The Inside the Classics section of our website is currently being redesigned. Sam and Sarah’s blog will be temporarily inactive, as we plan the 2012-13 season at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which begins February 8, 2013. We look forward to sharing the new season with you.
I think I’ve mentioned a few times before that I’m a bit of a baseball nut. I grew up rooting for the Phillies and Twins (yes, I have two teams, and no, I don’t care what your thoughts are on the acceptability of that,) I have strong opinions on the sacrifice bunt and the hit-and-run, and I’m the sort of stat-obsessed fan who pores over every new edition of Baseball Prospectus and can’t stand any writer who uses embarrassingly flowery prose to make the game all about America, or Beauty, or The Author’s Dead Father.
Because I’ve spent so much of my life paying close attention to baseball games, it takes a lot for a game to really stand out for me. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy an unremarkable game – I do – just that I’m not necessarily going to leave the park head over heels because my team happened to win on a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. When you’ve grown accustomed to the ridiculously high standard of play exhibited by your average Major League Baseball team, the extraordinary becomes ordinary and something truly remarkable is required to jolt you to that next level of fan exhilaration that we’re all basically hoping for when we watch a game.
Last September 28 was a truly remarkable day for baseball fans. It was the final day of the regular season, and several playoff slots had yet to be settled. Five teams were playing for their lives in what is usually a day of meaningless garbage games. Several of the games were being played simultaneously. Two of them featured the game’s premiere franchises, the Yankees and Red Sox. By the end of the night, both of those games had finished in spectacular storybook fashion, within minutes of each other. You can read the full blow-by-blow account of how it all unfolded here, but really, this is all you need to know about what an insanely exciting and improbable event it was.
These are grown men. Professional broadcasters. Going bonkers.
Even more remarkably, the 2011 postseason very nearly lived up to the standard set by that night. The scrappy St. Louis Cardinals, one of the teams that had to win their final regular season game to even qualify for the playoffs, would go on to win the World Series in seven games, leaving a trail of better paid and more highly regarded opponents in their wake. The sixth game of that Series ended with a dramatic walk-off home run in extra innings. Even for those of us with no rooting interest in the teams involved, it was the kind of baseball that baseball fans talk about for a generation.
The problem with real life, of course, is that special moments like that don’t come around very often. It’s the same in music, or theater, or anything that’s supposed to inspire as well as entertain. Even when the standard is as high as it can possibly be, most nights will fall short of true, undeniable greatness of the sort that people remember for the rest of their lives. So many disparate elements have to come together in order for near-perfection to be achieved that, most of the time, we’re willing to settle for something just short of it. I don’t buy a ticket to Target Field with the expectation that I’ll remember this game for the rest of my life. I buy it with full acceptance of the fact that it will probably be a perfectly ordinary game, and that this is fine because I enjoy perfectly ordinary games. The fact that greatness could break out is an exciting possibility, but I’m not going to demand my money back if it fails to materialize.
Lately, though, it’s begun to seem as if more and more people expect the extraordinary whenever they plunk down money for a ticket to any live event, be it sport or art or music. Everything has to be a blockbuster or people feel as if they aren’t getting their money’s worth. And this has led, I think, to a trend of those who present live entertainment mounting increasingly absurd campaigns to either manufacture dramatic results, or failing that, convince people that the ordinary experience they’re having is, in fact, extraordinary. (I could very well have this backwards – the shift to blockbuster-style marketing may actually be what’s driving the shift in public attitude.)
You can see it in the way NFL teams pump up the noise and exhort the crowd to go wild for a meaningless second down. You can see it in the way press releases from museums and theaters (and yes, orchestras) toss around breathless superlatives to describe events that haven’t actually happened yet and very likely won’t live up to the hype. And if you ask me, these attempts at manufacturing greatness do a great deal of damage to those of us tasked with striving for it night after night. Because if we’re only worth something when we exceed every expectation, we’re worthless when we only exceed most.
The comedian Louis CK summed up this problem better than I could: Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy…
Mild language warning – nothing you wouldn’t hear on prime-time network TV.
