Promised followup to my last post. About things badly done at the gala season opener of the National Symphony on September 24. Because there are so many fumbles when classical music is presented to the world. We need to do better!
I must strongly say that, musically, the gala opening was a delight. Gianandrea Noseda — very strong, very charming — making his first appearance as the orchestra’s new music director. Gary Ginstling, newly installed as executive director, bringing strength and smiles onstage. Clearly a new era for the NSO, which seemed to be waking up from a long sleep. Fresh air filling the hall.
They played an all-Bernstein program (like so many American orchestras this season, on their opening nights). The musicians already played better than (most of the time) they have for years. (And Noseda will keep working on their ensemble and articulation,) Noseda seemed warmly at home with Bernstein’s American sound, especially in songs from Bernstein’s Broadway shows (sung to soaring and amused perfection by a terrific British actress and singer, Cynthia Erivo).
He was so warm and so much at home, in fact — and clearly having so much fun — that for me it was sort of sweet (and not any kind of failure) that he doesn’t seem to get American syncopated rhythms. That he bounces them in an Italian way, full of life, but without the extra kick of an American backbeat.
He’s the real deal, I think — a conductor with force, a point of view, and a winning presence. So when you read what follows, remember that I left the hall buoyed by what I saw of the orchestra’s future. Which made what I’m about to say all the more depressing. The music made me happy. But when it comes to presentation, to putting an event on stage…can’t anyone here play this game?
Problems (which were the Kennedy Center’s, not just the NSO’S)
The video screen
They showed a short video about Noseda (meant, I think, to give him a profile, a personality, inside the concert hall and maybe outside, too, since they ran ads about him around the city). But also they were streaming the concert, so microphones were placed above the musicians, hanging from the ceiling on thick black wires. And the video screen was behind the wires! So we saw the video through scattered black lines.
This is unacceptable. Amateur night. Can you imagine Apple doing that, or a sharp entrepreneurial startup, one likely to succeed?
It was too short to go deep, but had bumps of deeper content that made it feel awkward. Especially at the end, when Noseda disarmingly — or was it alarmingly? — said he feels naked when he conducts.
And right after that he came almost bounding on stage! How could I or others not help thinking, “Hey, it’s the naked man!” They so badly needed a bridge between the video and Noseda’s entrance. Even something simple, like an announcer saying, “And now the music director of the National Symphony, Gianandrea Noseda!”
Important people not properly greeted.
The head of the Kennedy Center’s board spoke midway through the concert, and so did the head of the orchestra’s board. After them came Gary Ginstling, who was more personable than the two dignitaries, and did two things that should have been done much earlier. He introduced members of Bernstein’s family, who were at the performance. And he welcomed the people (lots of them, we hope) who were watching the concert online.
That these things should have happened earlier is a no-brainer. If you’re honoring Bernstein, you have to honor his family members who took the trouble to come. And you need — if only as common courtesy — to do it pretty much as soon as you first mention Bernstein’s name.
And if you’ve got an online audience — especially if you’ve never had one before, which I think was true here — again it’s just common courtesy (as well as smart marketing) to greet them the moment anyone starts talking from the stage. You can’t just greet the people in the hall. You need to make your online guests feel welcome. Don’t you want them to stream you again?
Next: Three more things I would have changed about the gala. But not to correct mistakes. Instead to give the event more meaning, more presence in the wider world the orchestra and the Kennedy Center badly want to reach.
Since these is a separate thoughts — separate from correcting bad mistakes — I’ll post them separately.
Early this month I got crazy email from the Met Opera. They were promoting their new season, opening with a new production of Bellini’s Norma.
That opening happened two nights ago, but this doesn’t concern me here. What concerns me — one thing that was crazy — was three links at the top of the email (one for each of the first three operas they’re doing this season), brusquely titled “Photo galleries.”
That, I thought, wasn’t a friendly way to invite me to see what the productions looked like. But I wanted to see how Norma looked, so I clicked.
That’s crazy, I thought. How am I supposed to know the password?
Confused, I went back to the email. Oh, wait…right under the links…they gave me the password.
But still that’s crazy. Why should there be a password at all?
Maybe they first put the photos on a protected page, to keep outsiders away. But when it was time for public display, they couldn’t make a new, unprotected page?
Again, that’s crazy. Amateur stuff.
And that wasn’t all. Later in the email, describing the character one of the Norma lead singers plays, they got the story of the opera wrong.
Amateur night again. The Met Opera, with a circa $300 million budget, falls on its face doing easy things.
