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June 18, 2007

Greetings from Nashville

by Alan S. Brown

Greetings from Nashville, where the ASOL pre-conference activities begin this morning. I am leading a two-day seminar called Building Audiences through Engagement. Assisting me in this endeavor are Joan Cumming, marketing guru of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Ted Wiprud, education director for the New York Philharmonic. We have researched audience and community engagement practices, prepared case studies and developed some new frameworks and lessons learned to share with the 60 or so brave souls who will take the journey with us.

Here are some of the overarching observations from the research:

• Engagement occurs when audiences participate actively in designing and interpreting their experience
• Transparency of process and intent invites engagement
• Drawing a line between audience engagement and community engagement is unnecessary and ultimately limiting
• Some successful engagement practices derive from an organization's ability to think holistically about the art form in terms of setting and delivery
• Sometimes, engaging audiences and community requires performing in inconvenient locations at inconvenient times
• New or redesigned physical spaces can enable a higher degree of interaction and engagement; most of our facilities were not designed with engagement in mind
• Constituent input and a commitment to listening are key factors in all successful engagement practices
• Engagement requires accepting people where ever they are in their arc of involvement with the art form and not pre-supposing their pathway through it
• The most advanced organizations with respect to engagement have integrated educational content and outcomes into all of their core programming to the point where there is no distinction between education and programming

I have to disagree that the greatest potential for engaging audiences lies around the periphery of the concert experience - either before or after. The people who go to pre-concert lectures and post-performance discussions are the ones who are already knowledgeable about the art form. It's the big middle that we need to move - the people who only want to know a little bit more, and who will never come to a lecture. So the greatest potential for engaging audiences, I feel, lies within the temporal space of the concert itself.

If anything, this blog underscores the need for us, as an industry, to reach for a higher level of understanding of how people benefit from arts experiences, and the roles that institutions and other delivery mechanisms can play in unlocking those benefits. Although my fellow bloggers make reductive statements for argument's sake, we have to deal with complexity here. There is a valid philosophy that everything you need to get from music can be achieved through the act of listening. There is another valid philosophy that much more needs to be done to open up the experience to people in a way that will help them become more active listeners. We can't afford not to negotiate these viewpoints into some workable plan for the future.

There are people in the audience who idealize a passive listening experience, and there are also people in the audience who idealize a more interactive and dynamic experience. The bottom line is that there is slow and intractable change happening all around us, but it's hard to see, and no amount of additional funding will turn back the tide of change. All of this has profound implications for musicians, who now must not only play well, but also be able to communicate about their art and, ultimately, awaken the creative voice in others.

Fortunately there's an enormous amount of innovation bubbling up in fits and starts, and I know that ASOL will be leading the orchestra field further down that pathway in the years to come. There is a huge need for research (sorry, Greg) and development, and here is where the funders come in. We should have three or four orchestras in the U.S. whose bottom lines are fully underwritten so that they can serve as greenhouse sites for trying out new ways of making music, new governance models, new relationships with musicians, etc. While we squeeze the current model harder and harder, at the same time we have to completely re-imagine a new model, and that's the work that's not being done. We need a new sense of possibility for what a music organization can mean to a community.

At the core, this is a conversation about change. The first and essential precondition for change is the belief that things cannot stay the same. Are we there yet?

Posted by abrown at 11:15 PM | Comments (1)

Can't Get it Anywhere Else

by Laura Jackson

I have trouble believing, as does Ken, that recorded/downloaded music might replace live performance. But Doug says he is in favor of live performance "when it works out", i.e. when you have a good acoustical seat and when you don't have someone coughing like crazy right beside you. In addition he asks, "what's the indisputable can't-get-anywhere-else ingredient of live performance I just have to have? Or (I worry), perhaps there isn't any such a thing?"

Robert Levine wrote in his post 6/17 that sports descend out of war and arts out of worship. Lets consider that comparison between art and worship for a moment. People gather at a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship and it plays a crucial function for them that is different than praying or performing rituals at home. There is something they seek - a community of people that have something in common, guidance and support, the opportunity to feel a part of a spiritual presence that is beyond themselves, and I am sure, many other things. They learn from others and offer support. Are churches in danger of closing their doors and becoming online experiences because people are more comfortable sitting at home where they don't have to deal with bad parking, an uncomfortable pew, or a baby crying in the row behind them? I doubt it.