I know I’m rambling here, and that this probably seems only tenuously connected to the world of orchestras, which is ostensibly what I’m supposed to write about in this space. But the importance of striving for greatness and the risks of not achieving it have been on my mind a lot lately, so I guess I’m just trying to start a conversation to fill in some gaps I haven’t been able to fill in myself.
So help me out: what are your expectations when you buy a concert ticket, or rent a movie, or head to the ballpark? Do you feel cheated if you’re not absolutely transported by the experience? And if so, whose fault is that? The performers who didn’t live up to your expectations? The incessant marketing culture that promises us perfection around every corner? Or yourself, for expecting other human beings to be superhuman on command?
Um, no. Not that kind of fleece.
So, can we talk about this Olympics thing? I know everyone’s been piling on the organizers of this summer’s London games for everything from crowd control issues to ticket lottery debacles to God only knows what else, and I hate to add to the din, but this whole mini-scandal over asking hundreds of professional musicians to show up and perform for free just makes my blood boil.
It’s not that I’m remotely against musicians donating their services in a good cause, you understand. I play benefit concerts all the time – I’ve played at least three this year, with several more scheduled for the fall – and I give of my time and talent to play for and visit with kids every chance I get. So do most other professional musicians I know, regardless of whether they play in a string quartet, a symphony orchestra, or a garage band.
But this isn’t that. This is a ridiculously well-funded, multi-national organization that’s overseeing the expenditure of some $14.5 billion on this summer’s Games alone. They erect multiple stadiums – the kind of massive infrastructure project that requires your average city to spend ten years hemming and hawing over financing before even breaking ground – in a brand new location every two years. Millions of dollars are hurled at the arguably corrupt International Olympic Committee just to convince them to place cities under consideration for future Games.
On top of the more obvious luxuriant expenditures that drip from the Olympic piggy bank, the organizers employ countless thousands of people to do all manner of Games-adjacent work. Are the fry cooks working at the brand new World’s Largest McDonald’s in London’s Olympic Village told that they should come and sling burgers for free because the event offers such “great exposure”?
Ivan Hewitt of London’s Telegraph really summed up the disconnect nicely last week, writing that the Olympic organizers are “not alone in thinking of musicians as different from other professionals. We all do. We all know that musicians love what they do, and if they weren’t paid, they’d go on playing anyway.
“Added to which is a lingering prejudice that what musicians do isn’t really work because they so obviously enjoy themselves. A musician acquaintance of mine was once asked about her job at a party. ‘I play the cello in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,’ she said. ‘Yes, but what do you do for a living?’ came the reply.”
Yup. There’s not a musician alive who hasn’t gotten that question, and pretty frequently, too. (Here in Minnesota, I must say, it’s usually phrased far more politely than the above, usually something along the lines of “So, is that a full-time thing, or part-time, or what?”) I never mind answering it, because why should someone outside the music biz know who’s counting on the gig for their weekly paycheck and who’s just having a bit of fun on the side?
But like I said, this isn’t that. When an organization as flush with cash as the Olympics, whose organizers know exactly how the music world works, start summarily expecting musicians to play for “exposure” rather than cash, that’s taking disrespect to a level that approaches actual fiscal malfeasance. But I suppose I shouldn’t expect any better from an organization that’s bringing in the London Symphony Orchestra to pretend to play at the opening ceremonies. I’m sure that will be one stirring fake performance.
The opening weekend of Sommerfest is always a big event for the orchestra, and this Friday and Saturday will be no different, except for the fact that everything will, of course, be extremely different.
Orchestra Hall is closed. It just took me almost a full minute to type that sentence. My hands really didn’t want to write those words. Which is ridiculous, because a) the hall is closed so that it can be made into a much better place to attend concerts, b) I never really felt all that attached to the lobby, which is primarily what’s being renovated, and c) it’s a building. The orchestra I love is not defined by the venue we play in, and we’ve been graced with perfectly nice alternate digs over at the U for the summer, and… and…
…and so why does this feel like that time when they imploded Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia to make way for the Phillies’ awesome new ballpark, and instead of cheering the demise of that decrepit hunk of concrete where I’d spent far too many hours as a kid moaning about what an awful place it was to watch baseball, I suddenly got this awful twinge in my chest like it was all my memories that were coming down in a cloud of dust?
