Sunday, February 28, 2010

Any Day Now...

.. and the Richmond Symphony will choose its new music director. Steven Smith will conduct this afternoon's Masterworks concert as the last of three finalists, the others of whom are Alastair Willis and Marc Taddei.

Oddly, I liked Smith much better last night (here's my review) than last year at his first appearance, while Taddei impressed me more at his first appearance than his second in January. (I just realized I haven't linked to that review yet. On my to-do list.) Then, he struck me as essentially conservative and unlikely to take exploratory risks. Possibly he simply thought that's what the audience and Board expected of him.

Willis had the advantage in September of conducting a megahits program to a sold-out house at the first Richmond Symphony concert in the new Carpenter Theatre. He's young, handsome and charming, has an English accent, and did a good job conducting. Did he do an absolutely top-notch job? Well... but is that even the question?

The question, of course, is who of these three has the whole package--meaning musical vision, the ability to sense the needs of the market, the charisma to be an effective ambassador to new audiences, etc. etc. This is not cynicism; it's what a music director does. All nine of the candidates had these qualities in different porportions.

I have heard, although only as second-hand news, that many of the orchestra musicians are disgruntled that Arthur Fagen wasn't a finalist.

One thing I don't know is whether Smith, Taddei and Willis were the selection committee's first choices, or whether it extended a finalist spot to someone else who, for whatever reasons, turned it down. It's possible.

I do know, however, that once the selection is announced and once the maestro settles in next year, most everyone in the audience will soon forget these two years of transition.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Virginia Commission for the Arts faces elimination by 2012

 The Virginia Commission for the Arts is a state agency that provides operational support for arts organizations and individual artists through a competitive granting process.

In light of Sunday's House Appropriations Committee vote to cut next year's funding by 50% and eliminate the agency by 2012, Virginians for the Arts, an advocacy group, calls for action.

Here's my letter to my delegate. I wrote a different one to the Times-Dispatch; may post it later.
Dear Delegate McClellan,
I have spent the past year being thankful that I only have to make tough money decisions that affect my own family, not the whole nation or the state, and I continue to repect the hard work of you and other elected officials who have to make these decisions.
Of course nobody wants to see any valued programs shrink or disappear, but I must speak up in particular for the Virginia Commission for the Arts, because I deeply believe that art both shapes and reflects our humanity. The arts are our common heritage and inheritance, not a luxury, and should be accessible to everyone.
VCA funding is crucial for the operation and programs of hundreds of arts organizations and civic entities around the state. The mission of most, if not all, of these organizations includes making the arts accessible to all people, regardless of income, background or education.
For example, Richmond Shakespeare, for which I am a volunteer, takes its educational workshops and performances to schools. Fees paid by students and schools more or less cover the cost of the workshop, but VCA funding helps support the position of Director of Education--one of only 2 full-time positions in Richmond Shakespeare--allowing her to create these programs, train the actor-teachers who lead them, and reach out to new schools and audiences, particularly in underserved populations. Without her, there likely would be no educational arm of Richmond Shakespeare.
To make matters worse, decimated funding for schools means arts education is in serious jeopardy. If the VCA is axed, arts organizations that could help fill in these gaps will not be able to offer affordable programs for students.
I could go on and on: for example, about how the economic impact of the arts is not just immedate (someone coming to a Richmond Shakespeare play supports the local actors and stage crew, the concessions workers, the building cleaning staff, the parking lot attendant), but also long-term, because the presence of vibrant, diverse, high-quality arts programs attracts businesses and residents and increases overall civic engagement.
Please take all these factors into account as you work on Virginia's budget. I ask you to preserve the existence of the Virginia Commission for the Arts and urge your colleagues to do the same.
Thank you,
Angela Lehman-Rios

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beauty and the Machine

The Victrola was still several years shy of existence at the time of Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor, but its appearance in my review for the Richmond Times-Dispatch of the Shanghai Quartet with Yuja Wang makes metaphorical if not literal sense. I had never heard the Franck before and was struck by its idea, as I heard it, that the mechanical and the beautiful can co-exist, or are not any more different from each other than beauty and menace.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Orchestrating More Attendance

Suggestions, continued:

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston offers on-site babysitting for ages infant through 10 with music and movement activities during its 5 p.m. concerts. The 5- to 10-year-olds "receive humorous instruction in audience etiquette and visit the concert hall for one piece of music." Parents have the option of extending care so they can get dinner out after the concert.