Live performance is irreplaceable for the reason that it is interpersonal and because it requires us to be uniquely present and centered in order to create it and receive it. As Ken states in his response to Doug, multitasking is such a part of our nature now that we may listen to music often at home and while moving from one place to the next but we rarely do so without trying to accomplish five other things at the same time. I love to listen to the Saturday afternoon MET broadcasts but I have never sat through the entire radio broadcast giving it my entire attention.

As a performer, what I seek is to be part of something larger than myself. I want to transcend all of my personal limitations, my insecurities, self doubt, etc. and to touch some fragment of a larger truth. Certainly there are extremely powerful, solitary experiences of artistic creation - one can play the violin in one's living room and utterly lose him or herself in a transcendent experience.

However, live performance can only happen with the collective consciousness of a group of people, not unlike worship with others. A piece of orchestral music can't even begin without a whole group of people focusing on a common goal at precisely the same instant. This only accounts for the musicians onstage though. Why have anyone listen?

It is an audience that propels me toward my very best artistic immersion and without at least a few people to receive a performance I wouldn't be nearly as focused. It is exactly the challenge of captivating the person sitting in the dullest seat in the house, whose neighbor is unwrapping endless cough drops, or at least one child out of 300 in the hopeless acoustic of a gymnasium that forces me to get out of my own head and pull together every emotional, mental, physical resource I have toward the creation of a work of art. I may never succeed in connecting to every listener in the hall but the attempt makes me a better performer.

I don't think I am unique. This is what drives performers to do what they do. I guess my point is that, from my own experience, the performing arts reach their very best potential when they are received at the moment they are being generated. It is precisely your butt in your seat that makes my hands tremble and my breath quicken and inspires me to pull out all the stops in order to share with you this piece of music that has changed my life in some way and that might change yours.

Posted by ljackson at 9:52 PM | Comments (0)

Musicians and engagement

by Robert Levine

Greg Sandow wrote:

...Suppose classical music was played now the way it was played in the 18th century. We'd see an orchestra on TV, and it would be full of personalities. The musicians -- and the music, too -- would just about jump off the screen. Bill would have no trouble following the progress of a piece, because the musicians would be dramatizing it for him, with their faces and their bodies. The entire audience, I'd have to think -- both the concert audience, and the people watching on TV -- would be jerked awake. I'd love that, for my own sake. I'd be jerked awake.

I hope I'm not the only person old enough to remember Peter Schickele's color commentary on a performance of the Beethoven fifth. That's exactly what it was like. And it was so funny because it was so unlikely and yet so right somehow.

Molly Sheridan wrote (and William Osborne echoed):

...I also had the opportunity to ask an orchestra executive once to estimate the percentage of the musicians in his orchestra he suspected actually wanted to be on stage on any given evening. He shot back, somewhat proud of the difficulty of his job, "Maybe 25%." Ack! $60 to watch miserable people? Sadly, the studies that have been done on orchestra musicians job satisfaction seem to indicate this situation is frightenly wide spread.

Yes, we keep talking about how miserable orchestra musicians can get, how crushed down their creativity, and then we talk about how bored they look on stage and how that alienates the audience, and then we do...what? Before we just start trying to make up experiences we hope the public will be seduced by, let's start with the people on stage.

Fair enough. My father and I wrote an article on the reasons for this about 10 years ago. I think what Molly writes is a little harsh, though. There are definitely days I'd rather be at home than on stage. But, most of the time, the musicians in my orchestra are committed to the performance, when given a fighting chance. More important, if the question was "what percentage of the orchestra would rather be doing something else for a living," the answer would be a pretty low number. I always wanted to be a pilot, but I can well imagine that I wouldn't enjoy sitting on the ramp for hours in the middle of a snowstorm. But I'd still enjoy being a pilot.

Greg also wrote:

If we watched an orchestra, the players would be doing what Oliver Perez couldn't quite manage -- hiding their personalities, looking blank. We wouldn't see them smile at each other, or at the music. We wouldn't see them move with the rhythm, or express themselves in any way with their bodies and their faces. That's forbidden! Quite literally so -- my Juilliard students tell me that their teachers forbid anything like that, even in solo playing.

Absolutely correct. Quartets are a lot more fun to watch because they have to move and be involved. Rock musicians seem to understand this best. I'm always amused when I see a rock bassist land on some pedal point and look so proud of himself - like he's just solved world hunger. But that's part of the gig. The fans want it, so they do it.