It’s a funny thing, our relationship with spaces. It’s not just concert halls, or stadiums, or physical buildings of any kind. It’s that odd attachment we form to the places that feel like home to us -like that Caribou Coffee on the corner near your office that’s exactly like every other Caribou except that this one is yours. Or the nondescript park near your apartment that, truth be told, isn’t anything special, but it’s where you walked your dog nearly every day of his life, and so it’s yours.
Orchestra Hall is mine, every inch of it. I vividly remember the very first time I saw it, back in 1999, when my brother (then a Macalester sophomore) drove me across the river for my big audition. He pointed as we pulled up to Marquette Avenue, and said, “Well, there it is.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What are the giant blue tubes for?”
“I think they stole those off a cruise ship,” he replied. “What do you care what they’re for? Go win this job!”
I remember the first time I walked out the stage door after following my brother’s instructions. I was walking on air, still incredulous that I’d just been offered a job with the Minnesota Orchestra, and for some reason, I noticed the ivy that grows up the hall’s brick exterior on the Marquette Avenue side. My new boss, principal viola Tom Turner, was walking with me, and he was smoking a cigarette and telling me that they needed me to start as soon as possible because the viola section was so short-staffed at the moment. I nodded, and glanced through the glass into the darkened lobby, wondering whether that carpet could really be quite as… busy as it had looked when I was peering in at it earlier in the day.
After Tom congratulated me again and walked off towards his car, I turned to face the downtown skyline and took a deep breath for the first time in hours. Then I turned back around, and stared at the facade of the hall until my brother arrived to pick me up. It was an unconventional look for a concert hall, sure – I could even see where some might call it something more derogatory than “unconventional” – but that didn’t matter. It was mine, and I couldn’t believe my luck.
During the last few weeks of this season, as our tireless staff and stage crew were loading entire offices into boxes for the move-out, a series of memos was issued to the musicians of the orchestra to remind us that, once the hall closed, it would really be closed until summer 2013, so we all needed to be gathering up our possessions from the various corners of the building where we might have squirreled them away over the years. Since we don’t have offices (and since we really do treat the hall as if it’s our second home,) this was a more complicated process than you might imagine. Our percussionists have an entire wing of the offstage area loaded with obscure instruments of all shapes and sizes. Years worth of cards, letters, photos, and other orchestra history are collected on oversize bulletin boards backstage. And then there are the lockers.
Of course we have lockers. This is why you rarely see us wondering around downtown Minneapolis in white tie and tails. (Actually, one of the badly needed aspects of the hall renovation will be the long-overdue expansion of the women’s locker room, which is less than half the size of the men’s, because orchestras in the 1960s were, by and large, sexist pigs.) We keep our various sets of “work clothes” in them, of course, but just like in high school, the lockers tend to accumulate a lot of other detritus over the years. And when you’re forced to carry all that lot home in a big bag and dump it out on your dining room table for inspection, well…
I’m not sure what that photo says about me, but you can blame Julie Williams for the chicken. It was a hilarious inside joke involving the St. Paul Saints and my unwillingness to dance under any circumstances, but I can’t remember the details. The chicken’s been in my locker since at least 2009.
What I was saddest to leave, though, wasn’t in my locker, but on it. I don’t know whether the women of the orchestra decorate their lockers, but plenty of the men do. Some of the additions are practical – violist Michael Adams was kind enough to install coat hooks on the outside of several of our locker doors – but most are personal. Principal trumpeter Manny Laureano’s locker sports an American flag and a trumpet. Principal horn Mike Gast’s proudly displays a Florida State Seminoles sticker. I’ve got an equality sticker from the Human Rights Campaign front and center on mine.
And I also have these three tiny newspaper headlines that were published in the Star Tribune twelve years ago, when I was new in town. The Twins, as you may recall, were a terrible ball club at that time, and during the 2000 season, they decided it would be a good idea to employ a starting pitcher named Sean Bergman. As it turned out, this was not a good idea at all, at least from the standpoint of a baseball team trying to win its games. Sean Bergman was not good at winning baseball games. But he was amazing at contributing to my locker, because his season so perfectly mirrored what I, a 24-year-old rookie in a major American orchestra, felt I was going through as I tried to keep up with the major leaguers who had foolishly allowed me to join their ranks.
