stadium Concerts (which were what they were called) felt like an everyday part of New York. Or at least that’s what I thought when I went to them, when I was in high school. The equivalent, today, might be the Philharmonic playing three nights a week in Central Park for a month. Or Prospect Park. Pick your borough.

      And — again to make the Stadium Concerts vibe happen — they shouldn’t only do festive, popular repertoire. At Lewisohn Stadium, just for instance, the Philharmonic premiered an oratorio by William Grant Still on the subject of lynching. An amazingly brave thing to do in the 1940s. A black composer writing music about an incendiary black subject. Not exactly what the orchestra does in the parks today.