Could orchestra musicians be more involved? Yes. Could they show their involvement more? Absolutely, and they should. But it's going to require a culture change and a fair amount of time.

Posted by rlevine at 7:14 PM | Comments (4)

More Reader Comments

by Douglas McLennan

Changing the dress code would be a very easy was to convey personality to an audience, but that can't happen until classical music overcomes the ghost of Beethoven and realize that it's in the 21st century. Audiences would be much more likely to give classical music a try -- and give classical music sustained attention -- if orchestras did away with the high culture pretense and dressed more honestly. read more
- John Stoehr

Looking at government funding solely through a federal lens distorts any arguments for the arts towards broad-stroke meaninglessness. NEA funding isn't insubstantial, but in the grand scheme of things, it's largely symbolic. On the more important state and local level, though, the argument is an easy one: a healthy arts community increases the "livability" of a city or state, making it more attractive to possible residents/workers/businesses, etc. And while it's easy to roll one's eyes at yet another economic-impact study, having data that says the arts are providing this many jobs in your district/county/ward and pumping this much money into your constituents' businesses is speaking in politicians' language. read more
- Matthew

Strangely, I have also noticed that the large majority of full-time orchestra musicians don't often make other kinds of music, even if they have the free time or money to do so. Orchestras seem to sap the desire for creativity almost completely out of them. In fact, many creative musicians avoid orchestras like a plague, but they usually have few alternatives for making a living. read more
- William Osborne

One cannot discuss the issue of arts participation (attendance, appreciation, engagement...) without talking about the level of education which, by all standards, has been rather abysmal in this country for over a generation. My father, who teaches European History at one of the best American universities, has recently given his history(!) majors a test to gage their general cultural awareness. In response to the question "What is cubism?" one of the students wrote "Cubism was the war between USA and Spain for the independence of Cuba." I suppose it is a "chicken-and-egg" sort of dilemma but one simply cannot ignore it. read more
- Nastya

There are scores, if not hundreds of ideas and programs, the arts might employ to expand audience participation - some which would likely fall flat on their face, others of which might actually put bodies in seats or otherwise change the dynamics, but most of them will have some cost invovled, and thus most of them will never be tried, because there isn't the money, as Mr. Osborne rightly points out, to even adequately pay competitive salaries to orchestra members, let alone allow the arts to provide public access at prices the public can afford or engage in basic marketing. And those orchestra member salaries and the funds to allow those orchestras to drop ticket prices to the point that more people will attend, aren't likely to just appear magically from the sky. read more
- Barry Hessenius

In today's environment where few children and few adults have any familiarity with our music, it is no longer sufficient for orchestras to play great music well and offer some music education for children. Orchestras must embrace an additional mission of creating a demand for our music. read more
- Jack McAuliffe

Most people only hear a symphony as the soundtrack backing up a movie plot. It is background music that underscores the emotional movement of the story - subtly touching the hearts and minds of the audience unconsciously. Is this a bad thing? Music, though of course it can stand on its own, is fantastic (dare I say even better?) at supporting other mediums. So combining other forms of entertainment with the symphony experience can be a dynamic and exciting way to touch those hearts and minds that may need a little extra stimulation. Combining visual media, dance, singing, acting, even athletic interests can create a more exciting experience for someone who doesn't understand why you would just sit and look at a bunch of people playing instruments for an entire evening. read more
- Paul Pement

The public never stopped being engaged with music it could receive as communicative. It has been the institutional crowd which has so codified the analytical basis for everything which has turned things upside down for them as far as audiences go. They are further decieved when they get together in their little mutual admiration cliques on campus, and hogwash each other into thinking their "music" is the next, future thing. This is because we now have teachers who simply have no idea what they are talking about - that is why real composers are turning inward and offering up serious and communicative art to a public which not only understands, but appreciates it. As for those who sneer at whatever is "popular," who cares about their "music?" read more
- John Graham

To take part in this discussion click on the "comments" link below any post and write your comment. To see all the reader comments, go here.