I totally win at Locker.
I’ve never even considered adding anything else to that door.
Still and all, I know it’s just a building. When it reopens next summer, we’ll move back in like we never left, and start creating new memories to live alongside the ones we already have. But if I’m honest, I’ve been avoiding the heck out of the southern edge of downtown this summer. And I’ve only glanced at the Construction Blog our tech staff have launched (which is actually very cool and the rest of you should totally bookmark it.) I just have too much personal history in that one city block of glass and brick and concrete to be comfortable watching it come down.
I’ve written often about the huge amount of preparation that Sarah and I put into every new Inside the Classics program, and even when we put on a repeat performance of an old show (as we do on these Common Chords trips,) we still spend a fair amount of time sweating the details, retooling the script, swapping out set pieces that didn’t land where we wanted them to the first time, etc.
But when it comes to actually performing the show, it’s a different story. When we first began the series, more than five years ago now, I used to get horribly nervous before every show, and spend most of the first half just trying to remember to breathe before talking. But at this point, each program we do follows a well-established formula, Sarah and I long ago found our comfort zone with each other on stage, and quite honestly, the performances just sort of happen with very little effort from either of us. The Minneapolis audience for the series knows us well, knows what to expect from us, and we from them. It’s just a comfortable situation for everyone.
But there’s a whole different dynamic when we take a program like ItC on the road, especially to a small outstate community. One of the things the musicians of the orchestra have talked about over and over during these Common Chords weeks is how incredibly gracious and welcoming the residents of the town (whether it be Grand Rapids or Willmar) are to us, as if we were visiting dignitaries rather than just working musicians. Maybe it’s the image most people have of orchestras as big, fancy things clad in tuxes and tails, but there seems sometimes to be a greater expectation of formality, pomp and circumstance from small-town audiences.
That expectation is a sign of respect for our craft, of course, but it doesn’t exactly fit with what we do on Inside the Classics concerts. Sarah and I declared war on stiff formality the moment we took the reins on this series, and I’m quite fond of making jokes at the music’s expense whenever possible, and that can be a big leap to ask an audience that was expecting a “normal” orchestra concert to make in an instant. Just as in Grand Rapids last fall, I saw the jolt of more than a few bodies the moment I started talking over Adam Kuenzel’s concert-opening flute solo last night. It’s easy to forget now that we’ve been doing this series for so many years, but most people aren’t expecting a flute solo to suddenly have lyrics.
In a nutshell, this is my Common Chords challenge, and I imagine it will remain so for as long as we continue taking ItC programs on the road. I know in advance that the first words I speak will be jarring and potentially unwelcome to at least some in the audience who were expecting something else, and it then becomes my job to softly reel those people back into a place where they can enjoy what we’re offering.
In Grand Rapids, I wasn’t too worried about this transition, since the program we did there was focused on Copland’s soothing Americana, and the script was full of warm, flowery language designed to make the audience comfortable. Here in Willmar, both the music (Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe and La Valse) and the script were far spikier and shot through with inside jokes and innuendo, which was perfect for the home audience that knows us well already, but was a bit of a risk for an outstate crowd getting its first taste of the Sam & Sarah show. Talking with concertmaster Erin Keefe before last night’s performance, I wondered aloud how long into the show it would take for me to get my first real belly laugh out of the unsuspecting audience.
Not long at all, as it turns out. There was a distinctly audible chuckle during my opening monologue at a point that I hadn’t even written as a laugh line, and by the time we got to the middle of page two of the script, where I basically stop the show to spend three minutes making fun of the plot to Daphnis & Chloe, the audience was clearly having a great time, and had fully bought in to what Sarah and the orchestra and I were selling. I was amazed – developing good chemistry between a performer and an audience is a tricky business, but this Willmar audience seemed utterly comfortable and game for whatever we had decided to put in front of them. It was a great feeling.
