Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Now I'm suddenly hungry for beef"*

I once worked at an establishment that was next to a McDonalds and across the street from a little Jamaican restaurant. The McDonalds was often so busy at lunch time that what it served was neither fast nor, you might argue, food. On the other hand, I could walk into the Jamaican restaurant and out five minutes later with a veggie or meat pocket and a freshly made pineapple-banana smoothie. The cost was no different than a comparable amount of food at McDonalds. It was probably healthier, although the pockets were made with fried dough... mmmm.

Why were people willing to wait longer at McDonalds? Because they knew what they were getting.

"How do you know what you'll like if you won't even try anything?" asked Father.

Well," said Frances, "there are many different things to eat, and they taste many different ways. But when I have bread and jam I always know what I am getting, and I am always pleased."
Familiarity may breed contempt, but usually it first inspires loyalty. When we're busy, when we have to spend money, when we're tired, we don't want surprises.

Not that orchestras want to be like McDonalds, except, you know, it'd nice to be profitable.

At the first Lollipops concert this year, the Richmond Symphony performed "The Composer is Dead," written in 2006. It was sort of well attended. At the second Lollipops concert, they performed "Peter and the Wolf." The concert hall was nearly full. 

So Frances' parents start feeding her nothing but bread and jam.

"Aren't you worried that maybe I will get sick and all my teeth will fall out from eating so much bread and jam?" asked Frances.

"I don't think that will happen for quite a while," said Mother. "So eat it all up and enjoy it."

(That's my favorite line.) By the end of the book, of course, Frances is eating "cream of tomato soup,... a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread... celery, carrot sticks, and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles."

If only it were so simple for orchestras.

The League of American Orchestras recently started a discussion site, where you can spend days reading various thoughts on--to grossly oversimplify-- what's wrong with orchestras and what to do to fix them. It's all very interesting, if not a little discouraging, once the reality sinks in that there is no single right answer.

While it's true that most people crave familiarity--and this applies to both the music and the concert-going experience (for whom is sitting quietly in a darkened hall feeling nervous about when to clap a familiar experience?)--I'm not suggesting that orchestras should only program Mozart or that they must rely on so-called big-name soloists to get attendance figures up. (Gil Shaham? Big name to maybe 7% of the U.S. population. Have some perspective.) I'm not actually suggesting anything, except that it would be foolish to forget the power of familiarity. Knowing what to expect gives a feeling of control to the lunch-eaters and the ticket-buyers--who wants to feel helpless and adrift?

Okay, a little suggestion. Post video clips--as long as is legally allowed, up to 4 or 5 minutes each-- of all the pieces on a program at the beginning of the season or as soon as possible. Show the November clips in the lobby during your October concerts. Put them on YouTube and start forwarding. Those depraved, money-making Hollywood folks may have hit on a good idea with their previews. [UPDATE: Not long after I wrote this, I learned that musicians' union restrictions would prevent such a plan. Somebody else can get into union territory... not me.]

*The title of this post is a quote from local Fox News anchor Ryan Nobles, who was the MC for the Richmond Symphony's "Celebrity Maestro" concert in May, after Susan Greenbaum conducted "Hoe Down" from Copland's "Rodeo."  (Watch the first 15 seconds of the linked video--the woman who exclaims, "Yes! It is the beef song!" sounds so happy to be alive.)