Posted by mclennan at 6:53 PM | Comments (0)

Not Really Laughing

by Molly Sheridan

Amused? Darkly amused, perhaps. Much of that might stem from the fact that the performing art that I take in most often and with the greatest pleasure tends to fall outside these issues--new music performers putting up a show wherever they can get a booking, dancers working in weird studio spaces, theater pieces in church basements. Do I envy them their shoddy, lack-of-funding-support situations when other institutions have enough cash to pay (at all/reasonable salaries/very large dollar amounts to) their talent? Not in the least. But one thing they tend not have a problem with is audience engagement. They have blogs, myspace pages, youtube videos and mp3s online; they work hard to share their art with other people, online and off, and as a result they have fans, in the Mets sense of the word.

But without institutional support, they work other jobs, have to perform erratically, have no help when it comes to advertising, arranging rehearsals, and general promotion. All this effectively means their shows average closer to one or two hundred people in the house, not 2,000. It's the other side of the coin. So, do I wish less funding was applied to organizational life support and more went to living American art/artist development? Personally, all things considered, most definitely. Yes, Doug is quite right to point out how much other media is also struggling in this quickly evolving environment. But we've been complaining about this for a lot longer, without making much progress. Maybe artists can meet in the middle and share positioning in some manner? Make a trade of skills? Make some appropriate alliances and team up to help the other side do what they do best? Association is the bedrock of iTunes purchases and Netflix rentals. Everyone already knows how this game works.

Posted by msheridan at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

The problem with government funding

by Greg Sandow

No, it's not that we don't have the will of Martin Luther King. Though we might remember that he led a movement that had arisen in large part spontaneously, and which was one of the strongest historical tides of its time. We'd be bucking the tides of history.

Our problem is that we don't have a good argument to support government funding. We doubt our own relevance, even our own legitimacy, or at the very least we don't know how to explain these things convincingly to other people. That's what all our debates are about.

So what are we going to tell congresspeople and senators (who'd have to pass any arts funding bill), not to mention our fellow taxpayers? What reason can we give everybody to support huge subsidies for us? At this point, we don't seem to know. Should we be honest, and say, "Well, we're losing our prestige, our funding, and our audience, so please bail us out"? That's not going to work.

In the end, the argument for vastly increased government funding would have to depend on the old belief that the canonical arts are inherently superior. It wouldn't matter how many people went to the opera or the ballet. It wouldn't matter if those numbers were growing or shrinking. The arts, we'd have to think, were inherently worthwhile, in ways that can't possibly be quantified. In fact, their minority status would be (in this way of thinking) an argument for their superiority. Of course the masses don't appreciate art. They're not equipped to, and aren't even meant to.

But these beliefs don't fly any more. Not enough people share them. So how could we use them to argue for government funding? We'd lose the fight.

(Parenthetically: The need for massive jumps in government funding has been argued before. In the late 1960s, American orchestras had a huge financial crisis, the largest they've ever had until now. In response, the Big Five commissioned McKinsey, the arts consultants, to do a study, which was delivered in two parts, an informal report to the Big Five in 1969, and a more formal document delivered to more than 20 large orchestras in 1972. McKinsey concluded that only government funding could save orchestras. They called for the federal government to supply 25% of orchestras' budgets, arguing -- ingenuously, in retrospect -- that since European governments provided 90%, 25% wasn't much to ask. The federal government never did this, of course, and instead, orchestras -- which up to then had hardly any budget for marketing and fundraising -- evolved the funding structure they have now.)

(Second parenthesis: There's another argument against increased government funding, or at least against any belief that government funding would be a stable remedy for the arts' fiscal problems. This argument would come from an economics principle called Baumol's Dilemma, after William J. Baumol, the economist who first propounded it. Baumol said that since service organizations in our economy don't show productivity increases the way manufacturing companies do, the proportional cost of keeping them alive keeps rising. Or, in simpler terms: They keep needing more and more money. Arts organizations were emphatically included; orchestras, in fact, were Baumol's key example. An automobile company can, over time, make more and more cars with fewer and fewer workers, but it'll always take the same number of musicians to play Mahler's Ninth.

(If Baumol is right, then government funding will have trouble keeping up with what the arts need. As time passes, the arts will need a higher and higher percentage of the government's budget, just to stay where they are.)

Posted by gsandow at 11:19 AM | Comments (5)

Everything Old Is New Again

by Douglas McLennan

Robert says he tends to think things stay the same. Greg suspects (okay, more than that) that fundamental change is afoot and that the traditional arts as we have known them in the recent past are finished. Moy is energized by the possibilities of change, and Ed thinks the museum model for symphony orchestras might be the best. William Osborne seems to think that lack of public funding is at the root of all that ails us in America. And Molly? She seems amused by all the hand-wringing. (have I managed to mangle and mischaracterize everyone's positions?)