Tonight, we’ll wrap up the residency with a more traditional concert – a healthy dose of 20th century Americana (Barber, Copland, and Ginastera) on the first half, and then a good, old-fashioned German symphony (Brahms 2) after intermission. Then it’s back to Minneapolis for a week in the studio, recording our next couple of CDs for BIS Records. We won’t have accomplished anything particularly Earth-shaking here in Willmar, and it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that these residencies change lives or anything like that. But they do accomplish one very important thing for us as an orchestra: every time we spend a week in a community not our own, we make new friends. We establish personal connections with people who might otherwise never give our existence a second thought. We become relevant to some, and reinforce our relevance with others. And for an institution that depends on the generosity of people to survive and thrive, that’s a vitally important accomplishment.
So thanks, Willmar, for everything. See you again soon, I hope.
One of the really great things about these Common Chords residencies that the orchestra has begun undertaking is that, rather than just blowing into town for a single night, playing a concert, and leaving again the next morning, we’re able to really embed ourselves in a community and present a huge variety of concerts and other musical experiences for residents who might otherwise never have access to a major orchestra.
But that variety of programming is the biggest challenge, too, especially once the whole orchestra shows up to complete the residency, as we did in Willmar today. Essentially, we’re trying to cram almost as much music as we might normally rehearse and perform in three weeks into a single three-day stretch. We also couldn’t rehearse any of this weekend’s full orchestra programs earlier this week in Minneapolis, because more than a dozen musicians (including a large chunk of our brass section) were already here in Willmar. And once we all reconvened this afternoon, we had just over two hours of rehearsal time to pull together Friday night’s huge Inside the Classics show featuring Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe and La Valse, and Saturday’s concert featuring Brahms, Barber, Copland, and Ginastera. (The production of Peter and the Wolf that we’ll perform tomorrow afternoon was pre-rehearsed last Thursday with conductor Mark Russell Smith – it’s a program we’ve played a number of times in recent months, though never with Mark on the podium or tomorrow’s narrator, Vern Sutton, at the microphone.)
As Sarah made a valiant effort to drag us through all that repertoire while the clock ticked down, I was bouncing up and down between my seat in the orchestra, and my ItC host position at the front of the stage. This is a familiar routine, but every time we bring an ItC program to a new venue, we’ve learned to expect surprises. Today’s first surprise was that, while Willmar’s WEAC is a vibrant, live concert hall, its amplified sound system isn’t exactly what we’re used to. For one thing, there’s only one wireless microphone, which may not seem like a big deal until you remember just how much time Sarah and I spend wandering around the stage during your average ItC show. To adjust, I’m literally drawing up diagrams of exactly when and how Sarah and I will need to swap off the wireless mic and transition between it and the two corded mics that will also be strategically placed on stage.
The other surprise was that the house system at WEAC was clearly never intended to carry the spoken word above the sound of a symphony orchestra. This was a larger problem, since voiceovers are a regular feature of our shows. As we raced through the pre-intermission excerpts with no real time to go back and adjust the mic levels, I tried talking more loudly, and even holding the mic less than an inch from my mouth, but the amplification actually seemed to get softer when I did! It was baffling – I’ve never been accused of having a soft voice.
Our stage manager, Tim Eickholt, figured out the problem – the house system apparently has an electronic limiter designed to prevent it from overloading and blowing the audience away with too much sound, and that limiter was automatically lowering the volume whenever I spoke louder. This makes a certain amount of sense for a small venue, but it’s not gonna work for us, not with one of Ravel’s biggest pieces cranking up behind me as I wind down the first half of the Friday concert. Fortunately, Tim’s on the job, Sarah and I are making some adjustments in the timing of the voiceovers, and by tomorrow night, we’ll presumably have it all working (nearly) seamlessly. We always do.
As I said in my last post, the full orchestra won’t be descending on Willmar until Thursday afternoon, but Sarah and two chamber ensembles have been there since Monday, and from the looks of the photos they’re sending back, they’re keeping well busy. (Click the images for full-size versions.)
This is way more brass than should ever be allowed in a radio studio.
Two generations of the same family watching the brass quintet perform at a local hospital.
Sarah leading the Willmar Middle School orchestra...
...and later that evening, leading the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra in Dvorak's 4th.
Violist Matt Young chats with WASO musician Josh Pierskalka during a break in rehearsal.
