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.


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.

A few old-school Mahler’s 9th recordings

I’m pleased to welcome as my first guest blogger Jeffrey Work, principal trumpet of the Oregon Symphony. He, among other things, is an enthusiastic collector of old recordings, and as such, I thought that he might like to delve into his massive collection and give us some nuggets that relate to the upcoming work on the next classical series: Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Enjoy! — CN

As the Oregon Symphony’s musicians prepare for our upcoming performances of the Mahler 9th, most of us will head to our record and CD libraries. It’s a common first step before we go to the more important second step: heading to the practice room. My routine is no different. Continue reading “A few old-school Mahler’s 9th recordings”