It's interesting to me that everyone who creates anything these days is having some version of this conversation. Certainly anyone in the arts. But also Disney and CBS and Universal. And Starbucks and the Los Angeles Times and BMW and Coke. We've moved from being a service economy to an experience economy. Service is now assumed. The question is what's the experience going to be.

Some of these entertainment companies (and even car companies now think of themselves as entertainment companies) have been losing audience at rates the arts would find catastrophic. Top-rated TV shows, radio stations, recording companies and newspapers are seeing their audiences down by 30-40-50 percent from what they were when the 90s began. By comparison, the 90s were the biggest expansion of the arts economy in American history. Even the softening of arts audience numbers since 9/11 is nothing compared to some of the retreats in the commercial sector.

The changes in audience behavior we've been talking about here are all things that commercial "content" makers are also addressing. I'm not sure they have any better answers than we do yet.

So where is there growth? I don't want to be tiresome, but we're seeing huge growth in online communities such as MySpace, in massively multiplayer online games and in sites like YouTube. I do not think these companies are anything new. They have identified some basic human nature and facilitated bringing it to a much larger community with technology. The technology might be new, but the human nature isn't. If anything, the technology allows us to go back before one-size-fits-all mass media (pre-Television Age) to the more traditional needs for community-building.

In a mass media world, you find success not necessarily through creating something excellent, but by finding a mean that the largest number of people can attach themselves to. In other words, with limited choice, you create audience by finding the commonality that the most number of people can tolerate.

In our new evolving scenario, that mass market strategy actually works against you. Tolerating something is no longer enough for getting someone to commit to you. One-size-fits-all (we mean you, subscription series) isn't enough. I think the new successful "content producers" see themselves as not just maker-of-product, but facilitator of an experience that an audience can participate in and that they might not be able to get anywhere else.

Posted by mclennan at 9:44 AM | Comments (0)

A sports moment

by Greg Sandow

It's Friday night, and I'm sitting in my apartment with a guy named Bill, watching the Mets play the Yankees. Bill is married to my wife's best friend from high school, and the whole family -- Bill, Tina, and their two teenage kids -- have been visiting us all week. They're working people from New Mexico, and this is their first trip to New York. We've had a terrific time, and Bill and I have bonded. We've each adopted a role --I'm the New York guy, he's the redneck (his word for himself, not mine). And we find that our two perspectives come together more often than we'd expected.

Bill doesn't follow the Yankees or the Mets, but of course he knows baseball, and I can bring him quickly up to speed on the backstory of the game. A lot of sports is stories -- stories and personalities. Bill and I stake out our views on the players and the broadcasters. We comment on the plays. And after the game, when we watch the Mets being interviewed. Two young Hispanic players --Jose Reyes and Carlos Gomez --just about jump out of their skins with excitement, and a third, Oliver Perez, tries really hard not to. He's the winning pitcher. He beat Roger Clemens! He's going to show he's tough and responsible, and Bill and I smile at him.

Then they interview Billy Wagner, the Mets' closer. "You'll see he's different from the others," I say. "He's a redneck." Wagner starts drawling, and Bill says, with a happy laugh, "He sounds like a NASCAR driver!"

This is how you bond over baseball. Nothing could be easier. Nobody has to do anything special to encourage this bonding -- not the players, not the teams, not Major League Baseball as a corporate entity. If anything, in fact, the baseball authorities discourage it a bit, by (to judge from the interviews we see) encouraging the players to hide their personalities. (Oliver Perez has to talk as if he wasn't buzzed about the game. He just concentrated on making his pitches, he says, and he did it all for the team.)

But the game is transparent, to the millions of people who care about it, and it's easy to jump in. Last night my wife and I tune in to the Mets/Yankees game, and -- as the Yankees' pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, demolishes the Mets -- we find we disagree about his eyes. I think they're ferocious, Anne thinks he just looks businesslike. Bill says that if he comes across an amateur softball game, or even a Little League game, he'll often stop to watch. I do the same thing. You get drawn in, we agree. You don't have to know who the teams are, or even what the score is. You get caught in the drama of the batter and the pitcher.