I think there could certainly be demand for something like this in Richmond for symphony matinees. Young musicians in the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra could be hired in a work-study arrangement --they'd get their orchestra tuition paid, they'd get experience in music education, the Symphony would get more families into concerts, kids would feel not so much like they were being ditched at home.

The Seattle Symphony offers musical birthday parties -- they've got Soundbridge, kind of like a children's museum dedicated to music. But there's plenty that could be done just with the space and resources at CenterStage. Any parent of a 3- to 10-year-old has likely taken their kids to jumping parties, rock-climbing parties, science parties, skating parties, mouse parties (or is he a rat?), art parties... are there Civil War parties around here? Probably. Anyway, the market's huge. The Richmond Symphony already has an arrangement with a Music Together teacher who teaches group classes... this could be expanded into parties, maybe. Or get music ed majors from VCU.

I'd bet money that the RSO has already discussed these ideas but need the funding/staff power to get them going and market them. By the way, I just saw on their website today that they are having open rehearsals, and free at that, but in sort of a field-trip format for high school and college students by reservation only.  

Harrisonburg's Arts District: Notes from the ArtWorks for Virginia Conference

Last week I attended portions of the ArtWorks for Virginia conference, including four sessions on creating an arts district. Two were for the a statewide audience; two were for Richmonders.  My conference summary article appeared in the Times-Dispatch. Here are some additional notes on the session with Harrisonburg's Brian Shull. 
  • Shull is happy about the fact that the James Madison University campus is included in the arts district. He sees JMU's near-finished $90 million performing arts center (image, above) as a complement to the downtown district. Parking is free inside the district; someone asked about JMU students taking up all the parking. "That's a good problem to have," Shull said first, then said, "We're looking at ways to alleviate that." Later he said that the existence of the district has helped JMU be part of the life of the town.
  • Parks inside Harrisonburg's arts district were rehabbed with private funding but are maintained by the city.
  • Shull touted a large new "upscale apartments" building right near the center square. (image, right) Someone later asked about affordable housing for artists. (This is an element of arts districts in some cities across the country but by no means all.) Shull said, "no specific housing for artists yet."
  • The tax incentives used to create the district are "not an entitlement" Shull said, referring to the time limits on the incentives. "Don't put too much emphasis on incentives," he said later. "Local government should help [arts orgs and artists] get over the hump, then let marketing kick in. I would have put more emphasis on marketing at the start."
  • He said there were no big tiffs about where the district's lines were drawn, who did or didn't get defined as an "arts organization" for the purpose of receiving benefits.
  • Someone asked him if he had anything negative to say about the process or the result. He said no.
  • Harrisonburg "has not done a thorough economic impact analysis yet."
  • The Two Most Important Things I think Richmond can learn from Harrisonburg, despite our differences in size (Hburg plus Rockingham County is 120,000):
    • Have a big plan, but don't expect everything to get done at once. Nearly 10 years into this, Hburg is still plugging along, working on streetscape projects, trying to get more retail into the district.
    • A city doesn't automatically benefit from an arts district. It must be marketed, and this is most effectively done when the arts council, the tourism board and the downtown renaissance group cooperate (or whatever the equivalent orgs are in one's own city). There were audible gasps in the audience (from Richmonders?) when Shull revealed that city government gives the arts council $40,000 a year for marketing. Rockingham County has given around $25,000/year. Marketing includes, of course, promoting the district to local visitors and tourists--but also to businesses and industry and grantmakers.