Two trombonists, just chilling. MN Orch principal Doug Wright chatting with Willmar resident and amateur trombonist Bill Benson.
Meanwhile, back here in Minneapolis, I’m scrambling to pull together everything we’ll need for Friday’s Inside the Classics show in Willmar. (It’s a slightly retooled version of the Ravel program we did here during the 2010-11 season.) We’ll have only a few minutes to pull together our first-half shenanigans tomorrow afternoon, since we also have Daphnis & Chloe and La Valse to cover, and that’s before we even begin to worry about the entirely different Saturday night program, which must also be prepped in this one 2-1/2 hour rehearsal.
By the way, I should have mentioned this in my last post, but if anyone reading the blog is planning to come to any of the Willmar concerts this weekend, be sure to come up to the stage and say hi! Not just to me, either – this is one friendly orchestra, so if you or (even better) your kids have some questions, or just want to chat with a musician, don’t hesitate. We won’t bite, I promise.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go memorize my big monologue on the plot of Daphnis & Chloe. That one never sticks in my head, for some reason…
It’s been a tough few weeks for the orchestra and our extremely hardworking staff, as you might have heard, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to once again steal Bob Collins’ excellent tradition of starting the new work week with an inspirational song…
The Mary Ellen Carter – Stan Rogers
Yeah, that’s better already. The last verse of that song pretty much got me through high school, and all you need do to know the power of Stan Rogers is to say his name to a native Canadian of a certain vintage, and then sit back and listen to the stories that pour forth.
The orchestra’s on the move this week, setting up camp in the charming hamlet of Willmar, in west central Minnesota, for another of our “Common Chords” residencies. (The first was last fall, up in Grand Rapids, and if you don’t remember hearing anything about it, you owe it to yourself to go read this post and watch the accompanying video. I still get chills every time I see that first pair of girls stand up and start singing.)
The infiltration will begin with a string quartet and a brass quintet who will be playing at various events, community centers, schools, and VFW halls early in the week. Sarah will be there all week, as well, working with school orchestras, appearing on local radio station KWLM, and leading a well-honed presentation she does called The Art of Conducting for a group of local business leaders. That lot will be joined on Wednesday by eight other musicians playing a concert for the preschool/kindergarten set, an extension of the hugely popular series we call Kinder Konzerts here in Minneapolis.
Finally, the full orchestra will show up on Thursday to play three separate concerts in two days. The first will be a family concert built around a truly ingenious staging of Peter and the Wolf created by the folks who used to be known as Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The second will be a slightly retooled Inside the Classics concert that Sarah and I debuted last season, featuring Ravel’s ballet score to Daphnis & Chloe, with a La Valse kicker.
And then, on Saturday night, we’ll play a full-length orchestral concert at the Willmar Education & Arts Center, featuring a set of Copland songs performed by Willmar native Andrew Wilkowskie, and closing with the timeless wonder that is Brahms’ 2nd Symphony. The price of admission to the Friday and Saturday night shows will be $5. Everything else the orchestra does in Willmar this week will be free of charge.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I won’t be a part of the small ensembles that will be invading Willmar later this very afternoon. (There are close to 100 musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra, and we all have to take turns at these outreach opportunities, and it’s not my turn at the moment.) Still, I’m keeping tabs, and I’m planning to blog the full Common Chords experience as it happens this time around. I’ve always liked this town: we’ve played one-off concerts there several times in the past decade, and in addition to having one of the better Scandihoovian gift shops I’ve ever traipsed through adorning its downtown, Willmar boasts a road-trip worthy chocolatier on its outskirts, and a bustling little indie coffee shop that has brightened my morning more than once over the years.
What made our first Common Chords trip to Grand Rapids so memorable, though, wasn’t the amenities of the town itself, or even the ovations we received at our concerts there. It was the unconditional embrace we received from the town and its residents, the warmth and generosity they showed us wherever we went, and the unmistakable sense of pride that a little town on the edge of the Range had somehow managed to wrangle a nearly-free weeklong festival out of a major international orchestra.
Willmar’s nowhere near the Range, of course, and I’m sure the experience this time around will differ in all sorts of ways from our week in Grand Rapids. But if I know Willmar (and I like to think I do,) that sense of warmth and welcoming will be on display the moment we cross the town line. I can’t wait to see what develops.
