Sunday, January 31, 2010

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: World Premiere by Maxwell Davies and other music

My review of last Friday's concert at the Modlin Center by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra appeared in the Times-Dispatch. The heart of the program was "Sea Orpheus" by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the six commissioned works for the orchestra's The New Brandenburgs project.

Monday, January 18, 2010

More on Orchestras and Tw... Tw... Tweeting (There. I said it.)

What first got me thinking about orchestras and tweeting was the news this past summer that the National Symphony Orchestra tweeted during performance at Wolf Trap --that is, the conductor, Emil de Cou, prepared program notes ahead of time and symphony staff released them via Twitter in real time. Audience members who wanted to follow the tweets sat in a special section. Washington Post writer Anne Midgette's article before the event is top-notch. I haven't found any real post-event analysis of the experiment from the NSO's point of view.

Mostly, orchestras have used performance tweeting to communicate with people who aren't in attendance.

The Edmunton Orchestra hired this guy to live-tweet during a performance in April. His link to his tweets didn't work, but based on the blog post I linked here, my impression was that he had a very "man on the street" approach. I'm guessing that in the long run, most people would want something slightly more informed.

In November, the Modesto Symphony allowed (or hired? I don't know the arrangement) Modesto Bee arts writer Lisa Milligan to live-tweet during a dress rehearsal. I'm sure this is happening elsewhere -- the Modesto thing happened to turn up high enough in an online search that I found it.

Item #3 in this post from the League of American Orchestras describes several social-media tactics that performing arts groups in Columbus have tried/are trying. Opera Columbus had a Tweet-up: live tweeting during a dress rehearsal for Opera Columbus. The difference here was that several tweeters were doing this at once, providing different perspectives on the music (or the general experience). Again, they had to sit in particular reserved section.

This post by an independent arts promoter and artists' rep delivers thoughtful analysis of her experience tweeting during a performance. Keep reading, and you'll read what David Lang and Hilary Hahn have to say about it, too.

Finally, I offer a caveat on my own suggestion on audience participation through Twitter: this is definitely a limited-time idea. It will get old fast, and any orchestra that tries it will have to be very alert to how it's working. Maybe Richmond isn't ready for it yet; maybe another city is. Maybe Richmonders will like it for half a season, maybe two seasons; maybe another city will like it 2 or 3 times a season for two seasons. Tweeting may be a fad; using online media is not. In any case, it's too easy for orchestras to fall into habits of thinking that say: Because we play music that's timeless, we can't associate with fads. 

Here's the final bit of Midgette's Post article:
What classical music audiences and administrators too often forget is that all these new technologies are mediums, not messages: How well they work depends entirely on how intelligently they're used in the service of what they're trying to communicate. The real point is that the message -- the quality of the music, not some watered-down version of it -- deserves to be disseminated widely, by any means possible.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Orchestrating Attendance: a few suggestions

Not surprisingly, the latest issue of Symphony magazine addresses the issue of declining audiences for live orchestral music. One worrisome finding is that "participation rates have been declining within each generation as they age. So Early Boomers in their fifties are participating less (11%-12%) than they did when they were in their twenties (14%)."

In other words, people don't automatically start going to the symphony when they hit age 50. Especially not now, when there's so much great stuff online, like this blog, on which I will share my ideas for getting more people in the seats at symphony concerts. They're nothing revolutionary, and I'm sure they've been discussed or even tried somewhere in the world.

-Reserve a block of seats for Facebook fans and Meetup groups. Sure, social networking online is hot, but that doesn't mean people don't like to see each other in real life. Promote the section through online networks and let people request season seats or single-concert tickets there. If I knew I'd be sitting near people I recognized, I'd be more likely to go.

-Encourage tweeting. Not during the performance, Sweet Judith, no, but the moment intermission starts, let people whip out their devices and remark on the concert so far. Project real-time tweets on screens above the stage, in the lobbies and—even better—above the bars. Really, no one's going to be asinine: this is Richmond "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" Virginia.

Public tweeting might even improve the quality of intermission conversation, as people, including non-tweeters, could use the comments to spark or focus their own conversations instead of falling into timid chat about the weather or grocery stores. After the performance, invite people to go to and vote for Tweet of the Night. Winner gets drink vouchers for the next concert they attend.
-Take the show online. According to research conducted by the League of American Orchestras, 40 million Americans listen to classical music broadcasts and recordings, including online. As a percentage of the population, this has increased over the past 25 years. Interestingly, people are more likely to  listen to classical music broadcasts/recordings than broadcasts/recordings of musicals, although the reverse is true when it comes to attending live performance.

If the Richmond Symphony streamed its performances live online for free, would people stop buying tickets for the concert hall? No. Most people who attend concerts do so because they know the power of live performance. Some people would take the cheap route, some people would turn into concertgoers as a result of being able to try out the experience online. Unfortunately, there's no way to know the net effect ahead of time. (This is probably also the kind of thing that would work in some cities but not others.) But geez, why not try it? And that way, Karen Johnson's Aunt Martha in Phoenix could see her perform every time. (I made that up.)

-Have open dress rehearsals. The Richmond Symphony Orchestra League used to run these, pre-peripatetic era. Now that the symphony is back in the Carpenter Theatre, it's time to start them up again. Heck, make it crazy and let people roll the dice to get their price, $2 to $12 for adults, $1-$6 for kids. Publicize them more widely than ever before.

-Door prizes, coupons in the program, referral discounts. I'm not entirely serious, but I'm not really joking, either. I'm trying to make the point that the orchestra experience is about the music, not about the image. Why should some tactics be considered low-brow if they work to bring in new listeners who have been reluctant to spend money on something they're not sure they'll like?