So now suppose Bill and I were flipping channels, and a classical music telecast came on. (One of the rare ones, these days.) Could we have bonded over that?

A lot of people, I suspect, will say we wouldn't bond. Bill isn't a classical music listener. He might not know the composers, the instruments, the musical forms. Maybe he's not used to following a musical span of 10 or 20 minutes -- which would assume he'd never listened to the Grateful Dead. And in fact all these assumptions are more than a little patronizing, since Bill actually does know a lot about music (even if the music involved isn't classical), and we talked for a while about watching cricket on TV, a game neither of us has much background in.

But fine. He's not a classical music guy, and maybe he wouldn't get into classical music on TV. But I don't think the music is the problem. It's the presentation, by which I don't only mean the way the music is telecast, but what the musicians do. Nothing happens on the screen. If we watched an orchestra, the players would be doing what Oliver Perez couldn't quite manage -- hiding their personalities, looking blank. We wouldn't see them smile at each other, or at the music. We wouldn't see them move with the rhythm, or express themselves in any way with their bodies and their faces. That's forbidden! Quite literally so -- my Juilliard students tell me that their teachers forbid anything like that, even in solo playing.

This is a key belief in classical music orthodoxy -- an ideology, by the way, that was wonderfully evoked by Robert Levine's deep, since belief, expressed in a post yesterday, that the arts evolved from religious ceremonies. It's the music that counts (the masterworks of the great composers), and not the performers. So performers are taught to restrict themselves, to hide their individuality. And no, I'm not saying that there isn't individuality in classical performance (please, I've been in this business too long and love the music too much and know far too much about it to believe anything that dumb).

But it's a restricted kind of individuality, most likely to register with people who already know the music being played, or at least other music in the same style, and who thus can compare the oboe solo they're hearing now with others of its kind, played by other oboists. I can do that. But what's likely to strike outsiders, on the other hand, is how restricted everyone's expression is, how deliberately everybody seems to rein themselves in. And they're not wrong! That's what's really happening, compared to musical performances in other genres.


And this is a problem, if you ask me. I don't think art descends from religion -- and to the extent that some of it does, we should acknowledge that religious ceremonies have in the past and in other cultures been far more arousing than they are now in the white western world. (I'm specifying white culture here, because we have the magnificent example of African-American churches to show that even in our own world, religion can be wild and rousing, just as wild as many kinds of entertainment.) Even in our own past, religion was arousing.

And many of the classical masterworks -- just about every note, apart from church music, that Handel and Haydn ever wrote, just for instance -- were designed as entertainment, not as art. (And Handel's oratorios in fact did function pretty much as entertainment.)

For most of classical music's history, people went to hear personalities, not repertoire. Only in the 19th century did the concept of great masterworks arise. What were things like before that? Well, suppose you lived in London in the middle of the 18th century. If you went to hear an opera, you went because Handel, who had written it, was a star. The opera would be new, and nobody who heard it, including the composer, would think that there was any great chance of ever hearing it again. There wasn't any repertoire of standard works, or even recent hits. You went to see performances, at which you'd hear music newly written for the occasion.

So here you are at a Handel opera. As I've said, Handel was a star, and one of the attractions would be to see him leading the show from the harpsichord, improvising everything he played, often spectacularly.

The singers, too, would be spectacular, both as vocalists and as personalities. You'd talk about their costumes, which might be scandalous, or on the other hand might set fashion trends. (Well, maybe they might be scandalous and set trends.) You'd shout things at the singers while they sang. Maybe the singers would get into fights on stage. Hadn't that happened just last week, in the presence of the Prince of Wales? Silly of Handel to import not just one, but two Italian prima donnas .They feuded over everything. Maybe, as you sat there in the audience, talking during the performance, you'd speculate on the sexual habits of the singers. Hadn't you just read that hilarious poem in the press just after the fight last week, in which the writer -- in fully explicit detail -- imagined exactly how those two singers conducted what were assumed to be very active sex lives? (I'm not making this up. Such a poem really did appear in the London press, after two sopranos brawled on stage.)

You'd gossip about the singers even if nothing outrageous happened. They were exotic. They weren't even English. Almost all of them were Italians, which meant you'd think they were flamboyant, by nature, and probably immoral. (Though morality, in the 18th century, was a pretty loose concept. When Vivaldi taught at a school for girls in 18th century Venice, some of the girls would sneak out at night and work as prostitutes. Vivaldi himself -- an ordained priest! -- later toured through Europe, staging his operas, openly living with two much younger women whom he'd met at the school Everyone assumed he was sleeping with both of them.)