We’re taking questions and ideas from the room this month, and as I mentioned at the end of my last post, commenter Michael presented us with an intriguing marketing idea:
Here’s what I want to know: if the audience came a concert knowing that the orchestra would perform an opener, a concerto, and a symphony without telling them what the pieces (or who the composers) were ahead of time, how do you think they might react?
Well, my gut reaction is to suspect that most of them wouldn’t come at all, since everything we know about our audiences suggests that the repertoire on the program is far and away the most important factor in their decision to buy tickets. But I like the way this idea points, because I’ve said for years that a big part of the challenge to attracting new audiences to concert music is getting people who are already fans past the Warhorse Mentality (where some concertgoers only really want to hear their favorite ten pieces over and over again) while simultaneously finding ways to reach out to new people without first needing to explain to them who Schubert was and why they should care.
There are really two different ways to look at Michael’s idea. The first is as a special, one-time-only “mystery concert” in which the hook to get people to buy tickets is that we’re refusing to tell you in advance what we’ll be playing. Maybe there could be some sort of way for ticketbuyers to request favorite pieces, but with no promise of fulfillment. The message would be: it’s gonna be a great concert, but you’ll just have to be there if you want to find out what “it” is. If you priced it right (which is to say, priced it relatively low,) I think this could be a great gimmick, and could even be spun out into an occasional series of mystery concerts.
If, on the other hand, we’re looking to more broadly move the focus away from the specific rep and more towards the idea that the Minnesota Orchestra will give you an experience to remember regardless of what’s specifically on the program, then de-emphasizing (if not completely obscuring) the individual programs makes a lot of sense. This would probably require a large initial cash outlay to shift the focus of our messaging away from targeting specific audiences for specific concerts, and towards just getting the orchestra’s brand in front of as many people as possible as often as possible. Billboards, bus ads, online ads, radio spots, all saying the same thing, which would be some variation on: “The Minnesota Orchestra. The best band in Minneapolis is live at Orchestra Hall every Friday and Saturday night. Be there.”
Would this work? I’ve no idea. I like the concept, but there are all sorts of little niggling details that might derail it from a practical standpoint. For instance: marketing surveys tell us that there is virtually no crossover between the people who want to hear us play great symphonic music and people who want to watch us play backup band to Celtic Woman or Art Garfunkel. And I can’t imagine that the promoters behind Celtic Woman would be okay with our not promoting their specific appearance with us. So we’d be promoting our pops shows (which we play primarily to help subsidize the core classical music that orchestras exist to perform) specifically, but obscuring the week-to-week symphonic works that are at the heart of our mission. That could send a very different message than the one we’re intending.
“Institutional marketing” (the official term for promoting your general existence and value to the community, rather than any specific thing you’re presenting at the moment) is a topic that gets tossed around a lot in arts circles. Given a bottomless pool of money, it’s something every symphony orchestra would be foolish not to do. But with budgets as tight as they are these days, institutional marketing is sometimes viewed as an expensive luxury, and it has the added problem of being hard to evaluate. We have all sorts of ways of assessing how successful our various marketing efforts, ticket discounts, etc. are at getting people in our front door. But measuring how many people have started showing up because your barrage of billboards and bus ads got into their heads and made them suddenly think of you on a Saturday night? Not so easy, and arts managers hate not being able to quantify whether money they’re spending is having a positive impact or not.
I love the idea of getting people to come to Orchestra Hall just because they love the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and trust us to entertain and inspire them regardless of what’s on the program that night. But I would like it, wouldn’t I? It’s a much tougher sell for the people who would actually have to buy the tickets under that arrangement. So what about it: would you come to a one-off mystery concert? Would you keep coming if we did it every week? Or even just some weeks? The comments section awaits your verdict…
My last post on how I had nothing to write about generated a few interesting questions that I responded to in the comments, but it also included a couple of reader ideas that I think are worth getting into more deeply. First up, here’s Simon:
A friend of mine was just grumbling about Minnesota sports teams and their inability to do anything athletic. As a self proclaimed music nerd I took the opportunity to tell him that the money which seemed to be burning a hole in his pocket could easily be spent on our local world class orchestra instead of on… assured and unremitting disappointment. What followed was a conversation about why the arts struggle while sports teams – even the substandard – thrive:
His understanding is that American’s love black and white. Good vs. Evil. He said he loved to be able to look up at the score board with pride or even grief. To be able to lie in bed that night with at least one thing definite. Final. Undeniable. Clear. In essence, he thought anyway, that this is one of the most important things that people are buying when they buy tickets to sporting events. It has even spread into the world of music. Look at the millions of people who tune in to watch American Idol and the myriad spin-offs.
