if it bleeds, it leads

This week’s Willy Week features a rare article (from its rarely heard and seen classical music writer – at least at OSO concerts) about the Oregon Symphony.  And what does this august journal choose to highlight?  The fact that the OSO does not play enough new music (I’m assuming that they’re talking about commissions or pieces written in the last year or so) and that this is hurting the symphony’s opportunity to make gains in different audience demographics.

Yeah…

Well, let’s look at the numbers.  This year, according to the most recent statistics provided by OSO management, we’re selling about 70% attendance.  Last season was 62%, and the season before that was 54%.  I’d say that the strategy of giving people what they want (which is how enterprises should be run if they wish to survive) is paying off.

Another issue: the over-used notion of “warhorses”. Princeton University’s wordnet gives the following definition:

a work of art (composition or drama) that is part of the standard repertory but has become hackneyed from much repetition

Tell me – is Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto a warhorse?  How many of you have heard that piece live?  I’d bet not too many.  It’s a rarely heard piece by a very widely programmed composer (and it will be played by one of the world’s most admired pianists, Stephen Hough).  The First Piano Concerto definitely qualifies, but hardly the Second.  Give me a break!  It’s also true that we have all heard the Nutcracker a million times, but with all of the constraints on tempo and flexibility that working with the ballet imposes.

This weekend’s classical series presents audiences with a chance to see the music take center stage, along with the orchestra, and present this music at the highest possible standard, and for all of us to realize what brilliant music Tchaikovsky wrote for this chestnut of a ballet (I think it’s perhaps one of his best compositions).

Now, if you’re coming to a concert on comped media tickets, which will put you in some of the priciest seats in the hall, you’re going to be sitting next to some older, wealthier, more conservative patrons.  This might make one susceptible to the notion that symphony audiences are rapidly aging and dwindling.  However, this notion has been somehow perpetuated since the mid 70’s, when a famous article proclaimed that most major orchestras would be out of business within the decade.  Hmmm…

I’m most disappointed in the slant that the editors chose to make in the presentation of this latest article.  The symphony is making gains in attendance, is making some tough but so far very prescient decisions on programming, guest artists, and conducting staff issues.  But instead, we hear that the OSO is a stuffy, dead-white-guy programming, establishment dinosaur that desperately needs to gain in the 18-40 demographic by programming bleeding edge music.

I understand that failure is sometimes seen as much more sexy than success, but I think that is a result of the fact that anyone can make a good, lurid story out of failure (real or perceived).  Writing a nuanced article that takes into account both positives and negatives takes real journalistic chops, and editors that have the patience for a couple more column inches instead of hoping for lively debate on their online forums to keep their advertisers happy.

What’s ironic about this entire issue is that I am such an advocate for new music performances by the Oregon Symphony.  I firmly believe that the modern orchestra is more than a museum of past achievements in the arts, and that it should strive to be a living laboratory where audiences can see the old and the new combined in stimulating and enlightening ways.

But becoming that laboratory requires lots and lots of money.  People like to talk about the LA Phil and the San Francisco Symphony and how they epitomize this new way of the modern orchestra, but they don’t often talk about the massive endowments and deep donor lists (not to mention deep pockets that keep the budgets in balance at the end of each fiscal year) which have combined to make innovative programming less risky.  What you don’t hear about are the big major orchestras who have to beg via email campaigns for people to take tickets off their hands for concerts full of new music or unfamiliar programming choices because no one is buying tickets.

The Oregon Symphony is trying (and making solid gains in doing so) to get more people back to the concert hall, and then to get back on the path to balancing its budget and retiring its accumulated deficit as audiences develop further.  In case you haven’t noticed, we’re facing the most dire economic reality since the Great Depression, (and according to Nobel laureate Paul Krugman we still have a decent chance to diving into a depression at this point) in a smaller market with less deep pockets.  We’ve got a lot more to lose than some of the big guys in the big markets in terms of riding out a major recession, so it’s hardly the time to start throwing noodles at the wall and seeing which ones stick.  As my colleague in music and blogging Ron Blessinger points out in his blog entry of 12/3, we aren’t exactly carry any sort of R&D budget to experiment too much, especially right now.

The symphony is doing better than could have been imagined three years ago, and is doing so in the most difficult economic climate of at least a generation.  That’s the real news.

