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Greg Sandow on the future of classical music
Updated: 1 hour 19 min ago

“Everybody dance now!”

Mon, 2017-05-01 13:29

So for a change of pace…

Last night I was at a birthday party for a kid in Rafa’s class, one of his best friends. “I like him a killion!”

While the kids played, I sat with some other parents from Rafa’s school. Three women were on their phones, looking at the summer concert schedule at Wolf Trap. Big performing arts center in the DC area, for anyone who doesn’t know it.

These were educated, professional women, age around 40, I’d guess. And they were going wild over this show:





Made them so happy! They were singing songs that would be on the show. “Everybody dance now!”

And then Googling to find set lists for this and (I think) other similar shows, to see just what songs would be done.

Said Wolf Trap’s blurb:

“Everybody Dance Now!” The ‘90s are back and “No Scrubs” allowed. Don’t miss this throwback party featuring faves like “Waterfalls,” “This Is How We Do It,” and “Rhythm Is A Dancer!”

And for these women, this was just the literal truth. Said the show would be a party, and that’s what they thought it would be.

My takeaway

Let’s tuck away all the usual flurries about  the quality of this music, or whether singing the tunes is how we should react to profound classical pieces.

(Though I do think “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C&C Music Factory is about as irresistible as anything in music.)

Just for this moment, at least, we should let all that go. Because last night what got to me was how happy these women were, just beaming with delight.

And so I have to ask: Does advance word of anything in classical music get our smiling  and singing?

I haven’t seen it. Here’s how Wolf Trap hypes the two classical music events on their main stage summer schedule, a National Symphony program and a concert performance of Tosca:

Wolf Trap welcomes the National Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Gianandrea Noseda, in his first weekend at the helm of the Orchestra. Maestro Noseda leads the NSO, a massive community chorus, and Wolf Trap Opera alumni in Orff’s epic Carmina Burana. Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition, opens the program with Beethoven’s magnificent “Emperor” concerto.

Caught up in a world of political intrigue and corruption, Puccini’s fiery diva is trapped between her allegiance to her rebel lover and a treacherous police chief who will stop at nothing to possess her. The explosive conflict between these three unforgettable characters comes to a hair-raising conclusion in one of opera’s most popular, suspenseful, and unforgettable dramas.

Who’s going to get excited at that? So many indigestible words about Tosca, meaningless epithets like “epic” and “magnificent” in the Symphony blurb. Not exactly red meat that gets you up on your feet singing “Recondita armonia” or “O fortuna.”

Trying now to imagine classical concertgoers singing and miming the opening piano sweeps of the Emperor…(because all these pieces are singable, however deep the Emperor might go)…

It’s just not happening. We’ve leached that out of our classical music world. Even if we had a light classical program, Strauss waltzes and Rossini overtures — we just don’t read the concert announcement and start to sing.

And the Wolf Trap blurbs feel, as you read them…unfelt (to avoid any harsher word). As opposed to the 90s party blurb, which, again, struck the women at the party as simply the truth.

Related footnotes

Some years ago I was at a large gathering, involving musicians, board, and staff from more than a dozen orchestras. Held in Cleveland, jointly hosted by the Cleveland Orchestra and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Part of the program (optional) was free admission to the Rock Hall. (As it’s locally called.)

Some longtime orchestra musicians went, saw some live performance videos, and came back wistful. “I wish our audience cared that much!”

Another time, I went to a Neil Young show with two people from classical music. One was a Neil Young fan, the other hadn’t been to many rock shows. And after a couple of songs was saying, “Everyone from classical music should go to a show like this! To see what it’s like when an audience cares.”

Once the audiences for what we now call classical music really did care that much…clapping during concerts when they heard something they liked…shouting at singers on the opera stage.

Here’s a recording of an Italian audience in 1957, rippling with audible excitement while Maris Callas sings a high C.

And I treasure the story of a party after the premiere of one of Shostakovich’s string quartets, the third or fourth, can’t remember. The quartet played the piece again, and the audience sang along with one of the themes.

I have to wonder: If people in the audience got word of another performance of the piece, would they have started humming that tune?

Categories: New Music Blogs

A failure of SHIFT — there wasn’t much buzz

Wed, 2017-04-26 19:39

Why I’m writing these posts about SHIFT *a festival featuring orchestras from around the U.S., coproduced in Washington by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, with all tickets affordably priced at $25): 

Because the festival wasn’t marketed well, wasn’t promoted well. And will come back next year, so a look at its problems could be helpful.

And because the mistakes are instructive. Others can learn from them.

Four lessons:


Use common sense.

Think really hard about how your marketing will look to your target audience.

Plan your marketing when you plan your programs. Not because you only want to do popular programs, that will sell tickets easily. But because you need to know where you stand, how many tickets the programs you plan are likely to sell. If you don’t like the answer, you can adjust the programs, adjust their marketing, move performances to a smaller space, or — if you can afford this —  accept fewer ticket sales.

But at least you’ll know. And you’ll have a chance, long in advance, to set things up as strongly as possible.

In an earlier post, I asked if SHIFT was a success or a failure.

Looking only at the concerts, and leaving aside an assortment of community events, this is what we saw. Four orchestras played. One nearly sold out the more than 2000 seats in the Kennedy Center concert hall. Two filled about half the seats. And the fourth sold way less than half.

That’s not a success, even if half-full houses seem to be the norm in DC these days. But if one concert nearly sold out — and the audience cheered — then there’s hope!

So call SHIFT a work in progress.

One thing that failed

And this, I fear, is a biggie. There was no advance buzz. As far as I can tell, people in the Washington, DC classical music world weren’t excited. They weren’t talking about SHIFT. If you asked them, they’d say they’d go to the concerts. But there didn’t seem to be much interest.

