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STL Symphony Blog
Welcome to the STL Symphony Blog, an ongoing account of life with the St. Louis Symphony compiled by Eddie Silva.
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So what is it like for a group of Orchestra Personnel Managers--who share an occupation that is invisible, yet essential, to orchestras--to get together, to be in a room where everyone speaks the same language and everyone understands the complexity of what it is each one does? "It's a big group hug," said St. Louis Symphony OPM Beth Paine, after the conference was all done and everyone had flown back to their home orchestras from St. Louis.
2 years ago | |
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Orchestra Personnel Managers from throughout the country are visiting Powell Hall Monday and Tuesday as part of their annual conference. These are the people that work behind the scenes to help ensure that symphony musicians are where they need to be and doing what they need to be doing. These folks know their orchestra's individual collective bargaining agreements backwards and forwards. They have budget figures and audition dates and rules and regs dancing in their heads. They can recite this stuff like the Pledge of Allegiance. They're awesome, and they seem so happy together, being with others who understand their challenging, not-so-easy-to-fathom occupations. St. Louis Symphony OPM Beth Paine has been serving as the gracious hostess. On Monday afternoon, the OPMs returned from lunch for a brief duet performed by Erik and Heidi Harris, who played Kreisler and Lennon/McCartney. The OPMs were enraptured, to once again show that while their heads are in the details, their hearts are in the music.
2 years ago | |
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The director Bernardo Bertolucci said that when you go to a movie theater and watch a film "you lose yourself in the collective dream."

That experience is becoming more rare. Even I, a cinephile, watch more films at home on the sofa than at the cinema any more.

More rare and thus more precious. Two-thousand people in Powell Hall listening, watching, experiencing, engaging in a performing art form that calls for the precision and deft maneuvers and invisible communication of tightrope walkers--although in this case it is 100 tightrope walkers on the same wire together.

What might audiences need more than the experience itself?

How might the sense of the collective experience be reinforced? It needs to be, for such experiences are endangered species, being extinguished by the growth and proliferation of the individual, Google-guided experience.

Program notes are best as narratives--the telling of stories that audiences share, whether they read them online, on the page, before or after the concert. Narratives that don't necessarily take you into the music--only the music can do that--but at best runs parallel. Here is a journey I have taken in this music, the author's approach may be, let me share it with you, and you, and you.

Narratives as simple as "Elgar was playing a tune one day..." or "Beethoven was looking for a hit..." or "I was befuddled by the music of Ligeti until..." Music is a human utterance, made from a given place and time for both a known audience (the composer's present time) and an unknown audience (our present time). Music is made to compete with rivals, to seduce, to make money. Telling the story of how music is made out of need and desire connects to all our human needs and desires. It is made relevant (another word I've never much cared for, but after a life of working in the arts, I know it's a word I have to own up to).

Program notes may be thought of less as guides or information providers or mediators or "greatness" allocators. Program notes may help to establish the moment of the performance itself, the relevance of the moment--the moment as conduit between time past, present and future; the moment of shared experience--and may serve as a connector. We all perceive differently, but somehow we also create a shared reality out of all those singular perceptions. The authorial voice, the storyteller, may bind us, or spellbind us: stories of Messiaen's birds, Steve Reich's trains, Thomas Adès' ecstasy trips. Narrative has the power to help us connect. It always has.

It's a voice that takes you alongside the roaring river of music. It leads you to a bridge. You perceive all the sound, all the motion of that river. You recognize its full power. The voice dares you: Jump in. 

2 years ago | |
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After Otello, among other things I learned about Modernism. I learned about uncompromising artists such as Ezra Pound who thought if you couldn't read Greek or Sanskrit, you could learn it and then maybe you could get a handle on his poetry. He sure wasn't going to explain it to you.

I liked that approach. Terms such as "user friendly" or "accessible" were not in vogue. I could not have imagined that they ever would be. I liked the idea of the primacy of art and artists. I still do personally, but it doesn't help much with making program notes in the early part of the 21st century.

A lot has happened since The Ed Sullivan Show. Whereas Ed never explained anything, you may now go to any fine-arts museum today and order up a headset. You may then stand before any artwork and listen to a voice telling you what to think about that artwork. People pay for those headsets. Sometimes it's a movie star telling you.

Museum-goers now walk by works of art, take a picture of a painting or sculpture with their magic phone, and then move to the next painting or sculpture. Repeat.

We are in the age of mediated culture, which means we are in the age of mediated reality. Few things are experienced without a screen through which to view and record: instant memory! Reality needs to be realized through something--a gadget, a device, a guide.

With all that--this amazing rapid shift in human consciousness--I know that I should not be so aggravated by the very low-tech program notes (although they are available online). They are downright homely in comparison to all the other vehicles through which we are bombarded with information. Moreover, dare I say it, program notes may be irrelevant. Anyone may gather information about anything whenever and however they want. Why rely on printed--how archaic!--program notes? The information age is a DIY world.

And it is with this idea I come to realize a reason for program notes to be.

(final installment tomorrow, honest)

2 years ago | |
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Please give me a day to collect my thoughts before I reach the finale of "On Program Notes." Meanwhile, I stepped outside of Powell Hall to find out what 112 degrees "real feel" feels like. It's impressive.
2 years ago | |
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When I was in junior high our band teacher packed us onto a bus bound for the opera house in Portland, Oregon, just a few miles up the interstate, to see a matinee of Verdi's Otello. I suspect our band teacher had given us some sort of preparation for the opera experience. I remember him telling us something about how opera was the highest form of music, which was ridiculous to us given that outside of the band room we were listening to Jimi Hendrix.