And, worse, yet, some of the biggest stars were castratos, men who'd been castrated before puberty so their voices wouldn't change. What's often forgotten now is that they were sexually potent, so they were not only singing stars, and not only exotic Italians, but walking sexual scandals, especially if you knew which noblewoman was enjoying a fling (an especially happy one, since there was no risk of pregnancy) with the castrato you were seeing on stage this very night. Especially if that noblewoman was in the theater! You'd turn to your friends, and point her out, maybe making loud, lewd comments. (During the music, of course.)

The orchestra was also full of personalities. Like Handel, they'd improvise. (The singers would, too.) If you went to the opera more than once, you'd get to know them. "There's the timpanist," you might say, "playing in this aria as if he wanted to drown out the rest of the instruments." (You can hear a moment like that on René Jacobs' recording of Handel's opera Rinaldo, on the Harmonia Mundi label. It happens in the final ritornello of the first bass aria in Act 1.)


So, back to Blil and me. Suppose classical music was played now the way it was played in the 18th century. We'd see an orchestra on TV, and it would be full of personalities. The musicians -- and the music, too -- would just about jump off the screen. Bill would have no trouble following the progress of a piece, because the musicians would be dramatizing it for him, with their faces and their bodies. The entire audience, I'd have to think -- both the concert audience, and the people watching on TV -- would be jerked awake. I'd love that, for my own sake. I'd be jerked awake.

And classical music -- returned to the way much of it was played when it was new -- would be a lot like sports. Bill and I could talk about the oboist. In a difficult, fast solo, she might have as much personality as Carlos Gomez had in the Mets/Yankees game, when he leaped up (with the coltish excitement of a 21 year-old) to catch a near-home run. How could anyone resist?

And why have we forgotten this? Why have we forgotten what classical music used to be like? Why don't we know that the concept of art, as we know it, barely even existed before the 19th century? Certainly in music, there was no such thing. You can read the long first chapter of Peter Gay's The Normal Heart (the fourth volume of his giant study of 19th century bourgeois culture) to learn how the idea of art -- and with it, silent listening -- came into music, and how much it was resisted.

But back to sports, for something that shows we really do forget the past. We often assume that things have always been more or less as they are now. A while ago I read a really smart and delightful book, Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy. It's about the 1908 baseball season, and -- almost on every page -- Murphy exposes things that I'd never heard about before, and which certainly aren't mentioned in any of the baseball reference books I have.

In 1908, just for instance, if one of the visiting players ran toward the stands to catch a fly ball or a foul ball, the home crowd would throw things at him. This wasn't casual. They'd throw bottles, in a serious attempt to distract the fielder, or even to injure him. This didn't draw any reprimand. Police weren't called. This was just how the game was played.

The players were outrageous. In one 1908 game, somebody stole second base. But he was disgusted at how easy it was. So on the next pitch, he ran back to first. Nobody stopped him. No umpire said that wasn't against the rules. He stood there safely on first base, and on the following pitch stole second again, just to show up the other team.

Things like that were reasonably routine. And here's something I recently read somewhere else about that general era. Suppose you're (let's say) the New York Giants, locked in a pennant race with Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, to your delight, loses a crucial game to Chicago, thanks to a star performance by a Chicago pitcher. In response, your team, the Giants, passes a hat, raises some money, and sends it to the Chicago pitcher, to thank him!

That's how things were in baseball, 100 years ago. And we've largely forgotten all of it. We've forgotten just as much about how classical music used to be.

Posted by gsandow at 9:40 AM | Comments (1)

Also RE: "Is Retro good?"

by Molly Sheridan

I've seen classical musicians forcibly dressed up in ways they did not want to be, and it was not pretty. I also had the opportunity to ask an orchestra executive once to estimate the percentage of the musicians in his orchestra he suspected actually wanted to be on stage on any given evening. He shot back, somewhat proud of the difficulty of his job, "Maybe 25%." Ack! $60 to watch miserable people? Sadly, the studies that have been done on orchestra musicians job satisfaction seem to indicate this situation is frightenly wide spread.