Worse than that, there was, if anything, a kind of anti-buzz — skepticism about the festival, doubts that it would succeed.

The reason for the anti-buzz was very clear. SHIFT was positioned as a continuation of the Spring for Music festival in New York, which brought orchestras from around the country to Carnegie Hall, with all tickets $25.

And which was perceived as a failure.

So why continue the failure in Washington?

More on that next week. About how it was a promotional blunder to link SHIFT — or let it be linked — to Spring for Music. And how that could have been avoided.

But there was another reason SHIFT didn’t get much buzz

And that’s because — quite apart from any Spring for Music link —  it wasn’t conceived clearly, and it wasn’t promoted well. Starting with its name, SHIFT.

What does that even mean?

Contrast Nissan’s famous “Shift” ad campaign. I’d see their commercials, and the meaning of shift was always clear. It was used in many ways. Like “Shift the way you move.” I get that. This was a car commercial. Nissan has changed, the commercial implied. Now it has great new cars. So if we drive one, we’ll shift — drive differently, move through life differently.

And then of course there’s a  subliminal reference to something we all do when we drive, shifting gears.

But “SHIFT: A festival of orchestras”? What does “shift” tell us there?

Nothing that’s immediately clear.

Deciphering the word

I think I know what “SHIFT” is trying to say. Orchestras have changed. They’re energized, vital, doing new things. They’re alive in their communities.

Or, in other words, they’ve shifted, and we should shift what we think of them.

But how does SHIFT, as the name of a festival, without any further context, tell us that? There’s a thought process going on, but we don’t know what it is. We have to guess on our own.

So of course the festival didn’t generate buzz. We didn’t know what it meant, what it was supposed to accomplish. Or why we should care.

Which would have been easy to fix! Just tell us what’s going on. In direct, lively words we can all understand.

A modest suggestion

For instance — as I said in my earlier post — they could have called  the festival “Orchestras Unleashed.”

Let’s not argue over whether that’s a great name. Or whether it described what the SHIFT producers had in mind.

Just consider its virtues (or the virtues of another name like it).

It’s clear. It promises something. Promises something we might like to see. People in the DC classical music world, I think, could have gotten behind it.

Plus, special bonus — it might have helped WPA and the Kennedy Center plan their festival more sharply. Much easier to build on a clear idea than a vague one.

Next, the buzz killer — linking SHIFT to Spring for Music.

Re the SHIFT idea:

Maybe WPA and the Kennedy Center wanted to do the kind of hip marketing Apple is famous for.

But Apple’s ad campaigns are simple, and hit home very strongly. Take what I think is the most famous one, “Think different.”  When it launched in 1997, anybody buying a computer knew what it meant. “Be different — buy a Mac! Everyone else has a PC.” 

Not that those words ever had to be used. The message didn’t have to be spelled out. And was reinforced by photos of artists, thinkers, and social figures — people like Maria Callas, Einstein, and Gandhi — who really did think different(ly).

Categories: New Music Blogs

SHIFT — a weird PR gaffe

Fri, 2017-04-21 11:49

Resuming my blog after a gap…

I’m sorry that I said some provocative things about the SHIFT festival in DC, and then fell silent.

I hadn’t planned that. But life intervened, taking me by surprise, when my schedule got crazy.

My bad. I apologize.

And I also apologize for something off-base I said in my SHIFT post:

Special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.

Yes, the performance by the North Carolina Symphony did sell fewer tickets than the other SHIFT concerts (by quite a lot). And they did play a Mason piece.

But wrong to suggest that Mason’s name didn’t sell tickets! How could I know that? Maybe sales would have been lower still if his name hadn’t been on the program.

Apologies, again, for going off track this way.

But there’s another issue

Why — in all the PR I’ve seen for that concert — wasn’t Mason billed as the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence?

This is crazy.

Here  — from the joint Kennedy Center/Washington Performing Arts web page for SHIFT — is the PR blurb for the North Carolina concert:

The orchestra offers an innovative program, deeply evocative of North Carolina, represented in particular by four composers with ties to the state: Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Mason Bates, and Robert Ward.

Caroline Shaw gets props (as she should) as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Mason gets nothing. He’s just a name on a list.

Even though he’s the Kennedy Center’s own guy! Personally chosen (I’d assume) by K Center president Deborah Rutter, after the success she had with him as composer in residence when she ran the Chicago Symphony.


Don’t they want to give their own guy props?

Don’t they want to be courteous to him, and mention that he’s an important figure at the place where the concert will be given?

Wouldn’t they hope Mason’s name might sell some tickets, if they reminded people in DC that he’s on the home team, a composer whose music they maybe have heard and liked?


And it gets worse

In promo emails for the concert, from the North Carolina Symphony and also from Washington Performing Arts, there’s also not a word Mason as composer in residence

Aren’t those groups collaborating with the Kennedy Center?

The orchestra writes a longish paragraph about Mason, praising him as the second most performed living composer in the US. But doesn’t say he’s composer in residence.

WPA gives a special nod to Caroline Shaw. Pulitzer Prize winner! She’ll make a “special appearance” at the concert! Mason’s name isn’t even mentioned.

(And, for even greater craziness, the email doesn’t say that Caroline’s “special appearance” will be as a violin soloist, playing her own piece. Sorry for the emphasis, but…they didn’t think to publicize Caroline as soloist? Nor did they on the SHIFT webpage, which I quoted above. What word would you use for that?)

How could this happen?

These look like silly mistakes.

But maybe there’s some deeply overthought reason for not mentioning Mason’s DC title.