So the question that my friend eventually posed to me – the question I’d like to forward on to all of you – is this: Would setting up something similar to American Idol in the world of symphonies be blasphemous? Or would it be an incredibly effective marketing plan? Perhaps both…? Maybe neither…? It wouldn’t have to be televised. Some sort of in-house keypad voting would do. and I don’t mean to suggest voting off members of the orchestra either. Voting on pieces of music might be just as exciting (as a composer myself, even that is more than a little intimidating). I’m also interested in scenarios that would work. Scenarios that wouldn’t. Or the craziest The Voice version of Orchestra Hall that someone can think up.
Now, the American Idol thing, we’ve actually already done. In fact, we did it more than once – for a couple of consecutive Sommerfests, we held a competition for young musicians (I want to say there were two divisions, with one for 13-and-unders and the other for 14-18-year-olds) in which the kids’ personalities, as well as their musical abilities, were on display, and the audience in attendance at the final round got to vote on the winner. Without any marketing data to work off of, I’m not sure how successful it was from a ticket sales standpoint. From an artistic standpoint, the outcome seemed a lot like most traditional competitions: the winners weren’t always necessarily the ones I would have chosen (in particular, there was one dazzling young pianist in the junior division who got absolutely robbed of the top spot two years in a row,) but they were immensely talented young musicians. The final vote did frequently seem to come down to which contestant had managed to talk the highest percentage of her/his classmates into attending, but whatever. The whole thing had an air of fun to it, it was built around serious classical repertoire, and from my perspective, there seemed to be less of that life-or-death air that surrounds so many classical competitions.
We’ve also done the whole “vote on which piece we play” thing. This had to be done online and well in advance of course: the orchestra’s work schedule is crazy busy as it is, and we don’t have time to even consider rehearsing material that probably won’t be performed. But in a young people’s concert that I hosted several years ago, we invited the kids who would be attending to vote for their choice of three movie scores to be the final piece on a program all about movie music. We offered them Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Our education director, Jim Bartsch, and I both figured Star Wars was a shoo-in, proving that neither Jim nor I has kids; it was Captain Jack Sparrow in a landslide. (We wound up shoehorning Star Wars in anyway – after the orchestra finished Pirates of the Caribbean, Jim’s brother, Tom, who is very tall and a huge Star Wars geek appeared in the house dressed in a very serious Darth Vader costume, threatened me with a light saber, and demanded that his music be played immediately. The kids ate it up with a spoon.)
Speaking of movie music, regular commenter Michael had something to say on that subject:
Are movie scores the new symphonies?
I feel like there’s no way to answer this without making somebody justifiably angry. If I say no, I’m an elitist jerk, and I’m also disrespecting serious composers like Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, and Danny Elfman. (Kidding, kidding.) If I say yes, I’m implying that the bar for what constitutes serious art music has been lowered so far that we might as well ask John Tesh to be our opening night soloist next season.
I think what I’d like to do instead is twist Michael’s question around a bit, and say that I do think that one of the most exciting developments in the music world today is the ease with which music and film can be brought together, by literally anyone with a laptop. It’s resulting in some amazing collaborations that simply wouldn’t have been possible in an earlier time. I’ve posted this video before, but I never get tired of watching it, and it’s a perfect example of the sort of collaboration that’s become possible in the age of YouTube.
Plan of the City. A film by Max Frankel. Music by Judd Greenstein, as performed by the NOW Ensemble, who also appear in the film.
Commenter Michael had another interesting idea, as well, and I’ll dig into that in the next couple of days…
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