(It takes a while to explain the mistake with the story, so I won’t interrupt myself to do it here. I’ll put it at the end of this post, for anyone curious.)
Why this matters
As I’ve said here before, classical music institutions don’t always function in what I’d call a grownup way.
Or at least they don’t in their relations with the rest of the world. Back in the spring I found the Kennedy Center promoting a concert on which a piece by Mason Bates was played. And failing to mention that he’s their composer in residence.
And saying in the same promotion that composer Caroline Shaw would make a “special appearance.” Without telling the full and much more interesting story, which is that she’d play the solo part in her own violin and orchestra piece.
Then there’s the Kennedy Center’s website, which makes it hard to find out what time performances start. For instance here, a page for some National Symphony events, which you’ll read (in boldface type) when the preconcert talks start, but not when the concerts do. (Until you scroll way down to buy tickets, when you finally see the starting time, in fine print.)
I don’t mean to pick on the Kennedy Center, but since I live in DC, they’re my home team, and I see their stuff. But I’m also puzzled by the San Francisco Symphony,, which keeps sending me emails, greeting me as “Mr. Sandow.”
When in today’s business world, companies use first names. To my bank, I’m “Greg.” (And how does the orchestra know if we’re women or men? If my name was Dana, would I be Mr. or Ms.?)
There are many more examples.
A quote from Casey
Which brings me to the title of this post. Casey Stengel, a baseball legend, managed the Yankees from 1948 to 1960 and won the world series seven times.
Then at the end of his career he found himself managing the NY Mets, an expansion team in their first year, who were terrible. At one point they lost 17 times in a row. Leading Stengel to famously ask: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
I ask myself that, when I see how badly classical music people often address the outside world. Not knowing the culture around them. Not clear on who they want to reach. And (sorry to be blunt) making bonehead mistakes.
Next post: mistakes at the National Symphony’s opening gala last Sunday. Just to be clear: I enjoyed the concert. The music was pretty much a delight. But the presentation stumbled.
What the Met got wrong about Norma‘s plot:
In the email I mentioned, introducing the opera’s cast, they said Joyce DiDonato (the superstar mezzo) would play “Norma’s archrival.”
But that’s not right. Norma (the soprano lead) is high priestess of the ancient Druids. They’re at war with the Romans. But, shock, Norma has a secret Roman lover. (Double shock, since as a priestess she’s not supposed to have any relations with men).
And yes, the mezzo, too, is seduced by a Roman. By Norma’s lover!
But the opera doesn’t show us the women as rivals. It shows them as victims. By the end, singing one of the most famous of all operatic duets, they love each other like sisters. And the great confrontation in the piece comes between Norma and the Roman.
Whoever wrote the email didn’t seem to know that. Or didn’t understand what it means to call people archrivals. Likewise whoever approved the text before it went out. #can’tanybodyhereplaythisgame?
So here I am back, after much time off. Not blogging.
Some of that was vacation. Trips, family time. As in this photo of me and Rafa at a British pub:
Or this one of him and Anne on a wild hillside. After a multi-hour steep hike, he said: “This is the greatest day ever!”
Though maybe that was topped by his first ride on a Ferris wheel. He wasn’t just delighted. He just about became delight.
And there’s an extra reason to share these photos, quite beyond “I love my wife and kid!” (He’s going to be six next month. I know I’m not the only parent to ask, “How’d that happen?”)
The other reason
I’m also posting these pictures because they show what makes me happy. Not that other things don’t, but this is a big one.
And what makes me happy matters, because this spring I realized that not much in my work did. Doesn’t mean I got nothing from my work, or that it wasn’t valuable to others. Or that some of it — teaching, composing — couldn’t thrill me.
But the constant rush to keep current online, to promote myself — that strained me. So I thought I’d pull back, take some time off. Clear my mind.
And it worked. I figured I’d get back to blogging when I felt relaxed about it, when I knew I really wanted to. Figured that should happen in September, but left it loose (relaxed) inside myself about just when that would be.
Which feels like now. I recommend this kind of mental cleansing. Even if you can’t abandon everything that makes you tense, find something you can pull back from. Even if you just delay it for an hour or a day.
Just tell yourself this thing — whatever it might be — doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Or that a day away from it won’t kill it.
Or that it isn’t worth the tension. Or — and this is so important — that you might have a dozen things that seem crucially important, or that taken by themselves you do enjoy. But that weighing on you as a group they’re burdensome, destructive of a larger goal in life, perhaps the largest, which is to be kind, happily productive, and content.
It worked for me.