“Let’s see…if we give him props for his K Center work, we’re putting the K Center ahead of WPA and the orchestra, because he’s not composer in residence for them…”

Which might just possibly make sense at 3 AM, to people with deeply furrowed brows. But then you fall into something else that seems wrong, promoting Caroline more than Mason. And you look bad to any informed observer on the outside.

In the past, I’ve blogged that the classical music field doesn’t do PR very well. (Or here, or here.)

I fear this is one more example.


Did Mason’s name sell tickets to the North Carolina concert?

I’d think the Kennedy Center would want to know. Would want to know what impact their composer in residence has in their city. Selling tickets isn’t the only way to measure that, but it’s one way.

And, more generally, I hope they and WPA did audience studies for all the SHIFT concerts. What made people choose which one to go to? What made them want to go to SHIFT at all?

Having that data would — to put it mildly — help WPA and Kennedy Center plan the continuation of the festival next year. 

Categories: New Music Blogs

The SHIFT festival — failure or success?

Fri, 2017-04-14 10:30

I’m late in getting to this, thanks to some traveling. But I’m asking a vital question. Both because the SHIFT festival was a major move for two top DC institutions. And because the marketing lessons here can be helpful to everyone.

What SHIFT is:

A festival of orchestras, coproduced in DC by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts.

Four concerts. Called SHIFT, because (like the festival it’s partly modeled on, Spring For Music in New York) it’s designed to show that orchestras are different now.

Or, to quote the festival’s program book, to show

≥the dynamism of four exceptional American orchestras…[how] through  creative engagement and artistic daring they’re distinguishing themselves as leaders…[how they’re] SHIFTING our perceptions of what an orchestra is by doing amazingly innovative things in their communities…

Plus more, scattered through separate sentences floating in a full page of fine print. All, for me, s little gushy. Can’t believe the purpose of the festival couldn’t have been said more strongly in one clear paragraph.

But later for that. The festival wants to shift our perceptions of what American orchestras are.

So in more detail…

SHIFT was four concerts, given at the end of March and beginning of April. All tickets were $25, and the orchestras encouraged to do programming they loved, programming typical of them at their best, programming that would be key to them and their dreams.

The orchestras were the Boulder (CO) Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and The Knights (a Brooklyn collective born from changes in classical music).

And one measure of success…

…is of course the box office.

The Boulder Philharmonic had a triumph, nearly filling the Kennedy Center concert hall (more than 2000 seats), with an audience that roared with delight.

The North Carolina Symphony — doing music by composers with ties to North Carolina — had rows of gaping, empty seats, the house not nearly half full.

And The Atlanta Symphony (doing a full-evening oratorio by Christopher Theofanidis) and The Knights (with a program featuring the very sweet and very capable San Francisco Girls Chorus) fell in the middle. They drew what seems to be emerging as the new normal for orchestra concerts in DC —  houses more or less half full.

There were also what the festival called “residencies,” community and outreach events. But later for those. The concerts of course were the main events. So did they fail or succeed?

A little of both, it seems clear. So for future planning — SHIFT will come back next year — it’s important to look at the biggest success and the biggest failure.

Why did Boulder sell so well, and North Carolina so poorly?

One analysis

I should say, full disclosure, that I’m not the ultimate expert. I couldn’t even go to three of the concerts. Family obligations and my Juilliard teaching kept me away from Boulder, North Carolina, and Atlanta. Though I did go to the Knights, a sweet but oddly disjointed affair, which I’ll talk about in another post.

But I’ve talked to people variously involved. And just by using common sense I can make a guess about Boulder and North Carolina.

To explain my guess, I’ll do an elevator pitch for those concerts.

First Boulder. They played three contemporary pieces, all about nature (about Rocky Mountain National Park, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the prairie). The composers were Stephen Lias, Jeff Midkiff, Steve Heitzen, not names that I’d guess would be known to many of us in the DC classical world.

But clearly the names didn’t matter, partly because hardly any classical composer has an audience, and partly because of everything else about the concert.

What mattered, I’m guessing, was first the nature theme, which of course resonates wonderfully with Boulder, a city in the Rocky Mountains, whose people famously love the outdoors.

Plus one of the nature pieces had video along with it. And then the grand finale was Appalachian Spring, which had aerial dancers, aka acrobats. Of course it’s a nature piece, too, but…acrobats!

So the elevator pitch is easy to make:

Mountains! Nature! Video! Acrobats!

Cut to North Carolina. They did two works by the dean of North Carolina composers, the late Robert Ward, also not a name to strike any sparks, though he’s known for his early 1960s opera The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller’s play.

Then they did pieces by Mason Bates, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, all of whom turn out to have a North Carolina connectionI. Who knew? Of course they’re best known as leading younger composing stars (to whatever extent, without much audience, any classical composer can be called a star).

Certainly they’re bigger names than Robert Ward, or the composers Boulder played.

But look how little that mattered. Composers really don’t have an audience.

(And, special note for the Kennedy Center: Mason Bates has been your composer in residence for two years. With no disrespect to him or his music — he’s someone I’ve known cordially for years — you might ask what it means that the concert featuring him drew the smallest SHIFT audience. Something maybe isn’t working in your composer in residence promotion.)

So back to the elevator pitches. This is what North Carolina’s would have to be:

Music by North Carolina composers.

Boulder wins!

I don’t know in any detail how these concerts were marketed. But, whatever was done, Boulder gave much more to work with.

Not that the North Carolina music might not have been worthy. In fact, some of the  buzz I picked up called this the best concert, musically, of the festival.

But it’s not promotable as North Carolina music. To be brutally honest, no one — or anyway no one outside North Carolina — is likely to care. North Carolina composers! Doesn’t light any sparks.

Boulder wins.

Looking toward next year

I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that we need acrobats to sell tickets to orchestras. If that’s true, we’re dead. There are many other ways to make an orchestra concert seem interesting.