I'm sure we were handed programs by the ushers. I might even have one in a scrapbook somewhere. And there was probably a synopsis of the story in those programs. I really don't remember.


What I do remember are sets that towered and made the Cyprian port an expansive dreamscape. And then those voices--the powerful, brutish but gorgeous Otello; the heart-wrenching Desdemona; the wily, villainous, yet captivating Iago.

We couldn't stop applauding. A bunch of kids from a mill town in Oregon, stomping our feet for Otello. That was more than 40 years ago.

If I had my nose in the program notes, following along with the scenes, what would my memory be? Would I remember anything at all?


(to be continued)

2 years ago | |
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I've always been fascinated by art. I don't know why. My dad used to be the president of the school board in the district in rural northern Idaho where I was born and where I attended the first and second grades. I remember he invited the teachers from our grade school to the farmhouse one summer, and I prepared for this by making the teachers individual gifts: works of art. I took my lined tablet and with crayon colored in a different color between each line. Then I cut these ribbons of color with scissors and presented it to each teacher. I wonder if those color ribbons were not an early sign that I would be attracted to minimalist art.

We left the farm. We moved to another small town in the West. My cultural experiences came from TV, magazines, books and movies. There was a show called The Ed Sullivan Show, which just about everybody watched on Sunday nights. He had Elvis Presley on his show. He had the Beatles on his show. Imagine almost the entire country watching one thing that isn't the Super Bowl. That's what The Ed Sullivan Show was.


But Sullivan didn't just present rock & rollers. Opera singers--Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills--were on the show. James Earl Jones performed a scene from The Great White Hope with the entire Broadway cast. Standup comics--George Carlin, Richard Pryor--were on. Circus elephants were on. Rudolf Nureyev danced. Natalya Makarova danced "The Dying Swan" and millions of children--boys and girls--tried to imitate her the next day. The poet Carl Sandburg strummed a guitar and droned on about Lincoln.


Ed Sullivan took high and low culture and mixed it all up so that some people began to get a notion that there really wasn't a difference between the two. Weren't some of those comics as artful at what they were doing as Joan Sutherland was singing from La Bohème? Weren't the Beatles doing amazing things with melody, harmony, rhythm--and in the later psychedelic years, sound itself? And wasn't that as interesting as anything Aaron Copland was writing?


And Ed Sullivan, who looked like a zombie on stage long before zombies were hugely popular, never explained anything.


(to be continued on the Monday post, have a good weekend!)

2 years ago | |
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To unravel my dilemma, please allow me a little self-exploration. Clearly my revulsion toward program notes comes from somewhere. And I admit that revulsion is too strong a word, but here's a good rule for writers: Be provocative. Be bold.

And isn't that a problem with program notes? They're too nicey-nice. Everything you're hearing is great. Every composer fits unreservedly within the pantheon of classical music. It's all beautiful.


Those things aren't interesting to say. They're especially not  interesting to read. So what should be open on your lap at the concert? Nothing? I suggest that and I'm out of a job.


But I have no need to worry about job security--at least relating to managing the printed program--because audiences want program notes. They want information. They want, as the saying goes, "a way into the music."


As if music weren't the most penetrable art form of them all.


I'll backtrack, and give you some perspective on the times I've lived through, and how they inform, color, and admittedly distort my view of program notes. And I'll try to do this without boring you about how things were back in my day--but rather as a way to show you more about what things might be like in our day--to give some perspective on what we're all living through together: the most concentrated and rapid shift in human consciousness in human history.


And how that indeed has something to do with program notes, and my hatred of them.


(to be continued)

2 years ago | |
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In my position as publications manager I serve as editor, writer, copyeditor, proofreader, managing editor, fact checker, chief cook and bottle washer for the St. Louis Symphony's Playbill. It's a job for which I take great pleasure and pride. I think of the printed program as an extension of the St. Louis Symphony. It's one of the ways in which audiences engage with the Symphony musicians, the music they play, and the myriad of things this organization does to maintain its overall mission: "to enrich people's lives through the power of music."

Part of my duties is the editing of the program notes. I don't write program notes, but I've read plenty of them, in St. Louis and those written for other orchestras. I figure I must know something about program notes, which I why I feel confident in saying what I am about to say.


I hate program notes. And, I think our program notes are pretty darn good. That's not why I hate them (and you should know that I'm saying "hate" to be dramatic). And yet, if I see members of the audience reading program notes in the middle of a performance--say, in some slow movement of Brahms; or during an unfamiliar piece by Thomas Adès--I cringe. 


I'm thinking: It's all there for you. Listen. Watch (because the concert experience is visual too). Be here. Now! You don't need to read this stuff while you're experiencing it. Moreover, I think you are distancing yourself from the experience by reading the notes. Put the book down!


So, as you can tell, I'm in a bit of a dilemma.


(to be continued)

2 years ago | |
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A few months ago Vera Parkin--who often plays keyboards with the St. Louis Symphony and who is also a remarkable teacher of young musicians--asked me to speak to her students at the Community Music School on the subject of program notes. I accepted Vera's request as an opportunity to clarify my thinking on something that I'd thought about a lot, but had not yet been given a push toward putting those thoughts together in a coherent or semi-coherent manner. Writing is, in part, an act toward knowing what one thinks. An excellent writing teacher with whom I studied offered this mantra to his students: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

So I've been going back to what I told the CMS students one gentle night in Webster Groves a few months ago, to see what I think. Over the next few days I'll be sharing those thoughts with you on the Symphony blog. I'll tell you why I hate program notes.
2 years ago | |
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