14 Replies to “if it bleeds, it leads”

  1. Excellent article, Charles.

    I particularly like the sound of “massive endowments and deep donor lists . . . deep pockets . . . ” that you mention in connection with the LA Phil and San Francisco Symphony.

    i guess the ongoing question is how to get to “massive and deep?” Perhaps sitting some younger, wealthier and more experimental folks next to their older opposites might goose things along? oh heck, bring on a gazzilionaire oldster with a twinkle in his/her eye for some “virgin programming.” They are out there – aren’t they? Hello?

  2. The San Francisco Symphony this weekend is presenting the revolutionary music of Chopin Piano Concerto #1, paired with the avant guard composer Wagner, whereas the LA Philharmonic is featuring new music wonderkid Mozart (23rd piano concerto) with the seldom heard Alpine Symphony by Strauss! Somewhere tucked in there Kurtag’s “Stele” is featured as an opening piece by LA Phil, perhaps to please the purveyors of BS (such as the WW) that “THEY are presenting new music AND attracting audiences but the Oregon Symphony is “stodgy”…

  3. I would love to be able to hear more new orchestral music, i.e, music composed within the last 5 to 10 years, but I can certainly understand why those works might not get programmed. I’ll be happy as long as the symphony continues to provide its audiences with the opportunity to experience lesser known repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Portlanders as a whole may not be “starved for new music,” but there is a small and viable new music market in town. I doubt, though, whether many of the people who would attend a Third Angle event look to, or even expect, the symphony to compete in that arena.

  4. Another factor worth noting: Portlanders don’t really want to pay for their edgy music experiences. Audiences at Fear No Music and some Third Angle concerts are often not full houses in their smaller venues, and Marzena packs them in because their concerts are free to the public. If it’s a problem trying to sell 500 tickets, imagine trying to sell 2700 as the symphony must do if they want to sell out.

  5. One way of selling 2700 tickets AND getting some fresher programming across is to have stellar soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell do the “selling.” For example, Ma has played many great, lesser known, cello concerti (Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Berio, etc.) that would go over very well in Portland via one of his impassioned performances. Likewise, Bell would pin a PDX audience to the wall with his riveting account of John Corigliano’s “Red Violin Concerto.” Trust me!

  6. Bob – that’s true, but I know that some artists are wary of programming some of their newer pieces, most likely because they take a lot more time to work back up than the standard stuff. I know one pianist who wouldn’t do a new concerto by a major west coast conductor for some reason or another with the OSO – and I’m sure the same might apply to Yo-yo and/or Josh. I’d love to have Yo-yo do the Rouse concerto here, for example…

  7. wow, i’d love to hear the details about the pianist/composer-conductor scenario you mention above. are you talking about Salonen’s recent piano concerto by chance?

    in any event, my repertoire/programming preferences have me bemoaning Joshua Bell’s upcoming OSO performance of the Mendelssohn concerto as a squandered opportunity. alas . . .

  8. Great article, Charles! I agree with you wholeheartedly. Same goes for the Rouse Cello Concerto. That is an incredible piece!

  9. The Salonen concerto is a terrific work. The problem, though, is that it’s hard to imagine anyone other than the composer conducting it (or, for that matter, anyone other than Yefim Bronfman playing the fiendishly difficult solo part).

  10. Salonen has long been one of my fave living musicians. The man absolutely “reeks” talent and deep musicality. I spoke with his manager a few years ago, when he was due to conduct in Seattle, about possibly spending a day or two in PDX for a chamber music concert devoted to his music. Sadly, his schedule had no breathing room. i’ll try again one day. As far as living composer/conductor types go, Esa-Pekka is “one of the real guys,” as Frank Zappa used to say. Happy 50th birthday to him, by the way.

  11. Salonen’s stock went way up with me when he recorded a number of selections from Bernard Herrmann’s film scores a few years back. His new CD with Hillary Hahn of the Schoenberg and Sibelius violin concerti is also frighteningly good.

  12. check out Salonen’s recording of Magnus Lindberg’s “Kraft” sometime – it’s a scorcher of a piece. speaking of Lindberg, i was thrilled to learn that he will be composer-in-residence with the NY Phil. starting next year. the incoming NY Phil. music director, Alan Gilbert, obviously has “a clue.”

    oh, another terrific Salonen work is his recent woodwind quintet entitled “Memoria.” i’d love to program it on a future Marzena program. are any willing wind players reading this?

  13. i tried to get the string quartet score but the quartet for whom it was written has exclusive rights to it for the next year or two. in the meantime, i hope to find an occassion to program his astounding “Yta” for cello solo. here’s hoping . . .

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