So of course this was an extreme comparison. But sometimes extreme examples are helpful to clarify things at the start of a discussion.

They make the basic point crystal clear. And the basic point here is that people need a reason to come to a concert. A reason that echoes beyond the walled city of classical music.

So since SHIFT returns next year, here’s a suggestion for my friends involved in producing it. Do an elevator pitch for each proposed event. At first do it just for yourselves, not for public consumption.

But take the pitch seriously. And be merciless about the results. If, for any event, the best pitch you come up with  — looked at in the cold light of reality — won’t sell tickets, don’t do the concert!

Plan something you can sell. Or at least put the concert with a smaller draw in a smaller hall.

And yes, this isn’t how classical music usually works. I’m suggesting you should avoid the time-honored classical thing, which is to plan the concerts your heart yearns for artistically, and only then think how you’ll market them. What you love may not be what the world loves.

Think of marketing right from the start, so at the very least you won’t be surprised.

(Cautionary example! In a previous post I talked about how smart Zuill Bailey is when he books classical soloists and chamber groups. Always he’s thinking how many tickets each artist or ensemble will sell. He mentioned another chamber music presenter who doesn’t think about that. Someone who books the artists they want, pays the fee the artist normally gets, then accepts whatever the ticket sales are. “Why do you do that?” Zuill asked, explaining his more grounded approach. The other presenter, baffled, said, “Hasn’t it always been done that way?” No wonder classical music is in trouble.)

Footnote 1

Wouldn’t help to make the NC elevator pitch “Exciting new music.”

First because all the SHIFT events featured new music. And also because not many people equate new classical music with excitement.

But, above anything else, this pitch won’t work because just saying something is exciting doesn’t make it so.

Think of the orchestras that — haplessly — use exclamation points when they tweet upcoming events. “Tomorrow’s concert — Mozart’s G minor symphony!” Routine announcement. The exclamation point doesn’t make it any less routine. .

If you want people to believe something is exciting, say something — something specific — that’s exciting about it.


Some conceptual problems. 

Here — from the cover of the SHIFT program book — is some marketing language. Prominent marketing language. The first thing you see, in big type, when you look at the program book.

SHIFT your expectations.

SHIFT your senses.

SHIFT your spirit.

What does that mean? What’s it even about? If you know the backstory — if you know the festival is all about changes in orchestras — then, fine,  you’ll understand what you’re reading.

But if you don’t know that? Look at Nissan’s “shift” advertising, which I believe is the most famous marketing campaign ever to focus on the word “shift.”

You watch their car commercials, and  you hear about the car. Only at the end, do they tell you to shift your thinking — after they’ve given you reasons to do it.

That’s how really top marketers work.

And anyway, the whole orchestra SHIFT promotion, starting with the very word SHIFT, and continuing down through those words on the program book cover…it’s all a bit vague, overthought, overhyped.

Why not just one strong, clear sentence, driving home what the festival is? Why couldn’t they call it “Orchestras Unleashed”? (Or something like that.)

To me that’s far more effective. A far better elevator pitch. Far more likely to get people to come.

Categories: New Music Blogs

Things new to me

Wed, 2017-04-12 19:09

Two things new to me, in my El Paso trip, when I visited UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso.

First, it was a family trip, They invited both Anne and me (Anne of course being my wife Anne Midgette, classical music critic at the Washington Post).

Often people who invite her places would love me to come, and when I’m invited, I’m often asked if she can be there. We love working together, but it’s not usually possible, above all because we have a five year-old son. No one to take care of him while we’re gone.

But this time — when they invited us jointly — they and we made it work. We brought Rafa along, and people at UTEP (bless them) provided enough childcare to make the visit work. It was good childcare, so we all had fun, Rafa included.

We’re open to other invitations!

And then my talk

The centerpiece of the visit for me was the talk I gave, on the university’s Centennial Lecture series.

So, well, I got a standing ovation, which I don’t think has happened before. I think talks I’ve given have been well received, but not like this.

There’s no recording, but I’m writing out what I said, and will share it here. Of course I talked about the future of classical music, with a focus on how we all — all of us in the classical music field — need to change.

Often I’ve said (those of you who’ve read me for a while have seen this) that classical music hasn’t kept up with the rest of our culture. The culture has changed, classical music hasn’t. That’s why classical music is in trouble.

But this time, instead of just saying that, and giving examples, I thought I’d make the point musically.


So I assembled a soundscape. Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Björk’s “An Echo, A Stain.” The first two being pop songs with a harsh edge, the third a pop song that sounds like contemporary classical music.

Not that all pop music has an edge, but much does. And an edgy sound — dissonant and dark — is something you can’t escape in the soundscape of our wider culture.

I had examples from film and TV soundtracks, too — from Westworld, The Expanse, and There Will Be Blood. But didn’t have time to play them.

Even straightahead rock songs, with simple chords, sound harsher than classical music with the same chords would. That’s because the voices are rougher than classical voices, and because rock instruments — especially electric guitars — produce such a wild tangle of overtones that simple chords aren’t simple anymore.

Thus Bob Dylan, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” can sing notes from a dominant chord over tonic harmony, and tonic-note chords over dominant harmony. And it doesn’t sound wrong at all.

On his early records, he’ll sometimes play harmonica chords that don’t fit the harmony in his guitar. But again it doesn’t sound wrong.

And now for some classical

Having established all this, I played the start of the Brahms Second Symphony, in an embracing performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Compared to the pop songs, it came from another world. A peaceful world, reassuring and rational.

My point was made. No wonder people think classical music is a refuge from modern life.

You may not get the full force of my soundscape if you follow my links. For the pop songs, you get videos, and the visuals might mute the harsh edge of the sound.

