“Welcome,” says the Philadelphia Orchestra, “to a season of incomparable reach and breadth.” That’s in a press release they emailed, announcing what they’re doing next season.
They can’t seriously mean that. Especially when they go on to outline what’s going to happen in 2018-19, and most of it is mundane, things every big orchestra does.
And then the main text of the press release ends this way: “A Philadelphia Orchestra season explores the power of live music.”
Quite a comedown from incomparable!
They don’t mean a word of it
Really they don’t. If the season really were incomparable…well, they’d have artists and programming that truly would be that.
And if they really were exploring the power of live music, they’d do it in some evocative, even systematic way. Play various kinds of music, to compare the power of each kind live. Play music in different venues, in different ways.
But they’re not doing that. They’re just giving concerts, as they always do.
So the words they’re using don’t touch on reality. They’re just words. Words chosen, I guess, to make the season seem special.
There’s a simple word for this: dishonesty. But I don’t think anyone was really dishonest here. Dishonesty would mean they knew their season wasn’t incomparable — really knew it, said it to each other — and then called it incomparable anyway.
But I don’t think they did that. I hope this doesn’t sound harsh, but I don’t think they considered reality at all. Just (as I said) looked for exciting words. Did they stop even for a moment to ask if the words reflected anything real? Or if, at least in a better world, the words ought to do that?
This is disappointing. I’ve often told my Juilliard students something basic about writing. That you have to look at the literal meaning of the words you use, and ask yourself if that literal meaning is really what you want to convey.
I think the Philly marketing staff failed this test. Though I’d like to think they could do better. That they could ask what an honest description of their season would be, and then try to write that. I wish they’d try that exercise. I think it would make them feel good, both as individuals, and as part of the team that runs their institution.
But that they didn’t do this isn’t really their fault. It’s a problem throughout the classical music field. We don’t know how to describe what we do. We may not, in any deep sense, understand what we do, know what its meaning is, know why it matters, know why anyone else should care. The Philly marketing copy, in the end, reflects this larger problem. A problem we ought to fix.
I’d love to help . Would any orchestra like to do a workshop with me? We’d start by talking in the simplest, most heartfelt way about why everyone involved really loves the orchestra, and the music it plays.
You could call that visioning. What’s their vision of the orchestra, as it functions right now? What’s their vision of what it could be?
Ideally we’d involve staff, board, musicians, and even people from the audience. Once we had some genuine ideas, genuine feelings, love for the orchestra coming honestly and authentically, straight from the heart, and described in simple, direct language — well, then we could start finding ways to tell all that to the outside world.
In essence, this would be a branding workshop, of a kind I’ve done with individual consulting clients, and each year with my Juilliard students. But the heart of it would be new. Not simply making up a brand, but letting one emerge from the deepest vision of why the orchestra exists. .
Orchestras, in my experience, don’t do this. But they should! If they did, everything the orchestra did — marketing, programming, governance, fundraising, maybe even playing — would be elevated to a new level. There’s nothing like deep honesty to make things go right. And the exhilaration everyone would feel, the deep sense of rightness they’d have — that would be precious in itself.
Mundane programming: You can read the Philadelphia release for yourself, and decide if you see much that’s special.
For me, two things stand out. The semistaged performance of Candide, which is a nice touch in a Bernstein anniversary year. I don’t know if anyone else is doing it. (Though whether that makes it incomparable is another story. Orchestras do many semistaged performances of operas and musicals.)
Maybe also a collaboration with the Barnes Foundation stands out, billed as “examining the relationship between two titans of art in Philadelphia, Albert Barnes and Leopold Stokowski.” But that, by itself, hardly makes the season incomparable.