Yes, we keep talking about how miserable orchestra musicians can get, how crushed down their creativity, and then we talk about how bored they look on stage and how that alienates the audience, and then we do...what? Before we just start trying to make up experiences we hope the public will be seduced by, let's start with the people on stage. If orchestras suddenly had no outside funding (and no funding to risk) and the musicians where only banding together because playing the great orchestral repertoire was their passion, how would they want to perform it? Would they even want to? Now, assuming suddenly that the musicians are all independently wealthy and can rent whatever space and music and technology they need, what would a concert look and sound like? If it's a vision the organization feels excited by and invested in, wouldn't that be a vision they could sell, onstage and off, more effectively than any marketing department?

I hear that even funding that is expressly for this sort of creative exercise doesn't really work out correctly when you're dealing with already overworked individuals. So, yes, maybe it's all naïve fantasy, but how I wish we could really see what happens if it truly did.

Posted by msheridan at 8:15 AM | Comments (2)

The Talking Cure

by Lynne Conner

Molly asks: "What else should we foundation funders be thinking about to support increased engagement in arts and culture?"

My answer: TALK! Help citizen-audiences to start talking about the arts. Give them imaginative and participatory educational programming to build up their knowledge of orchestral music. Follow that up with public opportunities to express their opinions about what they've heard. And always always ALWAYS provide professional mediation to make sure that that public conversation is facilitated in a respectful, thoughtful and democratic way (meaning, everyone gets to talk, everyone learns to listen).

I've already said this but I'm going to say it again because it is the single most important thing I've learned in my twenty years making and teaching art: People like to talk through their feelings, their confusion, passion, disinterest, disgust, and pleasure. Talking is a way of processing an opinion. If there is no opportunity to talk, there is likely to be no "opinion" other than a vaguely expressed sense of disengagement. Now how they like to talk varies. Some people enjoy public settings where they can opine in front of other people. Others need more private opportunities to talk through their opinions. Still others prefer to turn public talking into public writing (like we're doing with this blog). But the point is--people want opportunities to express their opinions about the arts event they have just experienced.

Okay, you say. People (especially Americans, and especially Americans under 50) process opinions through talking. So who's stopping them, right? What's that got to do with funders and orchestras?

A great deal of attention and money and human resources have been poured into "arts education" programming for children. But adult audiences also seek to learn "in and through" the arts. The problem is, open learning is a risky undertaking for most adults, because the process underscores what we don't know, and, as such, exposes our weaknesses.

Think about it this way: many careers are built on the notion that as a highly educated, highly trained professional, we know a lot. It's no surprise, then, that for an adult it is very difficult to go into an environment where you don't know the background and therefore don't have a context for understanding and analyzing what you are about to see and hear.

I like to quote educational theorist Thomas Szasz on this subject: "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if . . . important, cannot learn at all."

In my next post I'll have more to say on the kind of professional mediation we need to be sponsoring in order to get our long-silenced audiences talking about the arts again. I'll also tell some stories from a project I've been working on with The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh called the Arts Experience Initiative.

Posted by lconner at 7:39 AM | Comments (2)

The answer (or at least AN answer) to "Is Retro good?"

by Andrew Berryhill


Is Retro good? Sure. Retro is good, but so is good lighting and reasonably well-scrubbed musicians. And if you care to compare what we do to the Disney experience, which is nothing if not well lit and well scrubbed, Disney knows as good as anyone how to get people in the door for an experience. Further it is an experience priced even higher than our own.

But it isn't Retro that Disney does it with. Space Mountain, EPCOT, and (dating myself) the original E ticket submarine ride. I would argue that it isn't Retro that brings people to Disney, but wonderful experience they have while therein Orlando, Anaheim, Paris, or Tokyo.

That Mahler symphony you played last week is in some ways as Retro as anything above, but unlike the Disney experience has the chance for the audience to also be something artistically new. We've got a harder job to do than Disney, but our potential rewards are greater.

That hippo on the jungle cruise always jumps out of the water at the same place. And while we've got Mahler's directions (which are as specific as Uncle Walt's) when we create that Mahler symphony new every night, we can create a new artistic and emotional experience for ourselves and the audience. My job as an orchestra administrator is to do all that I can to get everyone in the door, and prepare them once they're there, to experience Mahler's world.

So I'd say it isn't about Retro, but the experience of where the Retro, or the new, can take us.

Posted by aberryhill at 7:06 AM | Comments (0)