And then the Brahms — a live performance — starts with the orchestra  warming up, followed by Bernstein’s entrance, of course with applause. So you don’t get the the immediate pure, gentle sound of the symphony, as people did at my talk.

Still, I hope my soundscape comes to life.

Categories: New Music Blogs

What I learned in El Paso

Tue, 2017-04-11 17:20

What did I learn in El Paso?

At the University of Texas in that town. Or UTEP, as it’s branded itself. During my visit last week.

Of course (as I said in my last post) I learned what a special place the university is, with a mission to educate everyone from the poor and working-class, mostly Latino community in its town.

In the musical part of my visit…

I learned many things. How Zuill Bailey, the cellist — UTEP faculty member, head of the school’s new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship, and Artistic Director of the chamber music festival El Paso Pro Musica — visits, over and over, local schools.

I went with him to a high school and an elementary school. The focus at the high school was kids who play music, and might want to do it professionally.

The focus at the elementary school…well, this was a special place. A special charter school, for kids from families so poor, I was told, that there might be nothing to eat at home.

The kids wore uniforms, were attentive, seemed smart and fun. Such a sense of aspiration in the air.

For the high school kids…

…a special pleasure was Trio Jinx, Peabody graduate students in residence at UTEP. They were also great with the younger kids, easy, fun, approachable, playing irresistible music.

But something special they could give: They’re early in their careers. Which, as Zuill said at the high school, meant they were just a few years ahead of the students. And would be able to relate closely to where the students wanted to go with their music.

Likewise for UTEP students, of course. Very wise to have them there.

And then Zuill

Fascinating to hear him talk, as we drove around with him or hung out, about how he runs four chamber music festivals.

He’s very business-oriented. No question about his musical knowledge, of course, or the gorgeous sound he gets on his cello.

But I was struck by his realism, by his care for his bottom line. How after years of booking artists he knows how many tickets each will likely sell, and offers fees accordingly.

And of course can offer four bookings, not just one, Making gigs with him more attractive.

I’ve settled on the word “unworldly” to label how…well…impractical the classical music world can be. Putting artistry first, at whatever cost, and thinking it’s impure to focus on the money.

But since concerts do cost money, focusing on that makes them better. And easier for everyone. And more likely to survive.

I wonder whether independent festivals could do better if they band together. Which may be happening already. Can anyone enlighten me?

Next: things El Paso brought me personally

Categories: New Music Blogs

Extraordinary UTEP

Mon, 2017-04-10 11:10

I could say many things about my two days last week at UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso. About the music department, about the new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. About Zuill Bailey, the cellist and UTEP faculty member, who’ll run the center. And whose entrepreneurial success in running four concert series makes him an ideal choice. Plus giving anyone else giving classical concerts a lesson in how to do it.

And about Trio Jinx, a flute/bass/violin-viola group from Peabody, who were in residence, and whose playing — of much more than classical music — I loved.

Or about how my wife Anne Midgette was invited there also, how this was the first business trip she and I have taken together in quite a while, how we brought Rafa, our five year-old son, and how much fun we all had.

And of course I could write about the talk I gave, for which I’m humbled to say I got a standing ovation.

But later for all that.

What I most took away…

…was what I learned about the university itself. Certainly one of the most inspiring stories in higher education. Impressive enough to get the long-serving UTEP president, Diana Natalicio, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Though she’s so down to earth I doubt she’d ever mention that she got such an honor. She seems about as straightforward as anyone I’ve ever met.

What’s amazing here is what Natalicio set as the university’s mission. And how successful that mission has been.

It’s so very simple. El Paso — which lies right on the border with Mexico — has a large Latino population, mostly working class, not wealthy.

In past generations, these people mostly didn’t go to college. The prevailing thought at the university was that they were destined for humbler lives, that they should learn trades, or get civil service jobs. That they weren’t college material.

The university’s mission was to change all that. To make it known that brains and ability are found everywhere. That a not wealthy Latino kid from El Paso can do just as well as anyone else, given the chance.

So these students were admitted, and given remedial classes if needed. And then got the same high-quality education as everyone else. With spectacular results, as measured by graduation rates and later achievement.

Which is especially impressive, because during this time the university also shot up academically, becoming a top-rank research institution. So the new students from El Paso were getting a really top-rank education.

So inspiring

When I learned all this I was thrilled. And inspired. Purely on human terms. Look what can be done, if you simply decide you’ll do it! I can only imagine how much work it took, how many minds had to be changed, both in the university and in the community.

Natalicio’s current goal is to develop El Paso economically.  Not that it’s economically depressed. But the El Paso students who graduate have to go elsewhere for the jobs their education can get them. Why, Natalcio asks, shouldn’t there be jobs like that for them in their home town?

Of course this blog is supposed to be about music. But some things are more important.

Categories: New Music Blogs

Something new in El Paso

Sun, 2017-04-02 18:46

For two days this week I’ll be at UTEP, the University of Texas in El Paso, helping to inaugurate a new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. And giving a talk I’m calling “How We Have to Change,” on Tuesday, April 4, at 4 PM, in the Undergraduate Learning Center. Come say hello if you’re there!

“We,” of course, is those of us who work in classical music. What we have to do differently — how the enterprise of classical music has to change, — if classical music is going to be reborn,.and thrive.

Worth a thousand words

One thing I’m going to try, which I’ve never done before — offer a musical landscape of our current culture. Maybe we don’t realize how bracing, how dissonant, these days, a lot of music outside classical is. Indie rock, EDM, and hiphop songs, movie and TV soundtracks. To go from these to something that by comparison is melodious, and in no complicated way beautiful, like a Chopin Nocturne, or the start of the Brahms Second Symphony — that’s to move from one universe to another.