The Rose Ensemble: voices from the past, maybe

I was pleased to be assigned to review the Rose Ensemble's performance at the Modlin Center -- it wasn't a concert I had prioritized for review, since space is so limited for coverage of non-local, non-famous groups. Here's the link to my review of Wednesday night's performance. Please read and return here!

As it happened, earlier that day I had spent a good 30 minutes on YouTube listening to different performances of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." The variety of interpretations was inspiring. I loved simply hearing the difference, for example, between Ella Fitzgerald's and Janis Joplin's voices.

I mention this as background to my assessment of the Rose's uniformity of vocal timbre, because this idea of variety was on my brain (although not specifically in expectation of the concert). Yes, they did employ subtle vocal differences among songs, and their stage presence (including expressions, gestures and body language) was notably communicative--maybe I should have made more of this in my review. But by and large, they were singing in what I think of as typical Western choral fashion: from the belly through the skull, O-mouths, warm sound.

Ensemble leader Jordan Sramek's solo on "Et Sha'are Ratzon," a Libyan Sephardic song for Rosh Hashanah, came closer in vocal sound to what I imagined several of the pieces on the program might have sounded like originally--a more penetrating, calling, upper-body quality-- and I liked it.

I tried to be careful not to say anything should sound a certain way--that's not the way I approach music, and in any case, the Rose Ensemble makes its professional decisions with far more information at hand than I have. I hope the point I got across was that at least one person is open to hearing sounds that are unfamiliar, foreign, ancient.

Here are two instruments I had the pleasure of hearing at the concert: the vielle, a 5-stringed medieval fiddle (at left), and the smaller rebec. We also heard an oud, harp, psaltery and 5 different drums.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Anticipatory Jubilation during the Dead of Winter

I'm only giving you the first 5 lines of this poem. You have to go to Poetry's website to read the rest


by Hailey Leithauser

Such green, such green,
this apple-, pea- and celadon,

this emerald and pine and lime
unsheathed to make

a miser weep, to make his puny
Read the other Hailey Leithauser poems while you're there, and please--do yourself a favor and read them out loud, the way poetry should be.


I missed posting this link to my review of the Baroque by Candlelight concert in December.

I was reminded of this concert this morning when a piece for flute and piano came on the radio. At once, I realized why the flute has never been a favorite of mine: it almost always sounds so prom queen, so toastmaster, so nice. The wooden traverse flute, on the other hand (such as we heard at the December concert), sounds more like a friend.

Picture this: a pale blue midwinter sky, seamed through with pin-straight jetstream and mottled with the fluff and lace of cirrus clouds. One's the sliver flute, one's the wooden.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brahms' Requiem, Pools of Luck, and the Rainbow Connection

One of the Top Ten Moments of My Life so Far was performing Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" with a 100+ voice choir and full orchestra in a college gymnasium in the middle of Kansas. The setting, of course, is not the important part, although the fact that it was so ordinary made the transcendent power of the music even more evident.

I remember, maybe two-thirds of the way through the performance, coming to the awareness that (a) much time had passed but (b) it didn't feel like it because (c) I was sitting in a pure shining pool of good luck to be alive, making this music with 150 other people.

Ah... I hear a high horse stamping outside my window. It's delivering a copy of an editorial I once wrote about how great music is for impractical things like feeling good. The Monteverdi Choir has just finished singing the Brahms on my stereo, so I'll go get the epistle and reproduce it below for your pleasure.

When [the children's music reviewer] and I were discussing [the magazine's music-review column], the issue of “educational value” came up. Heavy-handedly, I said I didn’t want to use that as a criterion for review. So you’ll see albums rated on how good they are for dancing or relaxing to, how well adult ears might tolerate them and how good they might be for months or years of play.

Why won’t you see a rating for how educational a recording is? I have two strong opinions on this topic, and since they’re a little contradictory, I will explain myself.

First, I believe all music is educational. Second, I believe “educational value” is overrated.

Especially for young children, music is educational in the same way that play is: stealthily. Exposure to melody, harmony and rhythm—whether by Rachmaninoff, Raffi or R.E.M.—lays the foundation for understanding language, numbers and turn-taking. It also develops discriminatory listening skills and encourages verbal and motor expression.
Further, music is so deeply a part of our humanity that we learn things which are more essential even than counting or clapping in time. We discover our individuality and our likeness to others at an emotional level. ...   

Because this kind of learning is so hard to articulate and is non-quantifiable, I think it gets overlooked in favor of music’s more explicitly educational aspects. The value of playing Mozart to sleeping children can’t be quantified, either, but the potential benefits are usually described in quantifiable terms designed to make parents believe they’re creating geniuses by simply pushing “Play”: increased math skills, advanced reasoning, and so on.

Older children are subjected to music’s ability to accommodate lyrics about colors, weather, grammar, history, morality, insects, the alphabet and tooth-brushing. Now, I have nothing against Conjunction Junction, and I think music could be used as a vehicle for teaching classroom knowledge even more than it is.

But don’t place a higher value on this music than on, for example, the amazingly, horrifyingly, riotously uneducational music of Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone! (In our house, we all love classic Muppet Show tunes. And sometimes, when the mood is right, I choke up over “Rainbow Connection.”)

“My Hair had a Party Last Night” by Trout Fishing in America—another household favorite—does not teach the importance of personal hygiene, thank goodness. Its only redeeming values are the great tune, the charming mandolin-picking, the bouncy bass thwacks and the funny lyrics.

Then there’s the classic craziness: “Here We Go Looby-Loo” or “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” What do they teach? Nothing!

So here’s to uneducational music! ...