I said in my last post that — having shaken my head at really poor press releases from orchestras — I’d provide some examples of good ones.
That’ll come, but for now I’ll just suggest an approach to writing a release, an approach that ought to produce something better than what we usually see. What I’d suggest, simply enough, is to do more than recite facts, and instead to tell stories. And that the stories shouldn’t mainly be about the pieces you’re going to play, but about the people playing them.
That last point, I fear, is a little trangressive, at least according to the orthodox view of classical music, where what matters most are the masterworks, the immortal pieces by the great composers. While the people who play those masterworks are considered ranked far lower.
Which doesn’t make sense, for two reasons. One is that the masterworks have only a theoretical existence (at least for those who can’t read a score) until someone performs them. Without performers, we’d never hear the immortal works we revere.
And, second, information about masterworks is intangible. You can think about it, during a performance, but you can’t see it. While the performers are right there in front of you, visibly making the music happen. They can shed light on every part of it, from why a piece is worth worshipping, to what’s needed to make a performance of it happen.
And with that in mind…
…I’ll quote something about the Mahler Fourth from the Minnesota Orchestra press release I shook my head about in my last post. I’m going to quote a full paragraph, in which there’s just one phrase about the symphony. But I want to show these few words in their full context, because that helps to show how weak — though well-meaning — they really are.
After the September 11 and 12 season opening concerts with Audra McDonald, the season continues with concerts on October 1, 2 and 3, as [Osmo] Vänskä conducts Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which in its final movement presents a child’s vision of heaven. These concerts also include Strauss’ serene Four Last Songs and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Vänskä leads 12 weeks of concerts during the season, which concludes with another Mahler symphony, the Fifth, as the season finale in June 2016.
A child’s vision of heaven. Very nice, but why should it matter to the Minnesota Orchestra? Do they show, in this press release, (or anywhere in their activity) that they care about children, or God? Which isn’t to say that they don’t, but in the release, this line about the Fourth just seems like a random fact, most likely thrown in with the honorable intention of adding some life and feeling to the blah, blah, blah.
But random facts don’t add up to much. The Fourth Symphony, in its last movement, shows us a child’s vision of heaven. Fine. And the Strauss Four Last Songs are serene. Fine again. But the Mahler Fifth and the Second Brandenburg apparently aren’t about anything at all, because there’s nothing about their mood or meaning.
And apparently the other movements of the Mahler don’t matter much, because nothing is said about them. Are they linked in any way with the child’s vision of heaven? And if not, what do they do? Why are they there?
So the passage I quoted feels incoherent to me. Giving the impression that no one involved has thought much about these pieces, about what they mean, about why they might matter, or about why the orchestra is playing them. How nice that the Strauss songs are serene, but is serenity an important value for the Minnesota musicians? Or for the Minnesota board, or the orchestra’s staff? And if we can’t tell why the serenity in Strauss matters to them, why should it matter to us?
A better way
If I wanted to highlight the Mahler Fourth, I might focus on the soprano soloist, who in the last movement sings about the child’s heavenly vision. Not that there isn’t more to say about the symphony, but you have to start somewhere. And in a release about an entire season you might have limited space for any one piece.
So, the soprano. Why not ask the soloist if it’s a challenge to sing, as she’ll have to, in that last movement, with a child’s sense of perfect innocence? How does she get herself to that place?
And she only sings in the last movement! For the other three, very likely she’s sitting on stage in front of the orchestra, with nothing to do but stay still and listen. What’s it like to do that, in full view of the audience? Is it hard to do? Does it take special focus? Or does the music carry you through, in effect lifting you over the movements in which you don’t sing, so that it’s easy to sit there?
Once you decided to highlight the Mahler Fourth in the press release about your upcoming season — and you ought to have some reason for doing that, some reason for saying more about this symphony than you do about other works you play — this is one way you could do it.
In a blog post some years ago — which I now assign in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music — I wrote about this approach to writing a press release. I showed how to focus on the musicians, giving examples, almost all of which came from instrumentalists and conductors I’ve talked to.
How does a bassoonist feel, playing the opening solo in the Rite of Spring? (The one I talked to said he wanted to play it really roughly, since this is what Stravinsky must have wanted. The piece, after all, is about a human sacrifice, and the solo was written higher than any bassoon music ever written before. So it must have sounded strange and rough when it was first performed.)
How does a conductor feel, when finally he gets the Symphonie Fantastique to go the way he wants it to? (A world-famous conductor, backstage, after a performance of the piece, told me he’d gotten it right that time, but not in three other performances he’d done shortly before.)
What happens when the beauty of a Beethoven quartet brings the people playing it together, so they forget their quarrels? (A true story, from one of my students.)
A suggested headline for releases that focus on those things:
“It Ought to Sound Raw!”
Miskatonic Orchestra Plays The Rite of Spring
Arkham Symphony Plays Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Music Director: “It’s a piece that always gives me trouble.”
And yet another:
Casting a Spell of Peace:
Kingsport Quartet Plays Beethoven
And then there’s this, for a program the Philadelphia Orchestra scheduled, but then changed, in which a very contained Stravinsky piece would have been paired with the all-over-the-place splashy sprawl of Richard Strauss (a composer Stravinsky had no use for):
Stravinsky Would Have Hated It:
His Apollo Shares a Program with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony
There’s a lot to say about classical music. We just have to say it!