So what exactly do we offer people, when we hope they’ll be the future classical music audience? On a purely gut level, purely instinctive, what does the sound of classical music convey, heard against the background of the striving, active, bracing world so many of us live in?

Back to UTEP

Some thoughts about the new Entrepreneurship Center, as emailed to me by Steve Wilson, trombone professor and interim chair of the music department:

Our Center for Arts Entrepreneurship will officially begin in the Fall of 2017 with our cello professor, Zuill Bailey, as its Director.  The CAE will serve as a hub for multidisciplinary work with the arts, provide community engagement opportunities for faculty and students, provide incentive grants for students and faculty to think outside the box and go beyond the traditional music school degree requirements, and provide courses in Arts Entrepreneurship for all those studying the arts.

So many conservatories, so many arts schools are going in this direction. Because some of the old ways of doing things — of presenting your art, of making an income — are drying up,. And because in our emerging new world, nobody knows what artists will do to survive.

Which we should understand is an opportunity, not a problem. Especially if you want to do something in your art that no one every did before. Something new and creative. Which means that you’ll be an entrepreneur. So if you know something about entrepreneurship, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Categories: New Music Blogs

Is classical music consolation?

Thu, 2017-03-30 10:13

Classical music…its role in our culture…that’s something I’ve pondered for a long time, and talked about often here.

My usual answer hasn’t been very positive. If classical music is going to focus on the past — as of course it still does; such a large percentage of performances are of music from past centuries — then is it really still art?

Art is a furnace

Art, I’d think, is stronger than focusing on the past. Should tell us things about who we are now, what’s going on in the world around us. Or, to use a phrase I love from the very end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Words of an artist. Swap out the now-loaded word “race,” substitute another one (culture, world, whatever) and what Joyce wrote still seems powerful.

Our deep consciousness (I like that better than conscience, though of course it has a different meaning) is forever changing, forever renewed, forever forged in new ways, both in the furnace of art and the furnace of life.

Hard to do that if you’re always returning to the past.

But now another view

And then I saw Manchester by the Sea, a masterpiece of film, nominated at the Oscars for best film, which it didn’t win, though it won for best screenplay and best actor.

In Manchester, people go through life hurt. Trying to make the best of it, falling back, picking themselves up, fighting over nothing because they can’t articulate the big things. So gripping. So real.

And in the film, classical music plays a role. We hear it on the soundtrack — meltingly beautiful old classical works — when the director, I’d guess, wants us to feel compassion for the people on the screen. When the pain is too great, when we need some consolation.

A deep calm

Classical music provides that, in the film. Goes to a depth the characters can’t reach, speaks without words of things they can’t get to.

I’m reminded of something often said by people with no deep classical music knowledge, but who like to listen to it — that they like it because it’s “calm.”

I respect that feeling, even while thinking that it leaves out so much that happens in classical pieces, and certainly takes them far from their creation. Beethoven’s music (an obvious example) didn’t seem calm at all to his contemporaries. Just the opposite, really. Often it seemed wild. Crazy. Disturbing.

And yet…

And yet I understood that more from seeing Manchester. Classical music, as its role has evolved, really does seem to speak with a voice beyond time. Contemporary life can be jangling. As it was in past centuries, by the way, but that’s another conversation.

So by losing its roots, taking on a new existence in our time, classical music separates itself from the jangle, and brings consolation.

But then…once again…can it still be art? Is it still a furnace? I’d think our consciousness is formed in large part from the jangle. How else could it be our consciousness today?

And if classical music above all means consolation, how can that sustain the enterprise? The concert halls, the orchestras, the vast expense. Is all that just so we can be consoled?

And then why should it matter whether we play Beethoven or Debussy? I guess we’ll never play Xenakis. 

But I’ll stop here. You get the point. 

Categories: New Music Blogs

Ice cream and coffee

Thu, 2017-03-23 13:05

Quite a lively discussion in class this week, about how conservatories could change. One quick takeaway: That the Juilliard graduate students in my class would love to go to a school where the focus was on how students want to make music. And where music of all genres was talked about, taught, and played.

Here comes the ice cream!

But of the many ideas in the readings I gave them, and the videos I asked them to watch, there was one they most loved. An ideal music school “will have pour over coffee and ice cream readily available at all times. These things make people happy. Ice cream.”

This came from a 2014 blog post called “My Pretend Music School,” b y Ivan Trevino, a composer, percussionist, and drummer living in Austin. (Says his website.)

So why did my students love this idea so much? You could say it’s frivolous, far less important than unleashing creativity, fostering student initiative, opening the doors to all the world’s music. Or anything else that seems crucial.

But I don’t think it’s trivial at all. It cuts to the heart of what goes on at so many schools. Focus on work, focus on careers, focus on practicing. Pressure.

So if a school gives students ice cream, that’s another message. Life is good! Have fun! Or, if you want to get formal, giving out ice cream strikes a blow for work/life balance, something all of us now are coming to understand is crucial for living well.

Giving out ice cream would say that the school cares for its students, loves them as whole human beings. And from that everything else could flow.

Elsewhere in the world…

As we talked about this, some of the students talked about tech companies, startups that make sure that working for them is fun.

One student had been in Google’s New York office. She wistfully said they had game rooms there. And massages!

And, you know…conservatories really should offer massages. Everyone at these schools knows how physically demanding it is to play an instrument, how there’s a danger (especially, I’d think, for string players) of repetitive strain injury.

So offer massages, all day long, to whoever might want them. Many students play for hours each day. Is this good for their bodies?

It’s amazing…

What a revelation these simple ideas are. How much good they could do. How much they could relieve the tension many students feel, with all eyes on them to see how they d.

Thanks, Ivan Trevino!

And, to conclude, here’s another idea he had. Open mic nights, where students can play. At Juilliard, as I’m sure at almost all conservatories, at least in the US, performances are formal. Produced by the school, following school guidelines.

How freeing, then — what a boost for students’ creativity, for their pure love of music — to have performances the students themselves are in charge of.

Where anything could happen. Where students could make any music they wanted, including — of course! — things the school doesn’t teach.

Here’s the curriculum for my course, where you’ll find the reading and videos I assigned the students for this class. Just scroll down to March 22.

And, related, because it’s fun…an annual event at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, where as a complement to an annual Bach festival, there’s also a Beatles festival. Where each year one the Beatles’ albums is given a complete live performance, by conservatory students and others. Here’s a video from a past year, with the school’s trumpet teacher nailing the trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.”

Categories: New Music Blogs

The circle of art and commerce

Wed, 2017-03-22 15:00

Last week, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, one of my students asked about art and commerce.

Where do they fit in classical music’s future? What roles will they play?

Questions like that often come up in my work. They’re often asked — though not, I think, by this student — with some suspicion. Art is good, commerce is bad. Art is pure, commerce is, well;, commercial.

Or, as another student said in this week’s class, often things that aren’t so good succeed because they’re marketed.

Which of course is true. Though it’s also true that wonderful music can just as often go nowhere — meaning that hardly anyone hears it — because it’s not marketed well.

The circle

Taking this question seriously, as it deserves to be taken, I said we could picture art and commerce as a circle. Art on the top, commerce below.

You start with art. You’ve got wonderful music you want to make.

But no one knows about it! Nobody knows who you are. How do you get people to hear what you do, to come to your performances? How can your art make some income for you, so you can start to make a living from it?

Enter commerce

That’s where commerce comes in. That’s where you (of someone working with you) needs business skills. That’s how you generate interest in your work. If you’re giving performances, that’s how you sell tickets. That’s how you generate income. So that, cross your fingers, someday you can make a living from music.

But now we go back to the top of the circle. Let’s say you’ve got great business skills. You’re getting known. People are paying attention.

So now your art has to be good! You can’t let people down. Entice them to hear what you do, then disappoint them.

If they’re disappointed, they’ll come once, but never again. And maybe they’ll take about you, tell others that you do bad work.

Back to art

And so now — now that you’ve got an audience — you work even harder on your art. Keeping it good. Making it better.

And then back down to commerce. While your art stays strong, your commerce has to stay strong, too, You want your fans to keep coming back. You want new fans. So it’s commerce again. You can’t slack off.

And now, again…

…back up to art. You’ve got new ideas. You want to do new kinds of music. Or you want to expand. Do more performances. Perform in more cities. Collaborate with other musicians, with people in other arts.

You want to do things that you’ve never done.

So back down to commerce!

Now, even more, you need business chops. To do more things — do new things, bigger things — means doing more business work. Selling more tickets, raising more money.

Which is especially true if you move into new areas, do things you’re not known for. You’re a performer, but now you compose. Your string quartet gives concerts, but now you want to do multimedia.

You’ll need to attract new attention. Get your fans to try your new stuff. Find new fans, people who might like the new things, even if what you did before didn’t interest them.

And your new projects might be expensive. Another reason for working harder on business.

Around and around

And that’s how it works. Art needs commerce, commerce feeds art. You keep them both going, to keep your music alive.

Categories: New Music Blogs

When the musicians play like Gods…

Thu, 2017-03-16 11:53

More about an engaged, participating audience…following up on my last post.

I exchanged some email with Tom Wolf, the consultant whose firm’s newsletter I’d happily quoted. In this exchange, he told me a fine story involving Boris Goldovsky, whom I’d known of as an opera personage (host of the Met Opera’s old radio intermission feature, Opera Quiz, founder of the opera training program at Tanglewood).

I hadn’t known that Goldovsky was Tom’s uncle, or that he’d been a pianist and conductor. Or that, as a musician of the old school, he’d have reacted ss Tom describes. Or, for that matter, that Tom himself doesn’t like a passive audience.

HEre’s his story (I’m quoting his email with his permission):

As I got older, I found concert “manners” totally off-putting and still do. I remember going to a concert when my pianist brother, the late Andrew Wolf, was playing the Schumann piano quintet which, as you know, has a barn burner of a first movement. When the first movement ended, there was silence in the hall and my uncle, Boris Goldovsky, who had played the piece hundreds of times said to me, “These idiots. The musicians play like Gods and the idiot audience sits and does nothing. Their silence is a crime.”

Thanks for this, Tom!

I wouldn’t myself blame the audience. The people in it are only doing what they’ve been taught to do. To show reverence for the music, by keeping quiet till the end of the piece. A concept that would have been utterly foreign to Mozart or Verdi or Brahms.

So if anyone’s to blame, it’s the classical music police, the arbiters of classical music decorum who believe in these rules, and still sometimes try to enforce them.

Categories: New Music Blogs

Audience action

Tue, 2017-03-14 09:26

Very good comment from Matthew Hodge on my Tabatha Coffey post. I’d talked about Coffey, the embodiment of tough love — just go to her site and read the powerful words you’ll see — who on a reality TV show impressively fixes failing hair salons.

What — I asked participants in a workshop I led — would Tabatha change if she came to an orchestra?

And I listed some of the responses I got. Things people had seen, that might revivify orchestras. Audience coming up to talk to the principal cellist during a break. Kids in a youth orchestra smiling while they played.

 Comments Matthew:

It’s fascinating how all of the suggested Tabatha responses all involve the musicians getting more intimate with the audiences. (Talking from stage, saying hello in the intermission or even smiling.)

Remarkably simple to implement and all coming in at significantly cheaper than a laser light show and fireworks!

Which then got me thinking…

…of other musicians getting intimate with an audience. So I replied to his comment:

Another, similar idea — when Michael Christie first was music director in Phoenix, he stood outside the concert hall, greeting people in the audience as they came in.

And something I saw myself in St. Louis in the 1990s. At that time the St. Louis Symphony had an active community program. (They may again, but it lapsed earlier.) Before one of their concerts in Powell Hall, I saw audience members come up to the stage, to say hello to musicians they’d met at community events.

Or this: The St. Louis Symphony years ago played a Steve Reich piece, and when it was over, some of the musicians went out into the audience to talk about the music with anyone who wanted to do that.

Or this: Maxim Vengerov giving a solo recital in Carnegie Hall, on the big main stage. After the first piece, he turned to the audience and asked, “Any questions?”

From then on, the concert was a dialogue, with people in the audience shouting questions, even from the top balcony. I wasn’t there, but heard about it from my wife Anne Midgette, who reviewed the concert for the New York Times.

I’m sure we can all think of more examples.

More ways to make concerts interactive…

…to break down the invisible (but very tangible wall), to get musicians and audience talking together. And — a key to classical music’s future — to make performances really distinctive events.

(Now anticipating comments from those of the old school, who’ll say that I’m cheapening the music, that only the music matters, that in it lies all the communication we need. Thus blaming our audience for our failures, saying they’re just not educated enough. Or putting the blame on schools, which ought to jump to our commands, and teach every student to love the music we love.)

And today I just read this, from the seasoned consultant Tom Wolf, who in the newsletter his company WolfBrown sends out, talked about being barred from taking photos — even before a concert — in a concert hall he loved.

He writes:

Thinking about all of this later, I was reminded of a concert I attended a few years before at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas when the immensely popular Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared with the magnificent Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The audience was filled with ebullient Russians who, when the popular Hvorostovsky came on stage, whistled and cheered, and shouted bravo and took out their phones to snap photos. Ushers ran from person to person admonishing them to stop, but they refused to be denied. It was a happy crowd and the feeling was infectious. By the end of the concert, the audience was singing along when the baritone offered a popular Russian folk song that served as one of his many encores. I left the hall feeling completely upbeat.

Which then reminds me that after the premiere of one of the early Shostakovich string quartets, there was a party, at which the quartet was played again. This time the audience sang along with one of the themes.

And of course in earlier centuries the audience was anything but quiet. A subject for another post.

Categories: New Music Blogs

Tabatha fixes orchestras

Fri, 2017-03-10 11:32

Here’s something I did in the workshop I led about imagining the future, at a League of American Orchestras conference. You can read about the workshop in my last post. We imagined hat in 10 years, all orchestra problems would be solved. They’d have a big new audience, community buzz, all the funding they need.

So how would that happen? What would have happened to get us to that paradise?

This is a workshop I’d love to do again. If you’d like to talk about it, contact me!

So here’s one of the things I did. Imagine, I said, that Tabatha Coffey comes to town! The name didn’t ring many bells, but when I said she has a reality TV show, Tabatha Takes Over, a ripple of recognition went through the room. 

What we can learn from Tabatha

She’s a hair stylist, hair salon owner, and entrepreneur. And on her visits failing hair salons, and turns them around. An almost irresistible guilty pleasure, when I’ve run into her, as I’m flipping channels on TV. She looks like she could overthrow a third world country simply by showing up at passport control. And she has an acute understanding of both business and people. 

Imagine, I said, that she’s come to your town to do an episode of her show. And that you have a donor who’s in the TV biz, who hears that she’s coming, and pays her to stay and work with your orchestra. 

So she spends a week with you. At the salons she visits, she pounces on discourteous employees, bad customer service, unattractive premises, and so much more. I’ve seen her order the whole staff to show up early in the morning, to repaint their place. I’ve seen her telling them to dress more attractively (but not too trendily, which might scare customers away). I’ve seen her order staff to sweep and clean. 

And in the last episode I saw, she visited a salon in Miami Beach. She decreed  — after much reform and redecoration — that they’d have a grand reopening. To promote it, she sent the entire staff out to the beach, where they talked to everyone. Everyone! Inviting them to the grand reopening, and offering a free haircut, right then, right there, right on the beach, in a tent she made the staff set up. 

Brilliant marketing, I thought. So now imagine Tabatha coming to your orchestra. She observes you for a week. What would she say? 

That could be a long discussion!

And one worth having. Could almost be a workshop by itself.

At my workshop, we could only dip into what Tabatha might tell orchestras. but here are some suggestions from participants.

  • I noticed last night at the concert that our principal cellist came on stage during the break and people came up to talk to him. Maybe Tabitha would say that during the intermission you should come out into the audience or into the hall and interact with the audience on a personal level rather than doing their jobs on the stage and now going off to take a rest.   
  • In relation to that, there is a British Shakespeare company that tours the world called Propel? The highlight of their performance is the intermission, where they go and improvise a performance in the lobby. People are settled waiting for this now.
  • I noticed yesterday watching the Youth Orchestra playing and a professional play, and when they bowed, the Youth Orchestra tried to look professional but they couldn’t resist cracking a smile. The professionals always look really stern but I think it’s ok to smile.

Three good thoughts! So much of what we do in classical music presents a blank or even unfriendly face to the people who come to us. And even more to the people we’d like to attract, because they’re not used to our ways.

Even when we sometimes do things like this, we don’t do them enough. I’d bet everyone reading me can think of many more ways we could present ourselves better. And can think of ways to keep it going, even though a full season at a major orchestra.

Or market ourselves better. Free haircuts on the beach…what’s our equivalent of that?

Categories: New Music Blogs